Celebrating Small Farmers

By Eliot Coleman

I am very fond of a quote from Amory Lovins, the energy guru, which I read in a magazine article.  The interviewer was having a difficult time understanding Lovins’ confident answers to her questions.  She seemed to assume he should be giving long and complicated replies and bemoaning the great difficulty and potential insolubility of the problems.  When she confronted Lovins with her concern, his simple reply was, “I don’t do problems; I do solutions.”  Small farmers are on that same page.  Rather than expending needless angst eulogizing agricultural problems and studying them to death, organic farmers are focused on solving them by practicing environmentally sound food production. René Dubos explained it concisely in his book The Wooing of Earth.

“There are no problems in Nature, only solutions, because the natural state is an adaptive state that generates a coherent system.”

Small farmers are the solution because they are closer to the earth. They are part of that coherent system of food production and cultural values.  To keep civilization on the right track, there need to be more of us. We are the poster children for clean food and a healthy planet.

However, for many years you would have been hard put to deduce any value in our small farming activities from the numerous USDA pronouncements that I first encountered 50 years ago.  Although it has been forgotten now, back then the USDA would proudly proclaim every year that the number of farmers as a percentage of the population had fortunately continued to drop.  The previous year it was, say, 5.1% percent but the department was giddy with delight to announce a decline to 4.9%.  The USDA obviously approved of the fact that everyone who left the farm became a potential wage slave for industry.  They obviously also approved of the fact that a large farm could gobble up the abandoned small farms to become ever larger.  Amazing!  Talk about being co-opted by prevailing economic theory into celebrating the demise of your own species.

Like many wiser minds in an earlier age when farming was respected, William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet and playwright, understood the essential harmony between the people and the land.  In a poem touching on the history of Ireland and the source from which its literature draws its strength, he wrote:

“All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact all things Antaeus-like grew strong.”

The Antaeus mentioned in Yeats poem was the son of the Greek earth goddess Gaia and a legendary giant in Greek mythology. He was invincible as long as he remained in contact with the earth, as long as he kept his feet on the soil.  And that, to me, is the whole story.  The earth, the soil, is the foundation of the small farmer’s invincibility.  The more our farms can be self-supporting from the soil, the better off we are.  And by self-supporting, I mean in all things agricultural – in soil fertility, in pest prevention, in livestock feed, and in efficiency by devising systems that require fewer inputs because the next step fits neatly into the one before.

The social and cultural influence of the productive family farm (so celebrated by Thomas Jefferson) can once again extend from the fertile soil under the farmer’s feet far out beyond the boundaries of the farm itself.  Back in 1915 Cornell professor Liberty Hyde Bailey, who understood the power of the small farm and the farmer to make a difference in the world, wrote a little book entitled The Holy Earth. He summed up the heart of the matter in a few words:

“One does not act rightly toward one’s fellow, if one does not know how to act rightly toward the earth.”