THE ADVENTURE OF ORGANIC FARMING
Eliot Coleman Keynote at the MOA Winter Conference 2017
For someone like me, whose passions, before I began as an organic farmer, included other supposedly impossible activities like rock climbing, mountaineering, and white water kayaking, organic farming has always felt like an adventure – an adventure into a new part of the natural world – the miraculous part beneath our feet. Exploring the mysteries of the soil doesn’t involve high altitude cold or vertical rock faces or raging rivers but it still offers the same sense of accomplishment, of satisfaction, and of excitement. So, thanks to that adventurer’s background, when I first became interested in food and farming some 50 years ago in 1965, I was imbued with the adventurer’s ethic.
That ethic is crafted on minimalism, respect for the natural world, and independence. Adventurers want to experience the boundaries of the natural world as purely and cleanly as possible guided by the decisions they make themselves. The ideal in climbing is to avoid all artificiality, to have little need for superfluous technology, and to attain the closest possible intimacy between the adventurers and the reality of the world around them. The dream is to seek out challenges, succeed at doing them, and leave a pristine world for others to follow – to pass through a landscape like sunlight through wind. The goal is in doing it elegantly, and the delight is derived from that accomplishment.
When I was in my twenties, I loved hearing the word “impossible”. I knew that was where I would want to go next. At that stage of my life I supported myself economically with a teaching job, but I supported myself spiritually, on weekends and during school vacations, by adventuring. So when I was introduced to the idea of farming, it seemed very appealing because it would allow me to continue to face challenges in the outdoors. And when I was told simultaneously that farming without chemicals and pesticides was impossible, I was hooked. I wanted to grow food, not with artificial industrial aids but in harmony with the same natural systems I had come to know so intimately during my adventures in the wilderness. I was sure that if I investigated natural systems, and understood them, and nurtured them with the adventurer’s ethic, the answers would be right there and farming could become an elegant dance, a partnership between the farmer and the living systems of the earth. And, that pure delight in the success of an adventure, what the great French climber Lionel Terray referred to as “sniffing the roses that grow on the borders of the impossible” would be part and parcel of my daily work. And that is exactly how it has gone.
Now, if that all sounds like fanciful thinking 50 years ago for a 20-something rock climber who had yet to plant a seed, you have to remember that this was the 6os. The environmental movement was in full swing. In addition to flowers and the summer of love we were enthusiastically idealistic. The idea of protecting the environment by growing food without chemicals made eminent sense to those of us who loved the natural world. Back in those days the DuPont Company was defending itself with slogans like “Better Living Through Chemistry” because they were aware of the natural human aversion to the image that chemicals represent. Many of us, even though we had no previous agricultural experience, wondered how anyone could do things any more ignorantly, vis a vis the planet, than the destructive human activities we were reading about in the papers. Silent Spring had made everyone aware of the dangers of pesticides, but even more disturbing than DDT and the legion of apologists from the chemical industry attacking Rachael Carson, was the history of pesticide use. Up until DDT came along the leading pesticide was something called lead arsenate, a combination of two very poisonous elements. Maybe a product like DDT might eventually break down, but elements, like lead and arsenic, were in the soil and in the environment forever. To us the idea of an agriculture that had countenanced spreading lead and arsenic on people’s food before they ate it, seemed so incompetent that even as total beginners we were sure we could do better.
Adventurers are very good at solving problems. Whether scoping out a route up a vertical rock face or figuring out how best to pack supplies to camp III, we knew how much planning, foresight and understanding of the difficulties were required to succeed. We also knew that solutions for one problem had to make practical sense and not have repercussions that led to another. If you pushed too hard, or wanted too much all at once, or were greedy or were in a hurry you could get into trouble in the mountains. That was obviously true in farming also. But in addition, whereas adventurers have to make smart decisions to keep themselves safe, farming offered a further concern with which we were fully in tune. Farmers have the additional responsibility of making wise decisions that also keep the food eaters safe - the same way my decisions leading a climb had to assure the safety of my climbing partners. The same unspoken integrity that has always existed among adventurers appeared to parallel all the qualities necessary to become an organic farmer. And so I began farming.
Back then we were condemned as Luddites right from the start because we questioned the modern system of agriculture. The chemical companies, the US Department of Agriculture, all the land grant colleges, every extension agent and even the sales clerk at the local seed and feed store treated at us with the type of scorn reserved for the clueless. But, we quickly became aware of the Alice in Wonderland world we were entering. Two examples. First. All the old agricultural literature celebrated the indispensable role of organic matter in the soil. Yet we were being told by modern industrial agriculture that soil organic matter was SO outdated as a driver of soil productivity. By chance a few old brochures made us aware of the existence of a miracle product to save agriculture called “Krilium” developed by Monsanto in the 1950s at a cost of $10 million dollars. Krilium had been marketed as a “soil conditioner.” The advertising stressed how its synthetic resins would create crumb structure, aid water infiltration and improve water-holding capacity. However, as one research paper on Krilium was bold enough to point out, ”In effect it functions as a synthetic substitute for the natural gums and resins derived from organic matter in the soil.” In other words industrial agriculture knew full well the value of soil organic matter, but wanted to sell a synthetic substitute. Second. At the same time that Firmin Bear of Rutgers was writing that a well planned crop rotation alone was worth 75% of everything else that the farmer did, we were told that monoculture could replace crop rotation. Alice in Wonderland indeed. But, as Bob Seger sang, “We were young and strong and we were running against the wind.” With that in mind we set out to do the “impossible.” And we succeeded right from the start because organic farming instinctively understands the connection between soil organic matter, soil biological activity, and successful food production.
One of the first lessons we learned was that by tuning in to Mother Nature, we were unstoppable. Since all of our inputs were delivered by the natural world, our efforts could not be held hostage by some input supplier. The management techniques that maintain natural soil fertility like crop rotation, compost, cover crops, grazing livestock, shallow tillage, and so forth are information inputs not product inputs. Those techniques create optimum conditions for nourishing the plants and animals that nourish human beings. Since many of us couldn’t afford inputs, it was logical for us to be attracted to a system that didn’t require them. Self-reliant agriculture, just like the wilderness, attracted self-reliant individuals. But what made it all possible was that we sixties organic farmers didn’t need to prove chemicals wrong. We merely had to prove us right. And we did so. The public responded enthusiastically to the beautiful and flavorful crops we grew using age-old techniques. Aldous Huxley’s statement, “Facts do not cease to exist because they have been ignored” seemed to describe the situation perfectly.
Fortunately we had great guides as we entered the agricultural wilderness. We didn’t have to invent the basic ideas of organic farming. They are a gift from over 100 years of development by wise people who farmed before us. We are the beneficiaries of the intuition, experimentation, and dedicated efforts of our predecessors who were concerned with the detrimental effects on food quality caused by industrial methods. They developed the art and science of organic farming because they understood that proper nourishment of human beings only results from proper nourishment of the soil. Organic farming is best defined by the benefits of growing crops on a biologically active fertile soil rather than by its rejection of unnecessary chemicals. Crop resistance to pests and diseases is an outcome of farming a soil that fully nourishes the crops.
Back in 1965 our decision to farm organically was a statement of faith in the wisdom of the natural world and the nutritional superiority of food grown on fertile soils. Somehow we instinctively knew that good farming and exceptional food could only result from the care and nurturing practiced by the good farmer. And the standards we followed, which we learned by talking with and reading the books written by our predecessors, are still my standards today.
First, for uncompromised nutritional value all crops must be grown in fertile soil attached to the earth and nourished by the natural biological activities of that soil. There are so many aspects of soil processes that we could not replace even if we wanted to, because we are still unaware of how it all works. Second, soil fertility should be maintained principally with farm-derived organic matter and mineral particles from ground rock. Why take the chance of bringing in polluted material from outside the farm when fertility can be created and maintained internally? Third, green manures and cover crops must be included within broadly based crop rotations to enhance biological diversity. The greater the variety of plants and animals you grow, the more stable the system. Fourth, a "plant positive" rather than a "pest negative" philosophy is vital, focusing on correcting the cause of problems by strengthening the plant through optimum growing conditions to prevent pests, rather than merely treating symptoms by trying to kill the pests that prey on weak plants. More and more scientific evidence is available today on the mechanisms by which a biologically active fertile soil can create induced resistance in the crops. Fifth, livestock should be included and must be raised outdoors on grass-based pasture systems to the fullest extent possible. Farm animals are an integral factor in the symbiosis of soil fertility. The ultimate goal of these five precepts is vigorous, healthy crops and livestock endowed with their inherent powers of vitality and resistance. Add to that the independence that comes from minimal reliance on outside inputs, and you have the adventurer’s ethic applied to farming.
These are the standards I absorbed right from the start. These are the standards that were conveyed to the USDA when the National Organic Program was established. However, the USDA quickly showed its true colors by trying to include irradiation, GMOs, and sewage sludge but had to back off because of intense objections from the public. These are the standards that the USDA was fully aware of from their 1980 study, Report and Recommendations on Organic Agriculture. That study specified the tenets of organic farming to be as follows: “Soil is the source of life. Soil quality and balance are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Healthy plants, animals and humans result from balanced, biologically-active soil.”
The organic movement began over a hundred years ago in the hands of conscientious farmers. No one was forcing them to make the extra effort to be concerned about the nutritional quality of the food they were selling. They did it because it was part of their agricultural ethic. But, things are no longer in the farmer’s hands. As social critic Eric Hoffer has commented, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” The influence of the farmers who created the movement, farmers who understood the relation of soil quality to food quality and avoided any products that might contaminate their soil, was quickly marginalized in favor of expediency once the organic label became big business and the marketers and merchandisers took over. Here is a disturbing example.
The huge wholesaler, United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI), one of the merchandisers, employs a lobbyist who writes a blog that is always trying to control any objections by farmers or the public to the weakening of organic standards. In an article in August 2016 the blog trashed the Center for Food Safety for objecting to contaminated organic matter and CAFO manure being allowed in compost used on organic farms. The blog demeaned the Center For Food Safety’s position as being “perfectionist” objections by uninformed people who expect “obsolete purity” in their food. Here is a longer quote from the blog: “Synthetic materials should be allowed because the very world we live in is contaminated. How perfect can compost be in a polluted world?” No real organic farmer I have ever known would have written those lines. The blog continually tries to intimidate farmers who attempt to defend old time organic standards, by accusing the criticizers of participating in, their pop phrase, a “circular firing squad.” In other words since the merchandisers now control organic, and since maximizing the amount of product available has become far more important than how it is produced, if you say anything at all you are harming organic. As you can tell by my comments, I am not easily intimidated.
Long time supporters of organic farming need to realize that the ground has shifted under their feet. Ever since the USDA (and by association the industrial food lobbyists) was given control of the word, the integrity of the “USDA Certified Organic” label has been on a predictable descent. The USDA, mired in decades of chemical thinking and influenced by industrial lobbyists, has continually tried to subvert the promise of a natural, biologically based agriculture. The organic community initially insisted on integrity and thought they had achieved it. Unfortunately, the USDA foxes have been managing the hen house. We now have dairies of thousands of cows with no real access to grazing and 1000-acre vegetable fields fed on “soluble organic” fertilizers of suspicious provenance. But, most dismaying of all (I can hear the death knell of organic integrity ringing in the distance), we also have, although few are aware of it, “organic hydroponics.”
How can that be? There isn’t any soil in hydroponic production. How can it be organic? One of the appeals of organically grown food is based on the high nutrient status of plants grown in a biologically active fertile soil with all its known and yet to be discovered benefits. Well, that is what most people THINK organic production is all about because the original government definition of “organic” stressed “soil biological activity” as one of the vital processes enhanced by organic practices. Dismayingly, the USDA rewrote that definition in 2002 to remove any reference to the word “soil.” And the trend is straight downhill from that point on. Big money is presently being invested in “vegetable factories” and “vertical farms” where production is hermetically sealed in huge warehouses filled with LED lights and nutrient pumps. That frightening picture is the future of “organic” as defined by the USDA.
Back in 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the group of farmers, scientists, and public interest advocates in charge of recommending changes to the organic standards, strenuously objected to the inclusion of soil-less hydroponic growing in the organic standards. In their objection they wrote:
“The abundant organisms in healthy, organically maintained soils form a biological network, an amazing and diverse ecology that is ‘the secret’, the foundation of the success of organic farming . . . “
In direct opposition to that formal recommendation, Miles McEvoy, the director of the National Organic Program (NOP), has unilaterally proclaimed the legality of organic hydroponics. And many of the financially conflicted organic certifying agencies have jumped right on the bandwagon and started certifying hydroponic operations. This is not any semantic disagreement over the wording of the Organic Foods Production Act. This is a deliberate hostile takeover.
This hydroponic issue came up for discussion at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in St. Louis last November. Under the influence of immense pressure from the hydroponic industry, and a board seriously compromised by conflicts of interest, the NOSB postponed a vote that would have prohibited hydroponic produce to be sold as organic. The NOP claims that the previous NOSB prohibition of hydroponic, that I just read you part of, was “unclear.” The reason this issue came up for discussion was the recent realization that, aided by USDA collusion, the hydroponic industry has been surreptitiously selling their water grown produce as organic for most of the past decade with no indication of hydroponic on the label and with no customer knowledge that this was happening. By the time the issue eventually resurfaces for another vote, this faux organic produce will have become so ubiquitous that it will be impossible to stop. Any crop that can be produced hydroponically (berries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, lettuce, etc.) will continue to flood your supermarket’s organic section (pushing out real organic) and the label will not say a word about hydroponic.
During the comment period on the hydroponic issue at the NOSB meeting there was eloquent testimony presented by real organic farmers against allowing hydroponic to be certified, but they were opposed by huge, well funded hydroponic operations testifying for the other side like Houwelling’s Tomatoes with 250 acres of conventional hydroponic greenhouses and Driscoll’s of Watsonville, California with over 1000 acres of “organic/hydroponic” berries. Even MiracleGro submitted testimony in favor of soil-less culture. MiracleGro, testifying to the Organic Standards Board? The previously mentioned United Natural Foods Incorporated also testified in favor of hydroponics and stated proudly that they had purchased over $52 million dollars worth of hydro – masquerading as organic – over the past year. $52 million - with no mention of hydro anywhere on the label. But the final straw, to my mind, was to see both the representative of certifier California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and the representative of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) arguing forcefully for the inclusion of hydroponics. I guess the “O” in their acronyms must now stand for “OBEDIENT”, obedient to industry. As the old saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
By certifying hydroponic as organic, the USDA is basically saying, "See, just like we told you years ago, soil is not important. We can do it all with soluble fertilizers as we have always claimed. Even organic farming agrees." We cannot allow that to continue. We cannot allow the USDA to so easily dismiss 100 years of progress towards a bio-rational agriculture. The money and the power and the political influence behind this illegal takeover are immense. It will probably take a public outcry far larger than the 300,000 comments that condemned the draft proposal in 1997 to stop this.
If you are a certified organic farmer one simple action you can take right now is to put economic pressure on the certifying agencies to stop certifying soil-less crops as organic. Just contact your organic certifier and demand to know if they certify hydroponic operations. If they do certify soil-less growers, tell them that you object and will plan to change your certification next year to a more principled provider unless they desist. Honestly, why would you want to pay money to an organic certifier whose practices are undermining customer faith in the integrity of the organic label?
If you are an organic eater speak to the produce manager in your local supermarket. Say that you object to hydroponic masquerading as organic and want the store to stock soil grown organic produce or you will take your business elsewhere. I can guarantee you that most produce managers have no idea that the hydroponic invasion has happened and will tell you that organic already means grown in the soil.
Also, go to the website, keepthesoilinorganic.org, and sign their petition addressed to the USDA.
I am sure there are people listening to this talk who have concluded that I am opposed to hydroponics. That is totally untrue. I have nothing against hydroponic growing. Interestingly, the negative attitude comes from the hydroponic growers themselves. For example, the website of Crop King, a hydroponic supplier, states that the word hydroponic ”gives no marketing benefit” and raises “questions” and “negative responses” among the general public compared to the “more desirable” organic which commands a premium price in the market. Since they are fully aware that the public is not clamoring to eat their products, but is clamoring to eat ours, they are trying to sneak their water-grown vegetables on to your table by putting OUR word “organic” on the label rather than their word “hydroponic.”
So - one last question – why do I care? Why not let the merchandisers run things as they see fit? Hey, its USDA Certified organic isn’t it? Why not be lulled into complacency by the marketing spin-doctors in the tasseled loafers who are very skilled at dissembling and fast-talking and injecting the discussion with enough barely plausible mental Novocain to keep the public quiet. Hydroponics is no competition for our farm. Our customers love us because we produce the finest food they have ever tasted. So, why don’t I just stay home and run my farm and forget about this hydroponic scam?
If you knew what I see on my farm everyday, you would understand why I care. I SEE MIRACLES! I see healthy pest-free plants and animals and clean water and clean air with no need for any artificial aids. I see the impossible being done, because it was never impossible. I see peasant farmers all over the world with no more resources than the shovel, hoe, and seeds with which I started being taught the simple truths about soil fertility, and succeeding. I see well-fed people on a healthy planet.
The successes of organic farming to date are just the beginning of this adventure. What organic farming will have taught the world about plant health and human health and planetary health in another ten years, will blow your socks off. Research into the soil micro-biome is opening whole new vistas for a truly “biological” agriculture. However, that’s only if we protect the meaning of the word organic so there is no confusion with a non-sustainable, hermetically sealed, input-driven, highly technology-dependent system. Hydroponics exists in the technosphere along with the chemists. Organics exists in the ecosphere along with the adventurers. We cannot allow the incredible potential of natural non-industrial food production to be compromised by association with a system of plastic troughs and pumps and filters and nutrient solutions and multiple parallel mineralization in test tubes that bears no relation to the environmental promise the word “organic” has always represented. What organic farmers have accomplished to date is just the beginning of transforming our human relationship with the planet, and I want to protect the hundred-year-old meaning “organic farming”, so we can continue the adventure.
Thank you for listening.