by Eliot Coleman
Organic farming is often falsely represented as being unscientific. However, despite the popular assumption that it sprang full born from the delusions of 60s hippies, it has a more extensive, and scientifically respectable, provenance. If you look back at the first flush of notoriety in the 1940s, the names most often mentioned, Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale, rather than being the initiators, were actually just popularizers of a groundswell of ideas that had begun to develop some 50 years earlier in the 1890s.
A growing coterie of farmers, landlords, scientists, and rural philosophers in both England and Germany had begun questioning the wisdom of the chemically based agriculture that had grown so prominent from its tiny beginning in the 1840s. Advances in biological sciences during the late 19th century, such as those that explained the workings of nitrogen fixation, mycorrhizal association, and soil microbial life supported their case. Those new sciences set the stage for a deeper understanding of natural processes, and offered inspiration as to how a modern biologically based agriculture might be formulated.
These new agriculturists were convinced that the thinking behind industrial agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems. They contended that by virtue of that mistake, industrial agriculture has to continually devise new crutches to solve the problems it creates (increasing the quantities of chemicals, stronger pesticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, soil sterilization, etc.) It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of science that a theory based on a false premise appeared to be momentarily valid. Temporary functioning is not proof of concept. For example, if we had a book of the long discredited geocentric astronomy of Ptolemy, which was based on the sun revolving around the earth, we could still locate Jupiter in the sky tonight thanks to the many crutches devised by the Ptolemaists to prop up their misconceived system. As organic agriculture has become more prominent, the orthodoxy of chemical agriculture has found itself up against its own Galileo. It will be interesting to see who recants.
The new thinking in agriculture was focused on three issues — how can long lasting soil fertility be achieved? How can pest problems in agriculture be prevented? How can the nutritional value of food crops be optimized? By the 1940s the answers to those questions had coalesced into a new biologically based concept of agriculture that can be simply stated as follows:
1. Soil fertility can be raised to the highest levels by techniques that increase the percentage of soil organic matter, by rotating crops and livestock, and by maintaining soil minerals through using natural inputs such as limestone and other finely ground rock powders.
2. The plant vigor resulting from doing #1 correctly renders plants resistant to pests and diseases.
3. The plant quality resulting from doing #1 correctly provides the most nutritious possible food for maintaining human beings and their animals in bounteous health.
All three begin with and depend upon how the soil is treated. But the fertility of that crucial soil factor is not a function of purchased industrial products. It evolves from intelligent human interaction with the living processes of the earth itself. These are processes that are intrinsic to any soil maintained with organic matter. They are what the earth does. I am puzzled by how the practical success today of the many farms managed on biological rather than on chemical lines can coexist with the striking lack of interest (antagonism actually) from scientific agriculture in exploring why these farms succeed. The foundation upon which our Maine farm operates — a sense that the systems of the natural world offer elegantly designed patterns worth following — appears to be an indecipherable foreign language to agricultural science.
Skeptics have often misrepresented a biologically-based agriculture as if it is nothing but the substitution of purchased organic inputs for purchased chemical inputs. Even if there were evidence to document the rationale for a substitution philosophy, it would lose on the grounds of economics alone. Both bone meal and dried blood, for example, two popular “organic” fertilizers, are prohibitively expensive on a farm scale. Furthermore, such substitution thinking is not pertinent to the actual objective of a biological agriculture — namely the development of sustainable, farm-generated systems for maintaining soil fertility. The concern is not the substitution of one fertilizer for another but rather the long-range practical and economic viability of farming practices. Supplies of blood and bone meal are no more assured than are supplies of chemical fertilizers that derive from finite and dwindling resources. We cannot depend upon an agriculture that relies on inputs from either source. What can be depended upon, however, is a biologically focused farming system that bases fertility maintenance on proven cultural practices with the addition of locally available waste products.
eliot colemanOrganic intellectual: Eliot Coleman, with produce.Photo: Barbara DamroschAmong those cultural practices I include:
Crop rotation: Firmin Bear of Rutgers stated that a well-planned crop rotation was worth 75 percent of everything else the farmer did.
Green manures: Deep-rooting legumes not only fix nitrogen, penetrate hardpan and greatly increase soil aeration but also bring up new mineral supplies from the lower depths of the soil.
Compost making: Of all the support systems for the biological farm, none is more fortuitous than the world’s best soil amendment, compost, which can be made for free on the farm from what grows thereabout.
Mixed Stocking: Raising animals and crops on the same farm has both symbiotic and practical benefits. The crop residues feed the animals and the animal manures feed the soil.
Ley Farming: The fertility of land plowed up for row crops after 3 to 4 years in grass/clover pasture is close to that of virgin soil because of the enormous amount of plant fiber added by the perennial plant roots.
Undersowing: Establishing a green manure crop underneath the growing cash crop can often double organic matter production in the course of the year without any effect on the cash crop.
Rock Powders: The slow, measured availability to plants of mineral amendments (calcium, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) added to the soil as ground rock powders mimics the availability from natural soil particles.
Enhancing biodiversity: This includes practices such as growing a wide range of crops, sowing pastures with many different forbs in addition to grasses and legumes, carrying a mixture of livestock, establishing hedgerows for wildlife habitat, and so forth. The more components involved, the more stable the system. The aim of a biologically based agriculture is to cultivate ease and order rather than battle futilely against disease and disorder.
But, can you really farm that way? Can a successful agriculture be conducted by simply combining the known effects of natural processes with the management provided by intelligent human understanding of how to nourish those processes? If such an agriculture can work and could be made universal, then this new agriculture would be truly sustainable and have the power to transform the world. Back in 1967, when I began farming, none of us paid attention to whether agricultural science approved of our biological approach. We started farming with compost and cultural practices because the ideas made sense and, lo and behold, they worked. Alternative agricultural research today is showing that we were pretty astute. Studies are appearing almost too fast to read them all.
For example, the importance of soil organic matter is more appreciated every day even though, as a recent study concluded, “it is arguably the most complex and least understood component of soils.” The bioactive humic substances produced by earthworms in compost have been found enormously valuable at enhancing root growth and availability of nutrients. Other work with composts has determined that they can control plant diseases through making the plant more resistant — what Harry Hoitink of Ohio State calls “Systemic Acquired Resistance.” The entomologist T. C. R White has explained how the effect of stressful growing conditions “upsets the metabolism of the plant in such a way as to” increase “survival and abundance of herbivores feeding on” the plant even though these “changes may often not be sufficient to produce visible signs of stress in the plant.” The conclusion is that plants not genetically resistant to a pest can be made so through better growing conditions. But even genetic resistance makes no difference if negative growing conditions inhibit the expression of the genes. In USDA research to determine why tomatoes growing in mulch of vetch green manure were more disease resistant and longer lived than identical tomatoes with black plastic mulch, Kumar et al. found that the genes for longevity and resistance were not ‘turning on’ in the sections without the vetch mulch.
Nutritionists, to their dismay, have found what they call “dilution effects” in modern chemically adapted crops. Breeding programs aimed to produce high yielding cultivars, combined with intensive chemical fertilization to push yields higher, have resulted in vegetable and grain crops that are no longer as nourishing because their limited root systems can’t absorb enough minor nutrients. The result is a “hidden hunger” caused by trace element deficiencies in those who consume those foods. The recent study by Brian Halweil, Still No Free Lunch, presents a very complete picture of the relationship between plant breeding, high chemical fertilizer use, and the decline in nutritional value of what we eat. A few forward-thinking scientists around the world are starting to look into biological issues, and they are finding that the system that biological farmers have been creating for the past 120 years is as good as they have claimed it to be.
How could these ideas have been so obvious, so logically presented, and yet so consistently ignored by the majority of agricultural scientists? Let me explain it metaphorically. Imagine if you will, an enormous tapestry hanging from the ceiling of a grand hall. The tapestry depicts the natural world in all its elegance. Subsoil and topsoil, plowed fields and green pastures, prairies and forests, valleys and mountains, sea and sky are all crisply represented. There are creatures large and small, birds and fishes, bacteria and fungi, predator and prey and the dynamic balances between them. You can also see farmers interacting harmoniously with that living world.
From where you stand on the front side of that tapestry, you don’t find too many others with you. There is, however, a great buzz of noise coming from the other side. When you walk way down to the far end of the hall and peer around the corner you can then see the tapestry’s reverse side. With its stray colors and loose threads, it gives only a vague picture of what is truly represented. What you find there are enormous crowds of people actively trying to decipher what they see and trying to solve problems that only exist on the backside of the tapestry. They have no idea that there is a front side and, when you mention it, you can tell they don’t believe you. From where they stand, the vagueness of the tapestry has convinced them that nature is incompetent and needs a great deal of help from mankind to straighten her out.
The problem isn’t that these people are ignorant. On the contrary; many of them are brilliant. Their leading scientific disciplines such as Discordant Thread Theory and Random Color Hypothesis are highly respected and extensively researched. The university Department of Untrimmed Ends enrolls many student applicants, eager to make careers in the field. A multitude of learned disquisitions are published in numerous scholarly journals. Huge industrial complexes have arisen in concert with their line of thinking and countless tons of stimulating and controlling substances are produced every year. The backsiders are convinced that as long as they keep expending enormous effort to compensate for Nature’s flaws, all will be well.
However, when you step back to the front side of the tapestry, there are no flaws to be seen. You wonder if those backside people prove ecologist Frank Egler’s statement, “Nature is not more complicated than we think — Nature is more complicated than we can think.” But that is obviously not the case on the front side. As you study the front side more thoroughly you begin to see the patterns involved. You notice that the agricultural practices of the front side farmers are designed to replicate the directions in which the natural world wants to go anyway. You notice how those practices have been selected to enhance the systems with which they interact. This is a biological agriculture and it will continue as long as the earth abides.
I can imagine three simple explanations for why the inhabitants of the backside of the tapestry fail to grasp the existence of a different reality, for why they can’t imagine a world where soil preparation using compost, green manures, and rock minerals creates high yields of vigorous plants that do not need the protection of pesticides and fungicides. They have trouble understanding what I call a plant-positive approach (strengthening the plant through optimum growing conditions to prevent pests) as opposed to the conventional pest-negative approach (killing the pests that prey on weak plants). As Benjamin Walsh quipped in The Practical Entomologist (1886), “Let a man profess to have discovered some new Patent Powder Pimperlimplimp, a single pinch of which being thrown into each corner of a field will kill every bug throughout its whole extent, and people will listen to him with attention and respect. But tell them of any simple common-sense plan, based upon correct scientific principles, to check and keep within reasonable bounds the insect foes of the farmer, and they will laugh you to scorn.”
The first explanation is the lack of a word. There is no word in our popular vocabulary to describe plant-positive thinking. We all know what the Department of Plant Pathology (pathos — suffering) concerns itself with. But does any university have the antonymic Department of Plant ______? What would the word be? Euology (from the Greek eu — good) or Sanology (from the Latin san — health) might be suggested as possible new words. Or possibly call it the Department of Plant Phylactotrophy? (phylact — protect; troph – nourish) What if all the Land Grant schools had a Deprtment of Eucrasiotrophic Agriculture? (Eu — good; crasio — constitution; trophic — nourishing.) What if we lived in a world where we had the expectation of healthy plants rather than pest-ridden plants? What if the Department of Phytostenics (phyto — plant, sten — strength) published research explaining how plant health had to be subverted through mistaken cultural practices before pests could dominate? That would be a different world. But the fact remains that it is difficult for most people to comprehend a concept so foreign that their language has never had scientific words to define it.
The second explanation is that humans cannot imagine a world where they are not in charge. As a biological farmer, I work in partnership with nature, and I’m a very junior partner. Given the limited amount of hard knowledge available, I often refer to my management style as “competent ignorance” and I find that a very apt description. But my level of trust in the elegant design of the natural world, and willingness to be guided by it, is discomforting to those who think we should exercise total power over nature. Thomas Colwell in his chapter in the book Human Values And Natural Science is most emphatic on this point. “But though part of Nature, man’s unique function … lies in controlling and transforming the natural world, not piously seeking its guidance. How profoundly we believe this today. How could we help but believe it; the entire edifice of our civilization is built upon it. The Baconian conception of science as control over nature is not only an intellectual presupposition of ours, it is a deeply implanted emotional attitude as well.”
The third explanation goes back to the beginning of the industrial revolution when the money world began to replace barter and exchange. At that point what would have been seen as the great benefit of a biological production system, minimal need for purchased inputs, suddenly came to be seen as its defect. In an industrially dominated money economy, the processes by which biological agriculture produces food are downright subversive. Because they are self-resourced through that partnership with the natural world noted above, they are independent of industry. By self-resourced I mean that for those participating in biological agriculture, the majority of the inputs are coming from within the farm. Thus, biological farmers who take full advantage of the earth’s contributions do not need to purchase industry’s products. Back in 1912, Cyril Hopkins, director of the Illinois State Experiment Station, was fully aware of that reality when he wrote in a University of Illinois agricultural circular; “The real question is, shall the farmer pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million pounds of free nitrogen?”
That may explain why so few people are aware of the simple ways by which perceptive farmers have learned to successfully satisfy human needs for food and fiber within the framework of Nature’s biological realities. By being self-resourced, biological agriculture offers no foothold for industry, resulting in no advertising, no research and development, no buzz, no audience, no business. If everyone can grow bounteous yields of vigorous plants that are free of pests by using homemade compost and age-old biological techniques, there is no market for fungicides or pesticides or anhydrous ammonia. If a concept cannot be commodified, that is to say if it isn’t dependent upon the purchase of industrial products, industry is antagonistic and the idea gets short shrift in our commercially dominated economy.
But maybe the problem is that we just don’t believe any of this is possible. What? Farmers can grow broccoli without green worms? Livestock can be raised without antibiotics? Dream on! But I have come to these conclusions and can suggest these radical ideas because of what I see happening on my farm every day. We often jokingly refer to our farm as the National Empirical Research Station. When scientific evidence is lacking, practical experience is all we have to go on. And the facts are right in front of my eyes while I am cultivating or transplanting or tilling or mending fences. I see that the biologically based agriculture I have practiced for the past forty years really works. When I have done my job as a farmer correctly, when I have optimized the biology of crop production by maintaining soil organic matter, improving soil aeration and mineral balance, and providing adequate moisture, when I have paid close attention to enhancing natural processes, there is no down side. The livestock are in full health. There are no green worms on the broccoli. There are no root maggots in the onions. The yield and the quality of my farm products are consistently exceptional without any need for industrial products. The generosity of the earth provides my farm’s inputs. Could it be that we the people have been conned into ignoring a whole other way of farming by a limited worldview that has never allowed us to consider non-commodifiable options?
Cartoonist Al Capp penned one of the best (and most entertaining) depictions of the difficulty of being a self-resourced community in a commodified world. In Sept. 1948, he introduced his readers to a new character in his Li’l Abner comic strip — the Shmoo. Shmoos are affectionate little livestock that look like chubby bowling pins with short legs. Shmoos need no upkeep, multiply at will, and happily supply all manner of staple foods, such as milk, butter, eggs, and meat, to the inhabitants of Capp’s fictional Appalachian village of Dogpatch. When Capp’s hero Li’l Abner Yokum first discovers the Shmoos, their guardian warns him off. “Shmoos, mah boy — is th’ GREATEST MENACE TO HOOMANITY TH’WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN.”
“Thass becuz they is so BAD?” Li’l Abner asks him. “No stupid,” he replies. “Its because they’re so GOOD! … There are enough shmoos to supply EVERYBODY ON EARTH with ALL they can eat — FOREVER! And there’s NO CATCH! Shmoos don’t eat anything, but multiply rapidly! — OH, THIS IS A BLACK DAY FOR YOU, YOUNG YOKUM — AND FOR ALL HUMANITY!” The saga eventually ends and the world returns to normal when the craven industrialist, J. Roaringham Fatback, fully aware of the commercial dangers of such a situation, hires exterminators to wipe out the shmoos. When a few shmoos survive and again multiply, the U.S. Government itself sends out its own extermination squads.
In an article for Cosmopolitan magazine in June 1949, Capp wrote about how he got the idea of the Shmoo. He might just as well have been writing about biological agriculture. “I was driving from New York City to my farm in New Hampshire. The top of my car was down, and on either side of me I could see the lush and lovely New England countryside … It was the good earth at its generous summertime best, offering gifts to all. And the thought that came to me was this: Here we have this great and good and generous thing — the Earth. It’s eager to give us everything we need. All we have to do is just let it alone, just be happy with it.”
Granted, we the people may be content with a generous earth, but those commercial interests selling palliatives for a supposedly stingy earth are not. Logically they fear they have nothing to sell to those who eschew their products. However, if they studied the needs of biological farmers they would discover a demand that I know exists for consultation and analytical services in lieu of products. Biological farmers could benefit enormously from improved soil biology tests, plant tissue analyses, livestock health and metabolic analyses, computerized crop rotation programs, and the like. The development of a range of services enabling the biological farmers to better keep their fingers on the pulse of these natural systems could be a whole new and positive direction for agricultural science.
But as it stands now, agricultural science lost its authenticity years ago under the influence of the chemical/industrial mindset and now finds itself perpetually etherized in the confused world on the backside of the tapestry. Ever ignorant of Nature’s elegance, it comes up with backside products like methyl bromide and genetically modified plants. Agricultural science has become a tragic character not unlike the one portrayed in T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous. Almost, at times, the Fool.” In my mind’s eye I can picture Mother Nature, “settling a pillow by her head” while contemplating agricultural science’s misunderstanding of the “overwhelming question” and saying, “That is not it at all. That is not what I meant, at all.” Biological agriculture has dared to “disturb the universe” in its search for a better way to farm. Its success has created a solid foundation for the superiority of biology over chemistry in agriculture and has established the promise of a well-nourished future for human beings.
Eliot Coleman has over 30 years experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. He is the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and most recently The Winter Harvest Handbook. He has contributed chapters to three scientific books on organic agriculture and has written extensively on the subject since 1975. Eliot and his wife Barbara Damrosch presently operate a commercial year-round market garden, in addition to horticultural research projects, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.