By Eliot Coleman
A few years ago a friend told me of two proposed discussion topics for an organic agricultural conference – 1.) “What is so radical about organic agriculture?” and 2.) “Is small the only beautiful?” The second topic was included at the request of a number of large-scale organic farmers who felt underappreciated. My friend was surprised when I told him I thought they both had the same answer.
The radical idea behind by organic agriculture was a change in focus. The organic focus is on the quality of the crops grown and their suitability for human nutrition. That is a change from the competing focus on growing as much quantity as possible and using whatever chemical concoctions contribute to increasing that quantity.
None of the non-chemical techniques associated with organic farming are radical or new. Compost making, crop rotations, green manures, mixed stocking and so forth are all age-old agricultural practices. What is radical is the belief that these time-proven “natural” farming methods create a symbiosis that produces food which is more nourishing for people than food grown with chemicals. What is radical is successfully pursuing that “unscientific” belief against the counter-propaganda and huge commercial power of the agrochemical industry.
The initiators of this new focus were a few perceptive old farmers from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s who had not been taken in by industrial thinking and saw clearly the flaws of chemical agriculture. The popularizers of the new focus were the young idealists of the 1960s and 70s who were attracted to the idea of food production based on non-chemical techniques because it harmonized with their growing awareness of environmental concerns.
The effect of those new young minds entering agriculture in the 60s defined the early days of organic farming and also provides the answer for the second question – “Is small the only beautiful?” Small became beautiful because of the passion of the new generation of young idealists who wanted to farm. I was like most of them. I had no previous farming background, no farmland, and very little money. None of us would have been able to buy 500 acres in the Imperial Valley even if we had wanted to. So, because of economic reality rather than by conscious choice, we ended up on a few acres of inexpensive, abandoned land, and we started farming with compost and rototillers. The flavorful produce we sold, plus our passionate belief in quality, established the connection between the words “small” and “beautiful” in the public mind.
Once our combined efforts succeeded in making “organic” popular, the real farmers, the large-scale professional farmers, became interested. (We always knew we weren’t considered “real” farmers.) For most of the large-scale farmers, growing organically was a market decision as opposed to the deep passion for soil quality and food quality that had inspired us hippies. The age old farming techniques had not been abandoned because they didn’t work but, rather, because chemicals had promised miracles (now realized to have strings attached.) Therefore, the transition back to organic farming was not difficult for the large farmers and they began selling “organic” produce. But the “small is more beautiful” idea remained in the public mind, because the organic-buying public intuits that the large-scale farmers may have changed their agronomy but not their thinking; that their minds are still logically focused on how much they can produce rather than on how well it will nourish their customers. I don’t think the public objects to scale (well run large farms are as beautiful as small farms) but rather objects to organic farming by the numbers. They don’t see the old-time hippie passion for quality produce or any innovative new soil fertility improvement ideas coming from the large farms. They just see coloring between the lines according to the minimum standards that organic certification requires.
From the point of view of this old hippie who carved his farm out of spruce and fir forest on the rocky coast of Maine and had to learn everything about farming as he went along, I envy people who are able to farm on large expanses of flat naturally fertile soil and who have generations of farming experience behind them. Because of the poor quality of the land on which I started 50 years ago it took the first ten years of removing rocks, and stumps, and creating fertility to give us the marvelous soil and ability to grow exceptional food that we have achieved and continue to maintain. I often think of how much further all that effort could have gone had I grown up on a “real” farm but then I realize that if I had, it would have required an equal effort to change from the “quantity first” focus that has so characterized modern agriculture to the new “quality first” focus established by the organic pioneers.
So, if we go back to the two questions about what is “radical” and what is “beautiful” they come down to the same thing – the passion for quality food and sustainable systems that the new young farmers brought to agriculture. There is no reason that large farms, whatever path they may have been on, cannot learn to meet those standards if they understand that it is not the scale of the farm but the attitude of the farmer that the public is interested in. I think if the large farmers used all their experience and natural advantages to try to lead food production along ever more nutritious and sustainable lines, they would have the respect that so many of them obviously feel they deserve.