Beyond Organic

Eliot Coleman is the author ofThe New Organic Grower,Four Season HarvestandThe Winter Harvest Handbook.

Since the 1930s, organic farming has been subjected to the traditional

three-step progression that occurs with any new idea directly challenging

an orthodoxy. First the orthodoxy dismisses it. Then it spends decades

contesting its validity. Finally, moves to take it over. Now that organic

agriculture has become an obvious economic force, industrial agriculture

wants to control it. Since the first step in controlling a process is to

define (or redefine) it, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hastened to

influence the setting of organic standards -- in part by establishing a

legal definition of the word "organic" -- and the organic spokespeople

naively permitted it.

Wise people had long warned against such a step. Thirty years ago, Lady Eve

Balfour, one of the most knowledgeable organic pioneers from the 1930s,

said, "I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be

imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the attitude

of the farmer. Without a positive and ecological approach, it is not

possible to farm organically." When I heard Lady Eve make that statement at

an international conference on organic farming at Sissach, Switzerland, in

1977, the co-option and redefinition of organic by the USDA was far in the

future. I knew very well what she meant though, because by that time I had

been involved long enough to have absorbed the old-time organic ideas and I

was alert to see the changes that were beginning to appear.

When you study the history of almost any new idea it becomes clear how the

involvement of the old power structure in the new paradigm tends to move

things backwards. Minds mired in an industrial thinking pattern, where

farmers are merely sources of raw materials, can not see beyond the outputs

of production. They don't normally consider the values of production nor

the economic benefits to the producers. While co-opting and regulating the

organic method, the USDA ignored the organic goal. And since it is the

original organic goal, and not the modern redirection set on course by the

USDA, which I believe can save the family farm, we need to know the

difference. To better convey this difference, I like to borrow two words

from the ecology movement and refer to "deep" organic farming and "shallow"

organic farming.

Deep-organic farmers, after rejecting agricultural chemicals, look for

better ways to farm. Inspired by the elegance of Nature's systems, they try

to mimic the patterns of the natural world's soil-plant economy. They use

freely available natural soil foods like deep rooting legumes, green

manures, and composts to correct the causes of an infertile soil by

establishing a vigorous soil life. They acknowledge that the underlying

cause of pest problems (insects and diseases) is plant stress; they know

they can avoid pest problems by managing soil tilth, nutrient balance,

organic matter content, water drainage, air flow, crop rotations, varietal

selection and other factors to reduce plant stress. In so doing,

deep-organic farmers free themselves from the need to purchase fertilizers

and pest-control products from the industrial supply network -- the

mercantile businesses that normally put profits in the pockets of middlemen

and put family farms on the auction block. The goal of deep-organic farming

is to grow the most nutritious food possible and to respect the primacy of

a healthy planet. Needless to say, the industrial agricultural

establishment sees this approach as a threat to the status quo since it is

not an easy system for outsiders to quantify, to control, and to profit


Shallow-organic farmers, on the other hand, after rejecting agricultural

chemicals, look for quick-fix inputs. Trapped in a belief that the natural

world is inadequate, they end up mimicking the patterns of chemical

agriculture. They use bagged or bottled organic fertilizers in order to

supply nutrients that temporarily treat the symptoms of an infertile soil.

They treat the symptoms of plant stress -- insect and disease problems --

by arming themselves with the latest natural organic weapons. In so doing,

the shallow-organic farmers continue to deliver themselves into the control

of an industrial supply network that is only too happy to sell them

expensive symptom treatments. The goal of shallow-organic farming is merely

to follow the approved guidelines and respect the primacy of international

commerce. The industrial agricultural establishment looks on

shallow-organic farming as an acceptable variation of chemical agribusiness

since it is an easy system for the industry to quantify, to control, and to

profit from in the same ways it has done with chemical farming. Shallow

organic farming sustains the dependence of farmers on middlemen and

fertilizer suppliers. Today, major agribusinesses are creating massive

shallow organic operations, and these can be as hard on the family farm as

chemical farming ever was.

The difference in approach is a difference in life views. The shallow view

regards the natural world as consisting of mostly inadequate, usually

malevolent systems which must be modified and improved. The deep-organic

view understands that the natural world consists of impeccably designed,

smooth-functioning systems that must be studied and nurtured. The

deep-organic pioneers learned that farming in partnership with the natural

processes of soil organisms also makes allowance for the unknowns. The

living systems of a truly fertile soil contain all sorts of yet-to-be

discovered benefits for plants -- and consequently for the livestock and

humans who consume them. These are benefits we don't even know how to test

for because we are unaware of their mechanism, yet deep organic farmers are

conscious of them every day in the improved vigor of their crops and

livestock. This practical experience of farmers is unacceptable to

scientists who disparagingly call it mere "anecdotal evidence." Good

farmers contend that since most scientists lack familiarity with real

organic farming, they are passing judgment on things they know nothing


It is difficult for organic farmers to defend ideas scientifically where so

little scientific data has yet been collected. However, the passion is

there because the farmer's instincts are so powerfully sure that

differences exist between organic and chemical. I often cite an experience

of mine in an unrelated field -- music -- in defense of the farmer's

instincts. Twice I have been fortunate to hear great artists perform in an

intimate setting without the intermediary of a sound system. The first was

a sax player, the second a soprano. The experience of hearing their clear,

pure tones directly, not missing whatever subtleties a microphone and

speakers are incapable of transmitting, was so different and the direct

ingestion of the sound by my ears was so nourishing (that is the only word

I can think of), that I remember the sensation to this day, and use it as a

metaphor for differences in food quality. That unfiltered music is like

fresh food grown by a local deep organic grower. That same music heard

through a sound system is like industrial organic produce shipped from far

away. Through a poor sound system, it is a lot like chemically grown


` MVP 2012