The following excerpts are from Eliot Coleman's Keynote address at the Seed Saver's conference in July 2009. I think the most important takeaway from this is just the fact that you don't read this stuff anywhere. Growing food is a lot of work, but do you need a degree? Not if you can learn from Nature. Learn how renowned organic farmer Eliot Coleman started from scratch - with a big boost from Nature.
I thought I might give you a little taste of the history of what’s been going on, since I’ve been doing this for a long time and since I have a passion for the background of organic agriculture and how it came about. The first story, which I think is the most fascinating thing, especially in a world where we’re always reading about the competition between the right wing and the left wing and which wing is a wing, is that organic farming began not where it existed when I got involved in the sixties, but with the extreme conservatives, the extreme right wing, in England in the late thirties. This is back when conserve-atives were actually into conserving. And the reason by the time I got involved in the sixties that organic farming was associated with hippies and not with the right wing is that the environmental movement also appealed to the young people, the people with new, young ideas, and therefore organic farming appealed to them also. We’ll talk a little bit about that in a second, but that’s how I got into it.
I read the Nearings’ book that made small farming sound like an adventure, and they were kind enough to sell me some land – it was all covered with trees, but that didn’t make any difference because it made the adventure better, and we got to spend a lot of time prying out stumps. We have some wonderful pictures in an old album of me and two people who, unfortunately for them, happened by that day and were forced into helping me pry out one of the big gest stumps we had to pry out. The picture is of the three of us standing there with our axes and pry bars and our feet up on the stump like one of those pictures of the elephant hunters in Africa, proudly showing off their trophies. But here’s the reason that is important: I knew absolutely nothing about agriculture. I had never had a garden prior to buying that farm, building a little house on it, and starting to cut down trees and pry out stumps. Now, the reason we succeeded is because this is the most logical, simplest and just plain very best way to farm. We didn’t have to have centuries of background, because when you work with the natural world, the natural world knows what it’s doing and we just plugged into it.
The initial pH on this ground was 4.3. The book said we needed limestone. Well, we went and got limestone, but we were starting with almost no money and so we said, well, limestone, let’s see – oh, yeah, that’s what clamshells are made out of. Well, I had a neighbor down the road who made his living taking clamshells apart and picking out the meat, and at the end of every workday he had a huge pile of buckets of clamshells there. If I showed up at 3:30 in the afternoon with my trailer, he would dump the clamshells in the trailer and we’d go back and spread those on the land. We had a lot of free calcium to put in the soil.
There was a granite quarry nearby – there were a lot of granite quarries in that part of Maine – and when they polished granite, they produced granite dust, a very, very fine powdered granite dust. And they had absolutely no use for it, and if you went to one of the quarries, they would give it away. I was reading all these books, like Rodale’s How to Grow Fruits and Vegetables by the Organic Method – I almost had it on my bedside table. It talked about granite dust so we went and got the granite dust.
Phosphate. Well, phosphate rock was expensive and way back then when I started was a hard thing to buy, but the book said there was a lot of phosphorus in chicken manure. Well, heck, there was a chicken farm down the road and they were giving the manure away for free and we went and got that.
There was a large horse farm nearby with a pile of horse manure that was about as big as this tent that had been collecting there for years. When I went and asked for it, they said, “My gosh, you want this?”
Well, all of these parts of the system, all of these things that the Rodale book explained very simply, we started doing. And it worked so well. And this is probably my favorite story: Here we were, the total beginners, no experience, reading books, having to get the stumps out before we could get the compost in to make the soil fertile, and by the end of that season, the old timers (they were stopping by to see what these crazy young people were up to), the old timers were asking me how I did it. It had nothing to do with me; it had to do with the fact that farming this way, gardening this way, is the most logical and simple thing to do.
“There’s a wonderful line in the first book by Thor Hyerdahl, of Kon-Tiki fame. At the end of the book he’s talking about what he’s learned over the years, and he says, ‘Speaking of human beings, our progress has become in part an effort to complicate simplicity. Farmers and fisherman remain the only true nobility of modern society, working to feed us from the natural world we left behind. Without them, modern society with all its banks and shops and power lines and water pipes would collapse.”
How, over the years, have we missed that? Well, there’s a wonderful line in the first book by Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon-Tiki fame. At the end of the book he’s talking about what he’s learned over the years, and he says, “Speaking of human beings, our progress has become in part an effort to complicate simplicity. Farmers and fishermen remain the only true nobility of modern society, working to feed us from the natural world we left behind. Without them, modern society with all its banks and shops and power lines and water pipes would collapse.” Well, as one of the members of the only true nobility of modern society, I earnestly believe, from what I’ve seen of crops and livestock over the years – and I’ve raised every type of livestock imaginable and almost every type of crop – that eating real food, and by that I mean fresh food, whole food, food from local farms, food that doesn’t spend more time on the road than it does in your digestive tract, food grown using compost, green manures, crop rotation and minerals, is the simple answer that our society has left behind. And if we can get people eating that, everyone can become healthy, happy, energized and self-reliant. That may sound idealistic, but I sincerely believe it’s true.
I earnestly believe that eating food from local farms, food that doesn’t spend more time on the road than it does in your digestive tract will make everyone healthy, happy, energized and self-reliant.
But if you think you can get there by defining just organic, you’re going to miss out on the subtleties. And I’ll tell you about the subtleties. Years ago I taught at a school, and during the summer we had a crew of great kids working there. This was back from about the late seventies to the late eighties. You were just beginning to see organic food in the stores, and I happened to be in the town of Montpelier where one of the earliest food co-ops was established, and they had a newly arrived load of organic plums. Well, I did as I usually do in places like that, took one and ate it, and if it was good I was going to buy more and if it wasn’t good I was just going to pay for the one I ate.
And it was spectacular. I said, “Oh my gosh; I know just what I’m going to do with these.” So I bought a huge bag of them. I was in charge of dessert at dinner that night – we fed these kids two meals a day. So as they finished dinner I said, “Okay, guys, I’m in charge of dessert. Here’s the deal: I have this bag of what I think are the most delicious plums you will ever eat. And that is dessert. If, after you eat these, any of you, any of you, want me to get in the truck and drive into town and bring back a couple of gallons of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, I will. But first you have to eat these plums.” And they all ate them and they said, “Oh my gosh – is that what fruit is supposed to taste like?!” And I said, “Yup. Do you know why you crave all those sweet things? It’s because all the fruit that they’ve been giving you has been picked unripe, and even though they think it’s going to ripen on the road it doesn’t, and your taste buds are telling you, hey man, there’s supposed to be something in here. And what do you do afterwards? You go buy Ben and Jerry’s because you know there was supposed to be something and it wasn’t there.”
More and more, if you read the newspapers and articles, we’re finding out that what Mom told us all along, that fruits and vegetables are good for us, is absolutely true. This is a great story: My mother was dead by the time I researched this, but her younger sister was still alive. She was in her late nineties a few years ago, so I asked her, “Aunt Isabelle, how did my mother know to tell me that eating vegetables was good for me? From what I read in the paper, the government has just discovered this.” She said, “Oh, our mother told us that.” Well, obviously this is a piece of information that has been around but it’s taken science a long time to get into this. And what do they learn when they get into it? They learn all about things called phytonutrients and all of this wonderful stuff, and what happens when you pick a fruit unripe. All of the things that are supposed to be in there that are in there if you test it when it’s ripe, they aren’t in there because they don’t come in until the last few days and weeks of ripening. So even though you can put an organic label on it that tells you how it was grown, if it isn’t picked ripe and comes from nearby, there’s hardly anything in there for you.
Barbara and I took a research trip in winter to Europe back in 1996 when we were researching the Winter Harvest book. During the trip we visited a number of European growers that I’d known for many years, and we were talking to them and I said, “Boy, are you guys still growing that great melon, Bastian? That is the best-tasting melon in the world.” And they said, “Ah, well, no, we’re not growing it anymore. We’re growing” – I forget the name of the one they were growing. And I remarked, “My, that thing tastes like cardboard.” They responded, “Yeah, but it ships well. And organic has gotten so big now that we ship all of what we grow to Germany, so we need a good shipping melon.” And I said, “But you can’t eat the thing.” And they said, “Yes, we know that. We grow Bastian out back here for ourselves.”
Can real food really be good for you? Well, actually, it depends on whom you believe. There was a man named Elmer Nelson. He was the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Nutrition in 1949. So this is how your government is protecting you: Back in 1949 in a Congressional hearing Elmer Nelson said, “It is wholly unscientific to state that a well-fed body is more able to resist disease than a less well-fed body. My overall opinion is that neither degenerative disease, infectious disease nor functional disease could possibly result from nutritional deficiency.” That was the line. Okay, that was in 1949, so that was a long time ago.
Well, in 1978 I was asked to be on a Washington committee, a committee of the Office of Technology Assessment, their Food and Agriculture group. I realized when I got to the first meeting that I was a token. I was the token oddball. Most of the committee members wore suits. There were a few other tokens, a couple of women, one minority, and then there was me, the guy in the Birkenstocks. They knew exactly what was going on; I think that was why I was there. But anyway, I remember one day, sitting around at coffee break, I’m sitting there with three of the leading agricultural nutritionists in the country who also happened to be on the committee, and I said to them, “I have a question for you. If I grow a carrot in dead soil dosed with chemicals and then I grow the same variety of carrot in nice fertile loam filled with compost, are they nutritionally equal?” And all three of these people said, “Absolutely. The nutrition in that carrot is genetically determined; if it’s the same variety of carrot, they are nutritionally equal.”
And I said, “Gee, I thought it was possible to have foods from areas where there wasn’t any iodine in the soil, and therefore there wasn’t any iodine in the food.” And they responded, “Oh, yeah, but that’s something different.” Then I said, “Gee, I thought I read somewhere about pastures where if cobalt was missing, the grasses still grew but the animals didn’t thrive.” And again they said, “Oh, yeah, but that’s something different.”
Well, between that meeting and the next meeting a month later, I went up to the University of Maine library and I just went through the stacks, because this information is in all the journals that those people were supposed to be reading. I photocopied three copies each of 12 studies that totally refuted what they had told me. I put the articles in three separate folders with their names on them. Then at the next meeting, at coffee break, I sat down with them and I said “Oh, by the way, apropos of our last discussion I thought you guys would be interested in these.” Well, one of them, who happened to be the Dean of Nutrition at MIT, was so insulted that I would question the Word of God, that he never spoke to me again. They were so convinced that there could be absolutely no difference.
“The radical idea that began in the Thirties in Europe and got to people like me in the Sixties, it was a change in focus, and the new focus that was so radical was the focus on the quality of what was grown and the environmental soundness of the growing methods, rather than just on growing bulk quantities and using whatever techniques contributed to increasing that quantity.”
I remember when we first got involved in this, a county agent came out to see what we were doing and there I was spreading granite dust or salt rock dust that I could get from another quarry, and he said, “You’re spreading rock powders? They don’t work! Modern agriculture would never, ever use rock powders. It just doesn’t make sense.” I said, “Well, what do you do if you have acid soil?” He said, “Oh, well, limestone – well, that’s ground rock powder, I know, but that’s totally different.” And I asked, “Do you know how they determine the size when you grind limestone that you spread?” And he said, “Yeah, they’ve determined over the years that you want to have so many particles of this size and this size and this size, and if they’re all really really fine, they all become available much too quickly.” So I said, “Well, come feel this granite dust. This is 300-mesh powder. This has got acres and acres of surface, it’s ground so fine. You’re going to tell me that that’s never going to become available?” He replied, “Oh. Ahem. Well....”
I used to sit around and fantasize about saving the world, and I think if I hadn’t become a farmer I probably would have done something stupid like becoming a lawyer. I’ve always wanted to be a prosecuting attorney, so I used to imagine the idea of having Earl Butz, Agriculture Secretary in the Seventies, up there on the stand and I’m Perry Mason, I’m the prosecuting attorney, and I’m saying
“Mr. Butz: Isn’t it true that if the soil has organic matter in it and a lot of biological life, it’s going to work well and you don’t need chemicals?” And he would stammer, “Um, ahem, well, uh....”
“Mr. Butz: Isn’t it true that plenty of compost in the soil and all the biological life with it helps make more nutrients available?” “Um, oh, yeah, well, maybe....”
“Mr. Butz: Isn’t it true that studies have shown that the pollution in the Gulf of Mexico is from a chemically supplied nitrogen, not from nitrogen in manure, and they can tell the difference because they have different atomic numbers?” “Well, ahem, possibly....”
“Mr. Butz: Isn’t it true that researchers at Rutgers years ago, like Herman Beyer, one of the most famous researchers at Rutgers, declared that as far as he was concerned, a good crop rotation alone was worth 75% of everything else you did?” “Oh, well, yeah, I suppose, um....”
“Mr. Butz: Isn’t it true that research is beginning to show that there are far less nutrients in today’s food compared to food years ago and that this has a lot to do with what is called the dilution effect, and the dilution effect is that the roots of plants only have enough ability to take up nutrients of a certain level? If, however, you dose the plant with nitrogen, it is building itself up into twice the mass you would have had otherwise, but it has the same amount of trace elements in it as if you had half the mass, because the roots can’t keep up with what you’ve driven it to?”
This is research coming from all the best universities; they refer to it as biomass dilution. And this stuff just goes on and on, it’s utterly fascinating. Organic farming can take care of the dilution effects because it shows that compost has the ability to deliver far more nutrients than you would get otherwise. Studies of 27 cultivars of organically grown spinach demonstrate significantly higher levels of flavinoids and vitamin C and lower levels of nitrates. Compared to typical conventional farms, the nitrogen cycle on organic farms is rooted in substantially more complex biological processes and therefore works better, etc., etc. and so on.
“Mr Butz: Isn’t it true that the USDA’s own studies on gene expression — and this is really neat stuff — have shown that when they grew the exact same varieties of tomatoes side by side at Beltsville, one variety was grown where they had planted a vetch green manure and then just cut it down and left it there as mulch and transplanted the tomatoes through it, and the ones next door had a black plastic mulch and were grown with chemical fertilizers, the exact same tomato, the exact same plant, and yet the ones in the plastic mulch with the chemical fertilizer got far more diseases, the plants deteriorated younger and everything went wrong?”
The wonderful thing about genetic testing, they can test to look at the genes. And what they found &ndash and this was just mind-blowing &ndash was that while this is the same variety of tomato, the same gene package, only over here with the chemical fertilizers and the plastic mulch, the genes didn’t turn on; the genes for longevity of the plant, the genes for disease resistant, did not turn on. Now, if the genetic package is the whole answer here, somebody has some learning to do, because this is totally new information.
Okay, they let Mr. Butz off the stand, and he’s now cowering somewhere, having been attacked by this nasty prosecuting attorney.
I’m going to end up with a last interesting point here. A friend called me recently, and he asked my opinion on an ag conference. He said they wanted to have two topics, and these are really important things to discuss that have come up. One topic is, what is so radical about radical agriculture? The other topic is, is small the only beautiful? And this is because he represents a lot of large farmers who were getting a little unhappy there if they thought small was the best way to go. And he said, “Don’t you think those would make two wonderful discussions?”
And I replied, “Well, actually, they both have the same answer.” He said, “Huh?” So I tried to explain it to him. I said that the radical idea that began in the Thirties in Europe and got to people like me in the Sixties, it was a change in focus, and the new focus that was so radical was the focus on the quality of what was grown and the environmental soundness of the growing methods, rather than just on growing bulk quantities and using whatever techniques contributed to increasing that quantity. I mean, none of the non-chemical techniques used by the organic growers were radical. Crop rotations, green manures, compost &ndash these were age-old.
But what was radical was the idea that these time-proven, natural techniques would produce food that was more nourishing for people and for livestock. That’s what was radical. What was also radical was a bunch of us young people with no agricultural background who had the nerve to tell modern science that they were wrong. They didn’t enjoy that at all. The effect of all the new young minds into farming really was what changed things. When it came to scale (that’s why this is the same answer both ways), none of us who got into this had any objections to large scale, or any preference for small scale; it’s just that all of us who got into it had little money and certainly didn’t have enough money to buy 500 acres in the Imperial Valley.
We had enough money to buy what few acres we could find somewhere and start farming with rototillers. That’s why we all started on a small scale. And what has been going on is that as the large farmers got in – I refer to them as “real” farmers because we always knew we weren’t considered real farmers – but as the “real” farmers got in, the techniques of the Thirties and Forties work just as well now as they had back then; they’d never been disproved, they’d just been sort of swept aside when chemical agriculture was promising the world. This is great &ndash these guys can put out organic produce. But the reason the small is a beautiful, or more beautiful idea remained because the organic buying public sort of understands somehow that the large growers may have changed their agronomy, but they didn’t change their thinking, that their minds are still largely focused on how much they can produce rather than on how well it can nourish their customers.
That’s what came out of all of us beginners in the Sixties. We got started with a passion for creating the best possible quality to nourish the people who were going to eat what we were producing. And that was the type of background that has given me the satisfaction through all of these years to keep on doing this and to keep thinking that wherever we have reached at the moment, we are barely there and there are advances to be made, new things to be learned, and that’s why the advent now into agriculture of a lot of new young minds over again I see as the most exciting thing possible, because it’s going to happen again. All these new young people are going to drive what we have been doing further along and we’re going to get to plateaus that we heretofore could never have.
I thank you very much for your attention.