Eliot Coleman is one of the most respected voices in organic agriculture. He has been a tireless teacher and researcher, as well as a lifelong farmer. His books have inspired many. His talks and articles have challenged and instructed us. Eliot was an early executive directer of IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, which has worked hard to unify the international organic movement. He is truely a bee in our bonnet.
Eliot's article in Civil Eats on whether hydroponic can be certified organic is listed under "IN THE NEWS" above. Here we offer three shorter pieces he has written.
No soil? Plants and soil have been evolving together since plants began. Countless bacteria and fungi interact with plant roots, organic residues, and soil minerals to create the conditions for plant growth. Now we are informed that some USDA bureaucrat has decided soil is unnecessary for properly grown organic food. Is he kidding? I have been farming organically for 48 years. A plant not grown in soil, with all its miraculous and unknown nutritive processes, is not worth eating!
A SHORT REPLY TO A RIDICULOUS IDEA
The suggestion that hydroponic produce could ever qualify as organic is an oxymoron – a figure of speech in which contradictory terms appear in conjunction.
“Hydroponic” contradicts the basic premises of “organic.”
Organic farming embraces Nature by producing crops on optimally fertile soils that are alive and complex to an extent we can barely imagine.
Hydroponic growing excludes Nature by producing crops on an infertile sterile medium doused with a simplified chemical solution that can never duplicate the nutritional complexity of a fertile soil.
Organic production supports the grower with free inputs from the biological processes of the natural world.
Hydroponic production saddles the grower with purchased inputs from the test tubes of a chemistry lab.
The two could not be more different.
The next piece is from a talk that Eliot gave at the Aspen Institute. We include it because the NOP seems to take for granted that they are the sole arbiters of what is, and what is not, organic. It would be good for them to remember that they did not invent organic. They have been tasked with preserving and defending it. Organic farming has been around for a VERY long time, and its meaning goes far beyond their certification program.
MY AGRICULTURAL GRANDPARENTS
It is not uncommon for farmers to talk about the influence their grandparents had on their farming education and their eventual success in agriculture. I am no different. But my story comes with a unique twist. My paternal grandfather, Leander Walter Townsend Coleman, was born in 1868 but was not a farmer. Unfortunately for my farming career, the Coleman family association with farming on the family land had ended three generations before Leander’s birth. So the grandparents I am about to acknowledge are not related to me by blood. And, although they are long deceased like Leander, they still reside on my farm and I consult them on a daily basis. My grandparents in farming were books and the people who wrote them. They live on the shelves in my library and I am as indebted to them as I would be to a blood relative. I call them grandparents because all these books were published during Leander’s lifetime. The farming techniques they convey were understood when he was born, were practiced during the early years of his life, and were as successful then as they are now.
I became acquainted with my agricultural grandparents shortly after starting my farming career. I have a passion for learning where ideas originate and how they develop so I spent long evenings in the dusty agricultural stacks of many libraries. Dogged research into old periodicals and old books slowly gave me access to more and more of these delightful predecessors and their writings.
My literary grandparents introduced me to the age-old truths of agriculture. They gave me insight into how successfully and how rationally food was produced before modern agricultural science started to tell us that it couldn’t be done that way. These grandparents prepared me both practically and philosophically for the world of farming I was about to enter.
One of the first I got to know was Stephen Alfred Forbes, once head of the Illinois State Lab of Natural History. In 1880 he published a pamphlet in entitled “On Some Interactions of Organisms.” Forbes provided me with philosophical assurance that the solution to agricultural problems is not difficult. It simply involves learning how natural systems work so that we will know how to cooperate with natural forces rather than attempting to ignore them or control them with chemicals. Forbes wrote:
“From the consequent human interferences with the established nature of things, numerous disturbances arise… We must study the methods by which nature reduces these disturbances, and learn how to second her efforts to our own best advantage… By far the most important general conclusion we have reached is a conviction of the general beneficence of Nature, a profound respect for the natural order, and a belief that the part of wisdom is essentially that of practical conservatism in dealing with the system of things by which we are surrounded.”
An extensive school of what I might call ecological agriculture existed in the 19th century along the lines expressed by Forbes. Its principal interests were, first, understanding the functioning of the biological world, second, getting to the cause of the problems arising from “human interferences with the established nature of things,” and, third, learning to modify agricultural practices in order to work within natural laws. Farming was not conceived of as a war but rather as a diplomacy of biological co-operation, a nurturing rather than a roughshod trampling.
Not all my grandfathers wrote in English. There is also a French grandfather, Vincent Gressent, on the shelf. He was fully involved in the practical aspects of vegetable production. During the 19th century some of the most successful market gardening ever known was taking place in and around Paris. When I came across Gressent’s book, Le Potager Moderne, first published in 1864, it supplemented Stephen Forbes philosophical reassurances with the hard practical experience of a fellow grower. As Gressent wrote at that time; “For vegetable growing chemical fertilizers don’t do all that one wants: they stimulate the plant and produce quantity, but to the detriment of quality . . . insect pests only attack weak, sickly plant specimens lacking proper nutrition . . . In proof of this I offer the market gardens of Paris where vegetable growing has reached perfection . . . One does not see pest problems in Parisian market gardens wherever copious compost use and rational crop rotations are practiced by the growers.”
The Parisian market gardens ended after automobiles replaced horses and the extensive heaps of composted manure that powered the Parisian system were no longer available. Fortunately I discovered an English grandfather, Robert Elliot, whose book, Agricultural Changes, was published in 1898. Elliot was successfully demonstrating on his farm how perpetual soil fertility could be maintained by alternating four years of rotationally grazed grass/legume pastures with a couple of years of annual crops like grains, beans and vegetables. The extensive organic matter from the roots of the tilled under pasture plants provides ideal growing conditions for the annual crops plus soil structure to protect against erosion. Elliot’s biographer wrote that Elliot had (and I find this phrase delightfully English) a “robust aversion to purchasing anything he might be able to produce more cheaply for himself.” (But then that’s a valuable policy for any farmer.) “Elliot therefore set out to devise a system which would be as self contained as possible in respect to fertility.” At our farm we share Elliot’s robust aversion. We use the very same system he advocated because it is unbelievably productive, efficient, and thrifty.
Operating in that same spirit is a second American grandfather, Cyril Hopkins, Professor of Agronomy at the University of Illinois and director of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station. In his 1910 book, Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture, Hopkins tried to show farmers that soil fertility was not something the farmer had to purchase but rather was a bi-product of intelligent farming techniques. It is hard to imagine an extension pamphlet today that would state as Hopkins did, “The real question is, shall the farmer pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million pounds of free nitrogen?” Hopkins wrote numerous experiment station bulletins like that encouraging farmers to realize that no salesman was going to tell them about green manures, cover crops, crop rotation, legumes, incorporating livestock, and so forth because they were management practices that did not have to be purchased.
The efforts of Cyril Hopkins serve as a metaphor for independent truths up against advertising and a sales blitz that tries to pretend the truths don’t exist. The result of a century of fertilizer salesmanship is that no one today remembers Cyril Hopkins. The soil fertility truths that he championed, although they were understood for generations, have been forgotten so long that they are regarded by agricultural science today as some sort of revolutionary heresy.
A grandmother needs to be mentioned here. Maye Emily Bruce’s little volume From Vegetable Waste To Fertile Soil has long had an honored place on my bookshelf. Maye Bruce wrote some of the movement’s earliest volumes on compost making and conducted experiments and devised herbal stimulants to make composting a faster and more dependable process.
And then there is Selman Waksman, a professor at Rutgers and a leading authority on soil microbiology. His 1931 book, The Soil and the Microbe, helped explain why Maye Bruce’s compost was so important to soil fertility. Waksman wrote, “By reason of the fact that microorganisms do not occur in the same abundance in all soils and that they are generally favored by conditions that lead to best plant growth, there exists a close relationship between the biological activity of soils and soil fertility.” The microbes that run the soil and the inhabitants of the human micro-biome are gaining in respect every day and are coming to be seen as the new frontier of health.
Another grandmother is Lady Eve Balfour, born in 1898. Lady Eve was a major force behind the development and popularization of organic farming in England. Her 1943 book, The Living Soil, was one of the earliest expositions of the organic philosophy and the thinking behind organic farming. She was also influential in expanding the early organic movement in the US thanks to a number of promotional tours she engaged in during the 1950s. Back in the late 1970s I organized a number of tours in the other direction to show American farmers the high level of expertise among organic farmers in Europe. Most of the early hippie farmers on those tours were pretty left wing and certainly non-fancy. One night in England we were all sitting around a pub drinking Guiness. Lady Eve joined our table and right away I could tell the group was impressed that she could knock back the Guiness as fast as we could while simultaneously demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of organic farming. After she moved on to another table one of the old leftist hippies turned to me and said, “Damn, if that is the aristocracy I think there should be more of them.”
Another, and this time more contemporary grandfather, would have to be Leonard Wickenden, a past president of the American Chemical Society, who became enthusiastically involved in organic growing after he retired from his career as a chemist and he used his scientific background to defend and refine the organic concepts that worked so well for him in his garden. In his 1954 book, Gardening With Nature, he comments on the ferocious opposition to organic farming that he would encounter, especially the vituperative comments of an agricultural dean at the University of Kansas. Wickenden wrote: “The dean accused the proponents of organic agriculture of being unscientific and emotional and, to demonstrate his own scholarly and disciplined mind, he used the following phrases: cult of misguided people – pure superstition and myth – pseudo science – preposterous supposition – ridiculous dogma – these faddists – these cultists- and – bunk.”
The simple fact from my experience, after 50 years of practicing what my grandparents have taught me, is that this production system simply works and works far better than most people can imagine. These concepts have successfully fed mankind for 4000 years, a fact that the last grandfather on my list, Franklin Hiram King, expressed so eloquently in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. King pointed out that the obvious answer to feeding the world in perpetuity is written on the soil of organic farms all around the world.