UnconventionalAgriculture_header

April 6 – April 12, 2015

#45: Unconventional Agriculture

Introduction by Jack Algiere of Stone Barns Center

Farming that generates resilient systems and inspires creativity is the impulse that allows for cultural evolution. The self inflicted, yet incomprehensible magnitude of Earth’s changes cannot be surmounted by one rigid solution. The image of the whole Earth has imprinted in all of us. It is possible to sense its determinate size and fragility. I think this perspective is hard to negotiate. yet, when I am on the ground, hands in the soil, there is a certain flow that I am still included in. I relate with this place and am called to return. This connection shapes my confidence and hope for our future. All that we have historically created has led us to this moment of understanding our Earth. And now — our perspective of conventional agricultural wisdom can be challenged again. “Business as usual” is a relic of the passing industrial age. The act of socio-ecological separation has been realized. Nevertheless, a collectively evolved culture known here as “Unconventional Agriculture” has been thriving out of the spotlight for a century. These methods and their steward are here to restore our awareness of the vast diversity of wisdom our planet has to share with us. The myth that we have traded our agrarian culture for industry, intuition for science, and intimacy for virtual reality can be expelled. As we grow into the promise of a new era, the shared visions expressed in these contributions will revitalize our hope for an integrated and resilient future.

Quotation excerpted from an interview with Jack Algiere

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Jack Algiere, Four Season Farm Director, oversees the cultivation of over 200 varieties of produce on 6.5 acres of outdoor fields & gardens and in a 22,000 square-foot greenhouse as well as the Center’s extensive landscape and compost operations. He experiments continually with innovative growing methods and seed varieties and is integrally involved in training beginning farmers. Jack graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in turf management and horticulture. Before Stone Barns, he worked as a greenhouse manager for a family-owned nursery in Rhode Island, a park ranger in Costa Rica, restored and managed olive orchards in California, and developed an organic CSA program in Connecticut.

In this Week’s Food List:

What will the farms of our future look like? In this week’s Food List, we’re challenging today’s conventional methods of food production.

A common motif within unconventional agriculture is working with nature. It is beyond organic. Unconventional agriculture encompasses a philosophy that addresses the complexities of sustainable farming and reflects on the local history and resources of the land. It benefits from innovative research, mathematics, and thinking in abundance.

Sustainable agriculture promotes minimal input of natural resources while focusing on building soil fertility. Perennial crops support such practices and research in this field is reflective of our agrarian history. The emphasis of perennial gardening revolves around ecological intensification and the protection of soil integrity in response to issues of industrial agriculture.

The livestock industry has also taken a heavy toll on our environment, motivating many to stray from eating meat, but what if as Allan Savory believes, livestock could actually reverse climate change? A farmer in South Carolina shares with us how his runaway cattle caused him to transition his conventional farm to a more sustainable model.

This week we witness a recurring undertone to all lessons learned by these pioneering farmers: nature has the answer to our problems. With patience and persistence, trial and error, we can build agriculture focused on good food. We encourage you to follow nature’s lead and think unconventionally!

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THIS WEEK’S TERMS

Agroecology

For a sociologist, agroecology means that human systems work in concert with natural systems with benefits for all community members.  Agroecology strives for practices and relationships that promote a healthy ecosystem, economic security and social inclusion for all within that ecosystem. – Cornelia Flora, Author and Professor at Iowa State University Department of Sociology

Biodynamic

Holistic and regenerative farming practices focused on the integration of plants, animals, soil health and biodiversity. They keep the ecosystem in balance by producing the nutrients needed to nourish all aspects of the farm with a minimum of inputs imported from off site.

Beyond Organic

“There is a fundamental difference between the organic movement and the more recent organic industry. We need to dig deeper and look beyond narrow legal definitions to find a philosophy that truly addresses a system of agriculture that is incredibly complex and multidimensional.” – Michael Ableman

Perennials

Thriving within nature’s system with very little need for supplemental support, perennials are plants that establish a strong root stock and flourishes with the seasons. Every spring the plant germinates, grows throughout the summer, culminates in the autumn, dies back in the winter, and hibernates until the arrival of spring.

Holistic Management

“A triple bottom line planning process and decision making framework that results in outcomes that are ecologically regenerative, economically viable and socially responsible. This paradigm shifting planning process can address the historical causes of both desertification and of agriculture’s failure to sustain city-based civilizations by enabling managers and policy makers to overcome complexity and unintended consequences.” – Allan Savory

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Unconventional Agriculture

Today, half the world’s food production—what we eat—depends on chemical fertilizers and herbicides. That is the foundation of Conventional Agriculture, but it pollutes our soils, drinking water, waterways, and oceans. Unconventional farmers like Steve Ela in Hotchkiss, Colorado focus on building soil fertility by working with nature, not against it.

How Local History & Resources Shape Unconventional Ag

By Cheri LaRue

Cows grazing with chickensCritical to rebuilding sustainable and resilient food systems, conversations about the future of agriculture must include envisioning a variety of alternatives to the conventional industrial models that degrade the environment, people, animals, and local economies. There are many possible solutions that will instead build healthy soils and healthy communities — solutions that are sustainable environmentally, economically, and socially. We must consider the wide range of possibilities so as to find solutions that are appropriate for each region and each community.

Convention, or what is common, transforms through time and isn’t the same from region to region. It is reflective of the local history and culture, as well as the resources available. In developed nations, large-scale industrial agriculture is currently the norm. However, the United Nations reports that 70% of the world’s food supply is grown by small farmers, many of whom are using traditional methods that have been practiced for thousands of years. There are those who argue that we can’t feed the world without industrial agriculture, but it looks like a lot of folks are doing it. And they are doing it in a lot of different ways. That’s because, similar to what is conventional, what is sustainable isn’t the same everywhere. It is highly dependent on the unique set of local characteristics—history, culture, economy, politics, climate, soil, topography, and availability of resources such as water, land, fertilizer, pest control options, and farming knowledge.

We all have our stories. In the Ozarks region of Northwest Arkansas where I call home, our conventional agriculture has been shaped by rocky, clay soils, rough terrain, pests, diseases, and highly variable climatic conditions that limit the large-scale production of grain crops, vegetables, and fruits. The majority of our agricultural receipts are now from livestock production, mostly confinement poultry operations, cattle, and hay. We are home to several giant multinational corporations headquartered here, which are based on conventional industrial agriculture and distribution systems, and that are an integral part of our regional economy.

At the same time, much of Northwest Arkansas is rural and has a rich agricultural heritage of small farming and backyard growing. In the past our small farmers commercially produced apples, strawberries, tomatoes, grapes, sorghum molasses, and milk. As agriculture became more centralized, prices dropped and local processing facilities disappeared, challenging the economic viability of these products. Beset by ingenuity and a fierce independence shaped by our rugged conditions and relative isolation, many people continued to engage in small-scale agriculture to feed their families and their local communities. They are joined by many new farmers as well as former contract growers who are turning to unconventional methods that are sustainable for our region. As a result, pastured poultry, beef, and pork are becoming an important part of our local food landscape.

Although livestock production has been vilified by many in the environmental community for being unsustainable, others are beginning to understand and argue that it is highly dependent on production practices and local conditions. In the case of Northwest Arkansas, livestock production on perennial pastures is a viable way to preserve large areas of our agricultural landscape, store carbon, and produce food without degrading our soil and water resources, since our soils are marginal and not best suited for large volume production of plant-based products that require tillage. Some small farmers in our area are also using soil-building no-till raised bed methods that are appropriate for our landscape to produce vegetables and calorie crops. It will take many solutions to continue making sustainable farming capable of feeding the world.

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CheriLarueCheri LaRue lives in Arkansas with her husband and son at Green Fork Farm, where they raise meat, eggs, vegetables, herbs, fruit and microgreens. Cheri works as a consultant for farming and food system projects and is the Coordinator of the Dig In! Food and Farming Festival, manager of Green Fork Farmers Market, and Instructor/Principles of Biology Coordinator at the University of Arkansas. She is also Chair of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Food Council, which is working to help build a strong regional food system in Northwest Arkansas.

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Local Book CoverTitle: Beyond Organic
Location: Foxglove Farm, Salt Spring Island, BC
Featuring: Michael Ableman
Found on Page 86 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America

There is a fundamental difference between the organic movement and the more recent organic industry. We need to dig deeper and look beyond narrow legal definitions to find a philosophy that truly addresses a system of agriculture that is incredibly complex and multidimensional.

“Certification and label systems are like locks on a door — they are there to remind us of our boundaries,” says Michael. “The words we use define who we are. ‘Organic’ was the word some of us have been using for 30 to 40 years to identify a broad set of social, ecological, and spiritual principles about our farms and how we produced food for our communities. Now the USDA has given the word ‘organic’ a legal definition, in essence taking ownership of the word, and limiting the use to a narrow set of rules and regulations designed to support a distribution and marketing system. For some of us, the word no longer addresses the deeper issues that were at the heart of the origins of the movement. We’ve got to find new ways to talk about what we do — we may have to use different words.”

Michael Ableman believes that in the future, full-time farmers should no longer grow fruits and vegetables. Instead, this should be the responsibility of the individuals and families to do for themselves in their front and backyards, on their balconies and rooftops, and in community garden plots. “There has been entirely too much energy and focus in the food movement on growing that which we can actually survive without. We can all live without another carrot or tomato, but we can’t live without protein sources, and given our resources, these will have to be plant-based.”

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A Sustainable Solution for Growing Food

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“43 years ago, I began a quest to create a sustainable food production system that would nourish me, yet use the fewest resources necessary. Experimenting with Alan Chadwick’s wonderful biodynamic/French Intensive method, I and Ecology Action developed a method called GROW BIOINTENSIVE.

This has led to a life-long collaboration with a team of avid international farmers and researchers determined to identify and expand on the universal scientific principles that under-gird biologically-intensive food raising. Our research has drawn from a rich reservoir of knowledge developed over millennia by a wide variety of cultures—including the Chinese, Greek, and Mayan. This understanding has now evolved into a systemized, quantifiable food production system that is approaching true sustainability.
The collective efforts of biointensive food raising, agroecokogy, permaculture, biodynamics, and a range of other disciplines are retrieving and creating a revitalizing farming knowledge that is crucially important to the Earth’s and our survival. We have worked diligently to incorporate all that we’ve learned in working with Natural ecosystems and anthropogenic constructs to create an exciting vision for planetary harmony.

We are proud to be a part of this passionate group of ‘unconventional’ farmers. I encourage you to join us in creating a healthy future. Through loving care for the Earth and its soil, we can achieve a sustainable relationship with Nature’s abundance. It builds on our shared heritage, and it provides for our children the keys to a fully sustainable future!” – John Jeavons, Executive Director

At Ecology Action, we have dedicated our research to rediscovering the scientific principles that underlie millennia-old traditional farming systems. These have guided us to the eight essential aspects that are the foundation of GROW BIOINTENSIVE:

1. Double-Dug, Raised Beds
2. Composting
3. Intensive Planting
4. Companion Planting
5. Carbon Farming
6. Calorie Farming
7. The Use of Open-Pollinated Seeds
8. A Whole-System Farming Method

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 22.05.12Most life in nature occurs at the interface of soil, water, air and sun. GROW BIOINTENSIVE soil preparation practices create growing beds with more surface area to maximize the effect of nature’s life processes. Double-dug beds, with soil loosened to a depth of 24 inches, aerate the soil, facilitate root growth, and improve water retention. The health and vigor of the soil are maintained through the use of compost. Close plant spacing is used to protect soil microorganisms, reduce water loss, and maximize yields. Companion planting facilitates the optimal use of nutrients, light and water, encourages beneficial insects and creates a vibrant mini-ecosystem within the garden. A focus on the production of calories for the farmer and carbon for the soil ensures that both the farmer and the soil will be adequately fed and that the farm will be sustainable. The use of open-pollinated seeds helps to preserve genetic diversity and enables gardeners to develop their own acclimatized cultivars. All of the components of this system must be used together for optimum effect and to avoid depleting the soil.

GROW BIOINTENSIVE mini-farming techniques make it possible to grow food using:
67% to 88% less water
50% to 100% less fertilizer
99% less energy than commercial agriculture, while using a fraction of the resources

These techniques can also produce two times more food, build the soil up to 60 times faster than in nature, if properly used, and reduce the amount of land needed by half or more.

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Local Book CoverTitle: Crop Rent Calculator
Location: Stone Barns Center, Pocantico Hills, NY
Featuring: Jack Algiere, farm director
Found on Page 100 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America

HOW DOES JACK ALGIERE OF STONE BARNS DECIDE WHAT TO GROW IN HIS GREENHOUSE? YEARS OF EXPERIENCE, INTUITION … AND A CROP RENT CALCULATOR. The “calculator” is an agile equation used to determine a crop’s true value within a greenhouse’s diversified year-round growing system.

It allows Jack to:
1) Track seasonal growing trends; 2) Adjust pricing to improve economic efficiency and better understand how extensive crop selection works together to form a viable, ecologically sound growing operation; 3) Determine crops that work best within the ecological fabric necessary to maintain long-term soil health (soil health is reflected in crop quality and reduced need for inputs over time).

COST OF PRODUCING 1 LB OF MOKUM CARROTS
L = 50 ft = length of each plant bed
T = 50 = # of days crop grows from seeding to harvest
0.33 = value of 1 square ft of growing space in greenhouse
(calculated by factoring the total annual expenses of operation including labor, capital value of structure, materials, seeds, tools, fuel, and electricity then dividing this number by total productive days in the year)
2.5 = width of the bed (2.5 ft)
75 = average weight per bed for mokum carrots grown here

Abundance Thinking

By Courtney White

Excerpted from the book Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country

On a fine August day, I flew to New England in search of abundance.

GrassSoilHopeI was on the road to visit Dorn Cox, a young farmer who lives and works on his family’s 250-acre organic farm, called Tuckaway, near Lee, New Hampshire. Dorn calls himself a “carbon farmer,” meaning he thinks about carbon in everything he does. Confronting agriculture’s addiction to hydrocarbons, for example, Tuckaway produces a significant amount of its energy needs on-farm. Dorn does it with biodiesel – canola specifically – which he and his family grow on only 10 percent of the farm’s land. This was big news, so I thought a visit would be worthwhile.

I met Dorn in a hayfield behind a home belonging to a University of New Hampshire professor, spreading wood ash carefully among a grid of study plots. He gave me a wave as I parked the car, putting the ashcan on the ground. Farmer-thin, wearing muddy jeans, a yellow shirt, and a floppy straw hat that shaded intense blue eyes, Dorn extended a hand and gave me an energetic grin.

“What’s going on here?” I asked nodding at the gridded plots, though I knew it was part of his Ph.D research. “Just trying to figure out the best way to turn a hayfield into a farm without tilling it,” he replied. “And create a food and energy system that puts more carbon into the soil than comes out.” Was the professor okay with this? I asked. He’s fine with it, Dorn reassured me. “There are a lot of these little fields behind people’s houses. With some work they could be growing a great deal of produce,” he said. “We just need to figure out a way to do it without using a plow.”

As we walked across his study plots, Dorn explained his thinking.

Conventionally, a modern farm requires a tractor and a plow in order to turn over the soil and furrow the land in preparation for seeding and fertilizing. In contrast, a no-till approach means a farmer can plant the seed directly into the soil, usually with a mechanical drill pulled behind a tractor or a horse. A thin slice is made in the soil by the drill as it moves along, but nothing resembling a furrow. The soil is not turned over, and whatever is growing on the surface is largely left intact.

In fact, many no-till farmers plant a cover crop in the fall so that the soil will be kept cool, moist, and protected from the elements as the cash crop emerges from the ground in the spring or early summer. Dorn pointed at the hayfield as an example, indicating that the cover crop here was grass. He wants to know under what no-till conditions the cash crop – grains in this case – will grow best.

In these goals, Dorn is attempting to combine his knowledge of organic farming with his training in high finance. I knew that Dorn had left Tuckaway after college for a job on Wall Street and then moved on to a private company in the high-tech sector. What I didn’t know was that, like a good businessman, Dorn is trying to increase the return on his investment in the hayfield – the investment in this case being carbon, in the form of wood ash. Over the decades, carbon had drained away from New Hampshire’s soils, largely as a result of plowing and erosion, and Dorn is trying to figure out what amounts are necessary, and in what proportion to other elements, such as nitrogen, to revitalize the soil’s fertility once again.

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 21.03.02“The soil here is like a bank to which I’m making a deposit of carbon which will create a natural form of compound interest,” he explained. “Invest one seed, get one hundred back, return the carbon residue to the soil, and invest seed once again next season, and get one hundred twenty back. This absolute return is the real discount rate, and the carbon the real collateral. Any economic returns achieved above the real biological rate of return are by definition extractive and, therefore unearned.”

And it’s earned income that Dorn is after, which he calls the basis for real wealth.

In America, as in most nations, economic theory and practice is dominated by scarcity thinking, which is the belief that there’s not enough of something to go around. Oil is a classic example. As oil becomes scarcer and more difficult to extract from underground, it becomes more valuable, and thus more profitable to those who supply it – and more expensive to those who need it. This creates an important social impact to go along with the economic one.

When a commodity becomes scarce, we as a society start thinking about it obsessively – Where is it? How do we get at it? Why does it cost so damn much? – instead of investigating more abundant alternatives, such as solar energy. Psychologically, scarcity thinking is fear-based; it compels us to do things like hoard, compete, fight, and act greedy, selfish, and dishonest. It creates winners and losers. In contrast,abundance thinking is the belief that there’s plenty for everyone. Soil is a classic example. There’s a lot of good, rich soil in the nation, Dorn pointed out. It could be doing so much more for us if we would only look at it through the lens of abundance, not scarcity.

For example, once upon a time New Hampshire grew much of its own food. In the 1830s, Dorn said, two towns raised more sheep than are raised in all of New England today, and for many decades New Hampshire farmers grew thousands of acres of wheat, more than enough to feed its citizens. Unfortunately, short-sighted management created a legacy of overgrazing and overlogging in the state, resulting in depleted soils and eroded land – a story common throughout the region (and elsewhere). Over time, nearly all the grain and dairy farmers trickled away to greener pastures, and New Hampshire’s ability to feed and heat itself steadily declined.

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 21.02.56The collapse of the state’s industrial economy in the late 19th century led to a general exodus of population, a trend reversed only recently as high-tech companies, telecommuters, and wealthy second-home owners began to move in. Today, only 5 percent of New Hampshire is in farmland, which means agriculture is essentially a cottage industry.

“New Hampshire is the Live Free or Die state, known for the independent spirit of its citizens,” Dorn said. “But despite this heritage, it is now one of the most dependent states in the union, relying almost wholly on imported food and fuel.”

New Hampshire has a population of 1.3 million people. If only 13,000 of them became new farmers the state could feed itself, Dorn said. This is possible because New Hampshire has: (1) lots of rain and snow; (2) good agricultural soils; (3) plenty of market potential; (4) a strong educational system; and (5) wealth – i.e., capital – which is necessary to reinvest in new food systems.

In other words, the state has an abundance of possibility. What it lacks, he said, is knowledge and a willingness to change its ways of thinking. Over 40 percent of New Hampshire’s soils are rich enough to be producing food, and yet only a tiny fraction of the population is engaged in farming. It’s the same situation with fuel. The majority of homes in the state are heated with oil, Dorn told me, and yet two of the most common complaints he hears are about the high cost of oil and the low price for wood – in one of the most heavily forested states in the nation.

Scarcity in a land of plenty.

“It’s a cultural paradox,” said Dorn. “With lots of fertile soil, forests, water, and capable people, why can’t we make an independent, abundant living once more?”

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CourtneyWhiteA former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney White dropped out of the ‘conflict industry’ in 1997 to co-found the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around practices that involved land health. Today, his writing and conservation work focuses on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement.

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Crops of the Past — and the Future

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Today common conventional farming practices revolve around a single crop planted and replaced season after season, year after year. This type of monoculture based farming of annual crops places a heavy toll on our soil and water resources. Perennial crops such as fruit trees, and a handful of vegetables including asparagus, rhubarb, and sunchokes regenerate themselves each year. Perennial crops establish long roots that are efficient at capturing groundwater, prevent soil erosion, and promote biodiversity in the soil.

Many believe perennial crops are a way to sustainably feed the world. Food forests focused on perennial farming are popping up in urban areas across the country and providing free food to urban dwellers. Researchers are discovering food forests that have fed communities from around the world for centuries, including a 2,000 year old food forest located on a Moroccan oasis that grows dates, bananas, olives, figs, pomegranates, guavas, citrus, mulberries, tamarinds, carobs, quince, and grapes. Groups like the Land Institute and University of Georgia Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory believe global food security can be improved with perennial farming and are doing invaluable work to develop perennial grains that will provide high yields and nutritional benefits.

Learn more about the benefits of perennial farming

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New Roots For Ecological Intensification

The conversation of perennial versions of major grain crops is on the forefront of sustainable agriculture, thanks to the Land Institute. Annual crops currently dominate our agricultural landscapes. With patience and persistence, the Land Institute is selectively breeding grains to ultimate create hybrid perennial varieties with a mission to transform the agricultural landscape and remedy many issues of environmental limitations of annuals. As the authors of this study immediately address, “to meet the global food challenge of 2050, and well beyond, there is a growing consensus that farmers will need to produce food using fewer and fewer chemical, energy, and machine inputs. In order to achieve this, numbers researchers have called for the transition from input intensification to ecologicalintensification.” The most important benefit perennials offer is the protection of soil. Wheatgrass and Wheat Roots

Read more about the growing mission of perennial crop development to protect soils and communities

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How to green the world’s deserts & reverse climate change

Livestock are often villainized, especially by environmentalists, as the cause of desertification. With the majority of our land undergoing desertification, and desertification accelerating climate change, that’s a serious charge against livestock. Allan Savory used to be among those who blamed desertification on livestock. But as he began his search for concrete evidence that removing livestock from land would stop desertification, he found just the opposite: removing livestock from land actually accelerated desertification. It isn’t livestock per se that cause desertification, but mismanagement of livestock. By mimicking the patterns of grazing animals that traveled in dense herds in response to predators, Savory created a process called holistic management and planned grazing. Holistic management not only takes into account “all of nature’s complexity” but also “our social, environmental, economic complexity.” In his TedTalk, Savory showcases the amazing results holistic livestock management has produced, bringing thriving life back to deserts. But holistic management doesn’t only have the ability to turn deserts green, it also has the potential to actually reverse climate change and store enough carbon in our soils to revert atmospheric carbon dioxide to pre-industrial levels. Most discussions about climate change revolve around how to reduce emissions, which is unarguably crucial. But by changing our land management practices we could transform agriculture into an economic sector that actually sequesters, rather than emits, carbon. That potential exists in no other economic sector, and its high time we stop vilifying livestock, and instead work with them to heal our badly damaged deserts and atmosphere.

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Runaway Cows:

Trantham’s Sustainable “12 Aprils” Dairy Grazing Program

Tom Trantham used to run a large conventional dairy farm, but the farm ran into financial difficulties, barely scraping a profit. Farmer Tom credits his cows with saving the farm and showing him how to increase productivity. In a cow coup d’etat, the cattle broke loose of their feedlot and into a nearby pasture, grazing off just the top-half of plants. Farmer Tom was at first upset by his cows anti-authoritarianism, but when the next day they produced 200 more pounds of milk than usual, he realized his cows were on to something. With careful manure management, he hasn’t used chemical fertilizers on his farm for over two decades and has successfully adopted a rotational grazing system he has dubbed a “12 April system,” where he grows different fodder crops year-round in his 29 paddocks. Farmer Tom explains, “a lot of the times the questions we ask, the answer is not what we’re looking for.” Much of what Tom now practices on his farm he learnt from trial and error, and more than anything, listening to his cows.

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Agriculture Focused on Good Food

Interview with Eliot Coleman
Owner and Operator of Four Season Farm, Harborside, Maine

Some terms, like organic agriculture, have been adopted by industrial agriculture. Coleman explains why he hasn’t embraced the organic certification, despite using organic practices, and describes his “real food” label, designed to encourage the growth of good food.

Douglas Gayeton: Do you believe in things like organic certification?

Eliot Coleman: I’ve never been organically certified because I don’t believe we know enough to say exactly what practices create the most nutritious food. Since that’s been taken over by the USDA that stated that they didn’t believe this food was any better than the other food, it’s a little hard to play their game. We don’t call our produce “organic,” although we do insist on calling this an organic farm. We sell under what we call a “real food” label. According to us, the “real food” label means that you can’t use the label if you’re selling more than 50 miles from your farm; for food like grains, storage crops and meat, we allow 300 miles. We’ve never made that formal; it’s just a little mental game we play. If anybody wants to join in, they’re welcome to.

The nice thing about the “real food” label is there’s no way the big boys are ever going to want to steal this one because they don’t want to put that level of energy into creating exceptional food. Where conventional organics goes wrong is that these are people who are into this to make money rather than make exceptional food.

Douglas Gayeton: Do you identify with the term “face certification,” meaning that if you know the person’s face, you have an indication of who that person is and perhaps their farming practices?

Eliot Coleman: Yeah, there’s also the old saying that the way to get really good food is to know the first name of the grower. That’s basically what we do. I wrote up principles for “real food” and it says that the consumers have their own certifying system because the farms that are growing real food are open for inspection any time. You can come and look around, you can ask questions, you can look into the greenhouses and everything.

Douglas Gayeton: In your real food label, does scale factor in at all?

Eliot Coleman: Not in any way that I planned, but I think there is an amount of land that someone can farm and pay attention to all the details, and, beyond that, you’re going to be fudging things. There was a great quote from a California farmer years ago, when someone was asking him about organics and he said that as far as he was concerned, if it was round and green and packed 18 to a crate, that was all he was after. And that’s what you get into as a commodity grower. When you’re doing something that is not bringing in millions of dollars and making you rich, you realize that your satisfaction comes from the work you’re doing and that’s what you’re spending your life at. The money you get for it is minor and the major thing is whether you feel good at the end of the day about the type of work you’ve done and on a small farm that’s really easy to do.

Douglas Gayeton: Have you experimented with principles including things like Biochar?

Eliot Coleman: Yeah, I tried all that stuff. I suspect Biochar might have value in an area where you have warm weather year round and very intense biological activity, but I don’t think it has anything to offer in the temperate zone. People are always looking for the magic bullet and there really isn’t any magic bullet, I’ve found that out after all these years, other than taking care of the soil the same way wise farmers have always taken care of it. I have a book on my shelf entitled “Roman Farming” and it talks about what the Romans were doing 2000 years ago. They understand the value of crop rotation, and green manures. Good farmers have been on top of this forever. The trouble with all of those food systems is that you can’t sell them and the industrial society is only interested in systems that you can sell, which means that you have to convince farmers that all of the natural inputs that have been keeping the soil fertile for thousands of years are useless and the only secret is to buy their magic powder.

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OH123--Eliot-Coleman--pictureEliot Coleman has been involved in organic farming since 1966. He has experience in field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of livestock, and range poultry.  He is the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook. He has contributed chapters to three scientific books on organic agriculture and has written extensively on the subject since 1975. As a commercial market gardener, director of agricultural research projects, and teacher and lecturer on organic farming, he has studied and practiced all aspects of the craft. He served from 1978-1980 as Executive Director of IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and was an advisor to the US Department of Agriculture during their landmark study, Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. Eliot presently owns and operates Four Season Farm, a year-round market garden in Harborside, Maine.

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Local Book CoverTitle: (Korean) Natural Farming
Location: John Caverly’s Farm, Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Featuring: John Caverly, the Alchemist
Found on Page 137 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America

John Caverly is an alchemist. His barn, filled with glass jars, plastic five-gallon containers, pallets loaded with grains of various types, is an agricultural version of a medieval apothecary. This is what natural farming looks like, and since Hawaiians are more likely to look east than west, this movement takes its cues from Cho Han Kyu, a Korean agronomist referred to with great affection throughout Asia simply as “Master Cho.”

(Korean) Natural Farming uses indigenous microbial organisms (IMO) taken from healthy, biologically balanced forests to enrich a farm’s soil fertility. “Have you ever noticed that the deeper you go into nature, the more beautiful it becomes?” asks John Caverly. He gathers IMOs from forests, “grows” them out using ingredients found in any kitchen pantry, then adds this mixture directly to fields to boost the soil’s microbial life.

Microorganisms, such as mycorrhizae, form a symbiotic relationship with the plants and the soil. They provide nutrients and water from the soil to the plants and they take waste products from the plant to the soil, sequestering carbon in the humus.

3 Things You Can Do

In the face of our contemporary challenges with food security and environmental protection, we have come to realize that conventional agricultural practices are methods ready to be retired. We have always had the available knowledge to create a resilient and sustainable food system and now is the time to reflect on this knowledge and move forward in progress. Immediate solutions, with long lasting detrimental impacts are something of the past. We encourage you to dig deep into the roots of our agricultural heritage and remember to follow nature’s lead when it comes to producing in abundance while preserving our land.

      1. Establish a food forest in your town! Reference the Permaculture Institute’s demonstration garden to create your own food forest garden that mimics the architecture and beneficial relationships of a natural ecosystem.
      2. Support the unconventional! Sign up for an organic CSA, purchase biodynamic wine, and buy non-gmo seeds for your garden.
      3. Help debunk the myths about conventional agriculture! In under 7 minutes, Anna Lappe tackles the popular question, can sustainably grown food deliver the quantity and quality we need—today and in the future?
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