Farm Philosophy

By Eliot Coleman

As an organic farmer with a passion for history, I have collected many references from our predecessors. Their knowledgeable writings contributed greatly to my understanding of quality farming and quality food.

If there had been a Nobel Prize for agriculture in 1940, the following three grand old figures of the movement would certainly have been in contention. Although hardly known today, they were important influences as members of the generation that set agriculture on the new path we are following. These 70-year old essays have been slightly edited for clarity.

H. J. (Harold John) Massingham, 1888 – 1952, was an English ruralist, an astute observer of the natural world, and the author of over 30 works of rural appreciation. His writings were as influential on the organic pioneers of the 1940s as Wendell Berry’s are on us today.

Lady Eve Balfour, 1898 – 1990, was a farmer, a founder of the Soil Association (England’s premier organic farming organization) and author of The Living Soil (1943), the first scientifically documented book attempting to substantiate the organic ideas.

George Stapledon, 1882 – 1960, was a British grasslands expert, a breeder of improved grass and legume pasture seeds, and a philosopher of agriculture. He was an enthusiast for the soil fertility contribution that grazed pastures can make to subsequent tilled crops (ley farming.)

HUSBANDRY – H. J. Massingham – 1942

“One of the most striking phenomena of our scientific age is its almost total ignorance of the biological and organic life of nature and its contempt for all those intangible truths that cannot be contained within the formulae of the laboratory.” H. J. Massingham

In a noble book written in 1940 by Lord Northbourne, called Look to the Land, it is written, “Is farming merely a necessary drudgery, to be mechanized so as to employ a minimum of people, to be standardized and run in ever bigger units, to be judged by cost accountancy alone? Or is the only alternative to national decay to make farming something real for every man and near to him in his life, and something in which personal care and possibly even poetic fancy count for more than mechanical efficiency?” In other words is farming a craft or is it a business? Is it a way of life or a mode of moneymaking; is quantity a superior aim to quality, production to fertility and are the things of the spirit totally detached from purely material factors? Or, to put it in another way, is the reason why quantitative farming is being everywhere proved a failure that these sentimental elements like craftsmanship, love of the land, human harmony with biological rhythms, traditional skill, cultivation by human labor, personal care and individual treatment have been carefully segregated out of it like the wheat-germ from our modern white bread?

If modern materialism had not blinded the human vision of reality, the answer would be obvious enough. Nature is a series of biological rhythms, interactions and interdependencies, which are essentially non-mechanical because the stage on which they operate is that of life. The naked soil shares the gift of life with the wool-wrapped sheep. That is why the earth, when overdriven or exploited or speeded up or subjected to the business methods of an industry, refuses to be so maltreated by going either sick or sterile. The statement needs no argument because that is precisely what is happening and has happened. In the days when agriculture was the central craft surrounded by satellite ones, these things did not happen or were of rare occurrence for the simple reason that man fitted his own life into those rhythms and adapted them to his needs. Such rhythms are timeless and from this the truth is derived. If men can be forced and regimented to sacrifice their spiritual inheritance in order to serve the machine, nature and the earth cannot and will not be, any more than the winds of heaven can be controlled by pistons and levers. The earth demands the labor of a true man, not the gyrations of a senseless machine, in order to give of her best, and thus quality in farming, as malnutrition has shown us to our bitter cost, must forever take precedence of quantity. Farming as a craft can never be old-fashioned or superseded since it is dependent upon doing things in the right way and at the right time and not in the wrong way and the fastest time as a passing economic fashion based on predatory relations with nature demands. Where fertility is the master of production and quality of quantity as small farming fosters, there need be no fears as to the health of man or the bounty of earth.”

LAND HEALTH – Lady Eve Balfour – 1949

“The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born.” Aldo Leopold.

It is an undoubted fact that the principal occupation of almost all agricultural research stations today is the search for ways and means to combat plant and animal diseases and pests. This endeavor becomes more costly each year and appears to be a losing battle. May this not be because the scientists are so obsessed and pre-occupied with sickness that they fail to study health? Most of them appear to be asking, “How can we destroy such and such a pest, or cure such and such a disease?” The question displays a negative approach because the answer at best can only be remedial. But a few research workers have begun to post the positive question–“What is health, how can we promote it and so foster natural resistance?” All the indications so far are that the answers to this question are likely to be far more fruitful in their practical results than anything which agricultural science has hitherto achieved.
What then is health? The derivation of the word is wholeness, a point that should not be lost sight of. The late Aldo Leopold, a great American ecologist and naturalist, has defined it as the “capacity of a living organism for internal self renewal.” Two English biologists and research workers have defined it as ”mutual synthesis between organism and environment.” Inherent in both definitions is the idea that health is not a state but a dynamic process. You cannot weigh, measure, or analyze a process, but it is sometimes possible to follow its course. The organic cultivator believes that its course is identical with the flow of the nutrition cycle, and that to promote it one must, therefore, keep open all the living channels of this flow, though no one yet knows what they all are, or even the true nature of the flow itself. That the land is a great storehouse for it, however, seems clear. What then is land? Once more let me give Leopold’s definition, “Land . . . is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plant and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.” Soil fertility he defines as “the capacity of soil to receive, store and transmit energy.”
Here we have an idea capable of revolutionizing agricultural thought and practices – that the nutrition chain is not merely a flow of nutrient materials from one form of life to another, but also a circuit of energy. The science of chemistry, on which most agricultural science is still based, is obviously inadequate to study such a flow. Indeed this particular form of energy (which distinguishes the living from the dead) is not yet capable of measurement by any recognized science. If, as seems probable, it can be transmitted only by life, the difference in resulting plant growth following the application of, for example, a living compost and the ash of the same compost after incineration, can readily be understood. The fallacy of basing the supposed needs of plants on the composition of their ash becomes apparent. Something chemically the same may be very different as a conductor of living energy.
Without understanding all that is, or may be, involved, it would appear that by insistence on the importance of life; on the return of all organic wastes to the soil; on a diversity of crops and livestock; on the right to existence of fauna and flora other than those of direct economic value; by avoidance of crude chemicals, and by the attempt to provide the conditions in which natural biological balance will prevent the multiplication of any one species to pest proportions, the organic cultivator has evolved practices which will one day be recognized as far more scientific than those which at present pass under that name. Many of the so-called improvements in modern agricultural techniques have been well described by Leopold as improvement to the pump—not to the well. They have been developed as a result of a process of thought which has ignored the complex interplay of species which built the original fertile soils; which has deliberately planned the destruction of whole species without a thought being given as to whether their continued existence may be necessary to maintenance of the soil fertility they helped to build; which has advocated remedial measures, to deal with the problems arising from a declining fertility, which treat symptoms only, and which, ignoring nature’s danger signals, ‘protect’ plants, weakened to the point of having already lost their capacity for ‘internal self-renewal,’ with death dealing sprays. Thus, to food which is already low in nutritional value (the capacity to transmit energy) is now added the hazard of a host of poisons.
It is easy to see how this state of affairs came about. The motives in nearly every case were good ones. The only fault that can justifiably be blamed is the arrogance of an age that thought that man knew better.
The climate of thought is now changing. A change in thinking must always precede a change in action, but no opportunity should be lost to hasten the change. To this end the sooner the organic pioneers and orthodox science begin to get closer together the better. This cannot be done by dogmatism on either side, but only by open-minded willingness to co-operate to establish the new, ready to be born, science of Land Health.

“It is abundant living amongst the people at large that is the great test of good government.” William Cobbett.

The quality of a food does not depend only on its nutritive value, important as that is, but equally on its ability to enliven: this is determined by its appeal to the senses and its power to react favorably upon our intellectual responsiveness. Quality is influenced by all the manifold properties that man can immediately sense and appreciate without reference to a textbook or to the written and spoken word—texture, shape, fragrance, color, flavor. An appreciation of quality, even if latent and but ill-developed, is inherent in people of all ages—without reference to the dictatorial voice of science.

Diet has the closest possible kinship with culture, which is nothing more nor less than a just appreciation of values and qualities. Good living, like high standards of culture, depends upon acquired habits, acquired knowledge and acquired discernment, all of which need to be constantly practiced and extended to be fully developed. Good taste and discrimination acquired in one sphere usually tend to foster those graces in other spheres. Since every human being must eat and drink, it follows that the kitchen and the dining table are the nurseries of culture and of a truly cultured people. Good living is not the prerogative of any one class, as is so clearly shown by France, but France is not a country of wine and vineyards for nothing: she has understood where lies both the cradle and the nursery of culture.
Complete control over the food of a people is a dangerous weapon to place in the hands of any Government. Civilization depends as much on the scope afforded for exercising preference and discernment as upon full stomachs, so it is just as important to redouble our efforts towards the production and distribution of a wide range of quality foods as of food grossly considered. Food could and should be made the easiest and most pervading means of leveling upwards rather than downwards, and of encouraging individual aptitudes and appetites.
The mischief arises from the fact that many of the choice luxury foods and alcohols are not only scarce, but also expensive to produce, and are therefore associated with privilege. This is, however, only half the story. Those who can afford the most expensive luxuries in food and alcohol are privileged not so much because they can acquire what is best, but rather in virtue of making it possible for the superlative craftsman, upon whose skill the quintessence of quality depends, to continue in the arts which have been developed and handed down through the centuries. We shall do well to remember that supreme quality in all things is a gift from the centuries and not from science, is the reward of high skill and intense devotion and not the ability just to follow dry prescription or blueprint. When, as William Morris has said, “there is a conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself, it is done by artists.” In the case of food and alcohols to a very special degree literally centuries of dogged peasant perseverance, backed by love of place and love of perfection, have been both the price and the reward of achievement. Nothing of the first excellence can be produced except against a background of experience built up inch by inch and handed on from generation to generation with an ever growing sense of pride and love.
If, because of social pressure upon a population that has become unprincipled, we are no longer able or willing to aspire to the production of supreme excellences in food or alcohol, then that is the first nail in the coffin of all excellences—the beginning of the end of striving after perfection, the beginning of the end of all art, the beginning of the end of a truly cultured civilization, the beginning of the end of the humanity of the human race.
I am not so naïve as to argue that science has made no contribution to the excellences, but when we consider those articles and wares manufactured for the personal use and edification of individuals, we have to agree that there was an undertone of hard truth in William Morris’s assertion that “the great achievement of the nineteenth century was the making of machines which were wonders of invention, skill and patience, and which were used for the production of measureless quantities of worthless makeshifts.” The tendency of the application of science is always towards standardization, which in the ultimate things of life—food, alcohol—is the archenemy of perfection.