Traditional Organic

By Eliot Coleman

I began as an organic farmer back in 1966. Since I have a passion for understanding the history of ideas, I read every book I could find. Eventually, I travelled to Europe in 1974 to attend an early international organic farming conference where I managed to meet with and be inspired by conversations with some of the true early organic pioneers like Lady Eve Balfour, Roland Chevriot, Mary Langman, Sam Mayall, Louis Savier, Ernst Weichel and Claude Aubert. That experience gives me a background that few others possess today. When I see misinformed statements about the meaning of “organic”, I feel a responsibility to defend the wisdom of classical organic farming as understood by its progenitors.


The aim of those farmers who understand how real organic farming works is not to directly supply available plant food, but rather to create and maintain a biologically active fertile soil within which a healthy soil/plant economy can exist.


For example, Lord Northbourne, (who first called it “organic” farming) in his book “Look to the Land” (1942): “The farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life. Every branch of the work is interlocked with all others. The cycle of conversion of vegetable products through the animal into manure and back to vegetable is of great complexity, and highly sensitive, especially over long periods, to any disturbance of its proper balance… mixed farming is real farming…a self-contained organic farm is no mere theoretical dream.

Or the market gardener P. H. Hainsworth in “Agriculture a New Approach” (1954): “Organic matter is built up by keeping something growing on the land at all times, by growing green crops after harvesting, by autumn sowing where applicable… cultivations must be shallow and infrequent to maintain as high a level of organic matter as possible… it is very noticeable how much faster seedlings grow if the ground has a green cover in winter than when sown on ground left bare.

Or in a paper I presented at a conference on Agriculture, Change, and Human values at the University of Florida in 1982: “The common definitions for organic farming are inadequate. Most attempts are either couched in negative terms – “don’t use this,” “don’t do that” – or consist of extensive lists specifying what can or should be used (ie. organic manures, dried blood, bone meal) in place of the prohibited chemical products. This “input substitution” approach, to give it a name, has little connection with knowledgeable practice and is not germane to the actual objective of an ecological agriculture. That objective is the development of sustainable systems for maintaining the productivity of our farmlands.

“The issue is not the substitution of one material for another but rather the long-range physical and environmental stability of food production itself. Supplies of organic inputs are no more assured in adequate quantities and at an affordable price than are supplies of chemical inputs, which derive from finite and dwindling resources. Agricultural systems that rely on inputs from either nutrient source cannot be depended upon over the long term.

 “What must be depended upon is a system that maintains soil fertility by relying on those proven cultural practices (compost, crop rotations, cover crops, mixed farming, leguminous green manures, shallow cultivation, enhanced biodiversity, etc.) that spring from the farm itself and nurture the inherent plant nutrient development processes in the soil. The aim of those farmers who understand how real organic farming works is not to directly supply available plant food, but rather to create and maintain a biologically active fertile soil within which a healthy soil/plant economy can exist.”

I have always been dismayed by the misconception that organic farming is based on mere “input substitution” rather than the extensive “system realignment” away from dependence on inputs made possible by employing the proven cultural practices listed above.

I suspect the misconception arose from associating organic farming with the backyard scale organic gardening using natural fertilizers popularized by J. I. Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine back in the 1940s, 50s. and 60s.