Eliot Coleman: Real Organic vs. Chemical Farming
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Our Eliot Coleman interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dave Chapman: Welcome everybody. I am here today with my good friend Eliot Coleman. We’re sitting at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. I’m fortunate to be here with Eliot who always has beautiful farms. I first knew him up at the Mountain School in Vershire, Vermont. And so here we are Eliot, what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Eliot Coleman: Many, many, many years later, though I never remember. You were farming with a team of oxen. Yes, that’s right.
Dave Chapman: I met you at that gas station and I was using a team of oxen down the road. And I saw you at the pump next to me, and I thought you looked familiar and I asked if you were Eliot Coleman. So we had a lot of fun. You were a great teacher. You really were. You shared of your knowledge and of your library of your food.
I would like to go back with you and look at the development of your thought about organic farming, which you’ve been at a long time. And, hmm…you know, I know that over that time, you’re thinking about even what organic is has changed, although the basic understanding is there, but I know the questions that you ask have changed. So, could we go back and talk about, when did you first start to farm?
Eliot Coleman: What inspired me? Dave, I was reading Scott and Helen Nearing’s book, Living the Good Life. And I came over to meet them in Maine. They were living just down the road from where I am now. We became friends and a couple of months later, when we decided we wanted a farm, we came over to chat with them while we were hitting real estate agents. And Helen said, “heck, we’re not using the back half of our farm. Why don’t you buy that?”
They sold it to me for a giveaway price, because they thought it was great that somebody actually was going to use the land. It was all covered with a spruce- fir forest and a lot of rocks. So it was an adventure that I was getting into more than a deep dive into organic agriculture. It was going to be organic because that was the way they farmed.
And that made sense to me. But what initially grabbed me was the adventure of, could I start on this piece of poor forest land, cut down the trees, roll out the rocks, create fertility and grow all my own food? Like the pioneers had done hundreds of years ago. So that was the motivation, and what I realized is this is great.
About two years in was, “oh, okay, that’s easy. We built a little house. We can cut firewood. We’ve got a garden, we’ve dug a root cellar, we’re eating out of the garden.” There has to be more to this than that.
And at that point I started reading all of the books in Scott’s library and Scott had as good a library as I’d ever seen with books on organic agriculture and going back to some of the earliest from the 1940s, like Lady [Eve] Balfour and Wickendon, and the early intelligent writers who had at that time said, “wait a minute, agriculture seems to be going in the wrong direction.” And “is there another direction?”
And that got me thinking that what had started out as an adventure, there was a lot to this. This was more than just a climbing this mountain and going home. There was something here that was deeper – and the deeper became more evident when I read books about the difference in nutritional value of food from a good soil compared to a poor soil, and food from soil that was alive because you were putting organic matter into it rather than soil that was dead.
Cause you were just putting chemicals into it and on and on. And it became evident that this was the only way to farm if human beings wanted to be healthy and if we wanted a healthy planet. And so what started out as just an adventure – and it was an adventure – became a really serious investigation of the relationship between human beings and their use of the planet for their survival and how best to do that.
So the planet isn’t destroyed and so that we’re getting the most exceptional quality food we can possibly get. And it just grew from there. I read more and more books and there were some excellent ones. In fact, the library I’ve put together in my office is probably as good as a library on the subject as exists anywhere in the world. And it’s really wonderful.
The other day I was reading an article and at the end of the article, it listed seven books and they were all on my shelf. Because I wanted to check…did they just really said that? Okay, good. We have the information and the information is so good and what all those people knew years ago, we don’t know anything different now. I mean, I’m probably using some techniques that they might not have envisioned there, or a new tool, but basically it’s the same thing.
And basically it’s returning organic waste to the soil. It is that simple because that’s what all the microorganisms in the soil live on. And they’re the ones who make everything work. And the more organic matter you put in there, the more water the soil holds – and you need the water for all the processes that are going on – and you just have one thing building upon another.
So that was great. But the other thing that entranced me; we had two inches of topsoil when we cleared this spruce for forest. And it was just odd at how quickly we were able to create what I now define as a “biologically active fertile soil” with leaves from the woods, spoiled hay from a neighbor, a little horse manure from another neighbor, seaweed from the coast. Nothing that I wouldn’t have been able to dig up as a peasant 200 years ago.
And these were all resources that farmers actually – intelligent farmers – had been using before the chemical industry came in and convinced them that rather than using all those wonderful free resources that worked with the direction the planet wanted to go, they should buy their inputs from the chemical companies. Yeah.
Dave Chapman: So I’m swimming with things I want to mention. In fact, let me swipe a piece of paper from you, because I want to jot down a note. All right. So let’s go back for a minute to the forties, the 1940s. And I think the thirties and forties, it’s not when organic farming began, but it’s when it began as a movement. There’ve been people farming with the same techniques that you’re using here for literally 4,000 years that we know of in a sustainable way.
Eliot Coleman: If we pay attention to F.H. King’s Farmers For 40 Centuries, basically putting waste organic matter back into the soil was always the secret. Yes, the thought of what we now call organic really came out of, probably, the last 20 years of the 19th century. And one of the most interesting is a man named Robert Elliot who wrote a book about his farm. His farm was called Clifton Park, and it was entitled the Clifton Park System of Agriculture.
And basically, he was running what a researcher today would call a grass-based rotation, but he had land in grass grazed by his sheep and his cattle. And after four years of that, he would fill it up and grow wheat on it for a year and then beans on it for a year and then barley on it for a year ,and then put it back into grass. What the British at that time called Ley Farming, or also Alternate Husbandry, the fields alternated between building up fertility in the grass years and exploiting it during the cropping year.
I think he inspired an awful lot of people to look at agriculture differently because he, he was blatant. This was before anybody else was really complaining about chemicals, but he was say, “why use these things? You’re buying something that you can create by exploiting the direction in which nature wants to go anyway.”
And so his book inspired Sir George Stapledon who finally wrote a book entitled Ley Farming that, that described the techniques. And that’s basically what we’ve been doing. So we have part of the farm in grass-legume pasture with our chickens. And then the next year we’re exploiting that built up fertility with crops.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, so he might’ve said, “why did they do it?” But they certainly did do it, what we call chemical farming. And it’s now called “conventional” but it was certainly unconventional at one time. But now it is the convention. It’s become massively the norm in well, in North America and Europe and all over the world. Even in China where we have a history of 4,000 years of continuous intensive cultivation of food crops. Even now it’s become a chemical wasteland. And the Chinese friends I have say that people in the country are actually afraid to eat the food. It’s it’s so polluted, it’s so contaminated.
Eliot Coleman: I’m calling it chemical rather than conventional agriculture. I’m good with that.
And what people were fooled by was mainly by nitrogen and Scott Nearing used to tell me, he’d seen a guy doing an experiment with celery. And if you pour on liquid nitrogen fertilizer diluted properly, he said, you could see the celery plants grow. They were just absorbing it because they love growing in a moist ground. And you made that moist ground, extra fertile.
And so it was the drug effect of nitrogen that first sucked farmers in and some of them may have been influenced also, in the early days, when super phosphate became available. And that was really fascinating because before they had phosphate deposits, the phosphate companies would scour the European battlefields and collect bones and and treat them with acid to get the superphosphate. But what Robert Elliot and the other wise people were talking about was, “yes, you can get that drug effect, but just like drugs, it doesn’t continue.” And you blow out certain parts of your system that will otherwise be doing that naturally. Yeah.
Dave Chapman: Yes. You know, Jake Guest, one of my early teachers told me a story about when he was in the army and he was traveling back, and I think he lived in maybe the Near East or the Middle East. And he went to an area where chemical farming was relatively new and he talked to the people there and they said, “you know, they were very tricky about it. They’re very smart [the chemical companies]. They picked the very best farmers in the valley and they went to them and they said, ‘we’re going to give you this. We’re going to give you this seed. Yup. We’re going to give you this bag of fertilizer, try it and see what happens.'”
And of course they were the best farmers. They already had the best yields and their yields went up quite significantly. And everybody said, “okay, we’ll do that too.” And he said, three years later, the whole valley, the soil was completely burned out. It really couldn’t sustain that level of production. It was turbocharged but the soil, well, the life was gone.
Eliot Coleman: Back in the seventies, because I knew the benefit of going to the best farmers and getting them sucked down, I suggested to a charitable foundation that was asking me to advise them on organic farming, I said, “here’s the deal: go to any agricultural county in the country and ask everybody,e specially the extension service, who the best farmer is.”
It’s John. So go to John and say, “okay, John, here’s the deal: we want you to convert this farm to organic. We will lay out the whole thing, which rotation and how you’re going to put some fields into alfalfa and then move from them on. And while you’re doing that, we will subsidize your income. If you take any loss over what your average income has been, we will subsidize it for you. And at the end you will improve your soil, but there’s been no cost to you. Can’t lose.”
And I said, “since John is the best farmer in the County, he’s the best farmer. Cause it’s the best manager. And he’s going to manage an organic system as well as he’s been managing a chemical system. And everybody one day is going to wake him and said, my God, do you know what John did?” And it’s exactly that- only I wanted to turn it back around and use it against them.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, good. So let me, let me bring up another thing. Cause this is so confusing to people who don’t come from a farming background – and to some who do come from a farming background. A conversation that I had with Allan Savory recently – he said, “you know, using farming, organic farming, many civilizations have collapsed.”
And he used it as an example that organic farming alone, isn’t the answer. And I said, “yeah, because they weren’t very good organic farmers, organic farming is not the absence of chemicals. It grew as a movement in response to the ever increased use of, of chemicals in agriculture, but is actually much more to it than that.” And I said, “what about China? You know, there are other other civilizations. I just name [China] it as the most large-scale example that we know of, that we have a very clear written record of.” I said, “4,000 years, you know, they fed a very high population level.”
So could you speak about why organic farming is not just not using the chemical nitrogen or the, or the chemical pesticide?
Eliot Coleman: I have written about this, that the press defines organic by what it doesn’t do, because that seems unique. And it is unique if everybody else is doing it. To someone who isn’t doing it, it’s newsworthy. But my definition is what you’re after – to create a biologically active, fertile soil. Simple, but I’m defining it by what you do, your positive actions towards something, rather than your negative reaction against bad practices.
And that’s simply what it is you’re working with. The way nature wants to go anyway and creating a soil that will look after itself. That’s what we have here [at Four Season Farm]. I mean, it’s a poor topsoil we started with…this is amazing. And this started with, as I said, me bringing in some autumn leaf or leaf mold and a few things. And all of a sudden, the very first year we had this garden.
Dave Chapman: And it isn’t just that you had a garden, Eliot, you have food that is truly bursting with vitality. I mean, it’s delicious. I’m just speaking as somebody who has eaten your food, over a number of years. It’s delicious and it’s obviously attractive.
So I think that there is such a thing as organic-by-default; people who just will say, “I’m not using that [chemical].” And they end up with a product that is not so great. But to me, okay, that’s great, that’s the beginning. And for consumers, that’s right – they don’t want to eat poison. I applaud that, but there’s so much more there than just a lack of poison.
Eliot Coleman: Yeah. Well, the fact that for many people in the U S organic began as gardening, and that has confused everybody because the organic gardener is the one who was going and buying soybean meal, or buying bone meal. And that’s because Rodale’s organic gardening magazine, which we all read, was so inspirational. Those were its suggestions.
And these were gardening suggestions because no farmer can afford soybean meal and bone meal and those things. And so the idea never got through to the public that what the organic farmer was doing, as opposed to the organic gardener was operating on a totally different basis – and that he wasn’t depending on inputs. But yeah, you know, the two words “endogenous” and “exogenous”; endogenous means it’s coming from inside and exogenous means it’s coming from outside. And real organic farming is an endogenous system because you’re growing the waste organic matter that’s going back into the soil, and that’s continuing to make the system fertile -forever and ever.
Fred Kirschenmann especially agrees with me on this. Any system of farming that’s dependent on outside inputs is not sustainable. It isn’t going to last, and maybe you don’t run out of those inputs for a thousand years, but you are gonna run out. Or the price is finally going to get so hard and high that you can’t afford it.
And so the only system of agriculture that is going to feed human beings in perpetuity is one that is creating its fertility from the things you’re doing. And so, you know, behind you, there is a field with turnips and beets, and the beet leaves – if we’re harvesting the roots to put in the cellar – are going to go back into the soil there, and they’re going to be part of next year [‘s soil fertility].
I mean, I’m already fertilizing for next year, and I’m really only growing this year’s crops. And that’s why organic is a perpetually renewable system. And I speculate sometimes that the problem with that is that if we do this right, we’re not buying anything. And I don’t think maniacal capitalism gets very excited about producers who don’t buy anything and Mother Nature is providing our inputs. That makes us seriously subversive.
Dave Chapman: So let’s talk about being subversive. I feel like when we began and the organic movement began, [which was] before I was born. Organic farming began before America was born. I mean, you know, it’s been going on for a long time. But when I became an organic farmer and met I you at that gas station and was farming with my oxen and you became a great advisor, I didn’t consider what I was doing to be creating a movement of protest.
I considered it to be creating an alternative, okay, fair enough, an alternative to the existing system. And, you know, I’m not very adversarial. I wasn’t out there giving angry speeches about why people should eat organic food. I was so thrilled to be able to do something that I love to do and that I believed in, and that I felt was good for other people.
As we went along we tried to figure out how to make a living and how to raise a family and the things that we all do. And then I got into this situation about seven years ago, where we were encountering a political problem with organic, and we worked on reform and we’ll talk about that. And, and ultimately, you know, we really were trying to reform, which did involve protesting what was happening.
I actually feel like right now, we’re moving beyond protests and back to creating an alternative. But so what are your thoughts about protest, and what are your thoughts about the implications? Because as you say, there are very strong political implications to farming this way. And I’ve come to see them so much in the last seven years, but let me hear what you have to say.
Eliot Coleman: Well, I’ve always thought science should be inquiry. And when I got into organic farming, I’ve found that agricultural science was not inquiry. It was dogma. And there was an accepted – almost a religion – that had been taught at all the universities, every [univeristy] extension agent had bought into it.
Everybody I ran into at universities had bought into this and they were wrong. And so it becomes a little bit of a headbutt when you’re dealing with scientists who refuse to even begin to consider that what they’re teaching is not the God’s truth, which is what they have come to believe it is. And you know, if I’d been to college, I had a good education. I knew how science was proposed to proceed.
And it was antagonizing to these people when I explained to them that what they were doing was not science. It was a deviation of horticulture using drugs rather than the systems that they could be using. And it wasn’t that what they were saying that chemicals would do was wrong. It was that they were saying, that what I was doing was wrong and it wasn’t wrong. And, and the fact that you could never get them to come out to the farm and see it works.
I mean, after a while, you really wondered about the, the flaw in education that let people buy into a mistaken concept so thoroughly.
Dave Chapman: So I’d like to go back to that. But just to say, when you began as a farmer Eliot, it was a radical thing to be an organic farmer; in cultural terms, there was not respect. There was no market. There’s so much that we really take for granted now, including scientists who were actually very friendly to what we were doing back then.
I remember talking to Bill Leibhardt, who was, I think perhaps the first scientist at Rodale. And he came from that academy, I think he was at University of Maryland. And he said, “Yeah, when I took that job, people literally stopped talking to me. They would look the other way when they walked by me in the hallway. These are people who had been my friends.” I thought, wow. And he said, yeah, we can almost not imagine now, but it was hard back then. It was hard to leave that world.
Eliot Coleman: For them. I mean, for us, who’d never been in it [not so much]. You know, I had guides like Scott and Eric, who’d been doing this for 40 years. And all I had to do was walk into his garden. Holy cow, this was working. And so that was easy. And then we did have occasional academics, Stuart Hill being one. Stuart Hill was one of the first really brave professors from a major university to look at this and to read some of the books we were reading, and to come to the conclusion that we were on the right track.
Dave Chapman: I asked Stuart about that. I said, how did you do that? Did you get a whole lot of grief? And he said, “I just did better research and published more papers than everyone else.” Yeah. He said, it was the only way to not be an outcast was to just publish so many papers. So, yeah. But he was great.
Eliot Coleman: Your story about Lee Mart; I’ve talked to farmers in the Midwest who transitioned to organic farming, and they’d go into the the coffee shop in the morning and the other farmers wouldn’t talk to them because somehow they were undermining the truth. Yeah.
Dave Chapman: And so what is it that’s so threatening about that?
Eliot Coleman: People finding out that they’ve been wrong, I think is the hardest thing. In an article I read years ago, a woman named Lola Smith was writing about pesticides and she was writing about the difficulty of… if there is some professor at a university and he’s now in his sixties, close to retirement, and he has devoted his whole professional career to developing pesticides and encouraging the use of pesticides. For him to encounter me, what’s he going to admit that his whole life was wrong? Oh, no. He is going to fight tooth and nail to tell me that I’m ridiculous.
Yes. You were up against people who had devoted themselves to what was turning out to be an untruth. And that’s a very hard thing and that continues. Right?
Dave Chapman: But it feels to me that that the edges are fraying and there’s a different conversation going on. But I don’t know. I’m confused because I see two things happening. One is this almost subterranean – local, that’s a nice word – subterranean/ local economy of farmer’s markets and CSAs. And really you know urban farms that.. people are getting much closer to the people who are providing them with food and are asking different questions.
And at the same time, I see a thing in the supermarkets, which is where I sell most of what I grow, where fewer and fewer multinational corporations are owning more and more of the stores. I mean, it’s amazing, just in the time I’ve been doing this. And two of the major people that I sold to, two major chains are now owned by a Dutch multinational, and they own a third one down in Pennsylvania. So, the diversity in the marketplace has gone. And the suppliers – as Alan Lewis said last year – really for organic, we’re down to about two major suppliers for the whole country.
Eliot Coleman: Right. But that’s for industrial organic. We see none of that because we sell to a local clientele. We actually have a rule where we don’t go more than 25 miles from the farm, because we like the idea of feeding our neighbors. And so, the idea that people are limited to basically wholesalers?
The customers who come here to the farmstand every week, they come here because they’ve tasted the food; they wouldn’t go near the supermarket because they know it isn’t the same thing. And, you know, I haven’t preached to any of them. They’ve just tasted it, or noted the tenderness, or whatever it is. Everything about it is better.
Dave Chapman: Obviously the environmental impact of your farm is positive rather than negative. And it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful fields. It looks like professionally done quilt with these different colors here and there.
Eliot Coleman: I tell people that I have no artistic ability at all, but in agriculture, every spring, I get to start with this large brown canvas and decorate it with different shades of green. And that’s basically what’s going on.
And yeah, if as an organic farmer, I had to struggle and go to great lengths to make things work, you know, I might have a different attitude toward it. But I don’t, it works. It’s just amazing how well this works. If you’re paying attention to what makes the soil tick and how to make that go on.
It’s really interesting to me, what’s going on with the big farms nowadays. So you have Gabe Brown out there changing the way an awful lot of farmers operate. Not by telling them chemicals are bad, but by showing them how cover crops and green manures and crop rotations actually work.
And it just fascinates me because these [techniques] have been part of agriculture for 4,000 years. And they were definitely part of the conservation agriculture that came out of the thirties and all the work that the land people were doing and Louis Bromfield and all of them. But they finally managed to penetrate into the headspace of the big time producers.
And these are the same techniques we’re using and the fact that they aren’t, as we say “perfectionist” about it. They’ll still use a little herbicide here and there. I think they’re going to even eventually realize that’s not necessary. But that has been to me the most fascinating change because all of a sudden, we’re not afraid of biology and biology is what runs the natural world.
And you know, for years agriculture was bio-averse. Nobody wanted to even say that there were microorganisms in the soil because you were afraid they were gonna eat your carrot or something. But now everybody is celebrating the fact, you know, that there’s a soil microbiome… and the human microbiome. I mean, come on, this is, this is total change! We are celebrating the fact that we share the Earth with these million and million and billion little organisms.
Dave Chapman: Our mutual friend Will Brinton has said that basically the last 80 years of soil science and human nutrition have almost entirely supported the observations of Albert and Louise Howard. Yeah, and that they do have a more elaborate explanation for why things work. We’re learning more about the soil microbiome and the human microbiome, but [those observations] actually say: yeah, this was right. It’s a, that’s a beautiful thing. But at the same time
Eliot Coleman: Even though it was right, it was going against a major industrial and major money making system. And boy, when you’re up against that level of of power, it makes it a very difficult battle to win. And, you know, chemical agriculture has had the ability to get more propaganda out there.
I remember back when I started, they were running trials where they had a conventional – or chemical- acre and an organic acre field, side-by-side out in the Midwest. And on that [conventional/chemical acre] they did everything and used every chemical and every pesticide. And over here, they did nothing, just nothing, you know. Maybe spread a little manure and well, it was so blatantly prejudiced.
And yet they were presenting that as if this was proving something. I mean, you ran into enough of those things and you lost faith almost a hundred percent in what was passing at the time for agricultural science.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, I think that most civilians just don’t understand the enormity of the industrial complex that we’re dealing with here. I loved that when… I didn’t love it, but it was so interesting when Chellie Pingree spoke at the Thetford rally. And she said that the food industry spends I think $330 million a year lobbying to change the minds of people in Congress. And she said, “Remember that’s more than the defense industry!” Yeah, just to give you a sense of what we’re up against.
Eliot Coleman: Well, the fact Dave, that even though I think from everything I’ve read and the books in my library and books all over the place, that the quality of food and people’s diet is the key to human health and happiness.. it’s so undeniable. And yet the government still allows junk food to be created and sold everywhere.
And people are destroying their health with foods that the government refuses to condemn. And it’s so easy to condemn them because they’re filled with sugar and they’ve been processed to the point that they have no nutrition left. So you can make the bread blowup, fatter-looking or something? Come on, this is just…
Dave Chapman: Yeah, and it changes things. People get used to whatever they get used to. It changes the economy. This is something that I was talking with Mark Schatzker about earlier this week – wonderful interview. And he said that a five pound chicken back in 1948, I think cost about $4. And he said today, well…the last time he counted, it was about 2015 and that chicken would cost about $7; counting for inflation, that $4 would now be $30.
Eliot Coleman: Yeah. Which is why your organic chicken is about $30 because she’s actually having to do it right.
Dave Chapman: And because you can get a $7 chicken, people are outraged. It’s like, “Oh, you’re growing food for the rich!” When you want a $30 chicken, it’s “who can afford that?” Well, everybody afforded that in 1948. That’s what a chicken cost. And I really think that we lose track of that. We lose track of what food is worth, because it’s so undervalued because it’s actually worth much less. Yeah, it’s complicated.
Before we go a little bit more into, into protests, let’s talk about climate. That is something I think is relatively new in the organic conversation. I don’t think Albert Howard and Louise Howard were thinking about the impact of agriculture on climate back in 1940. What do you think about it now? Is that something that you have awareness of?
Eliot Coleman: Yes. I think the attention that was put on cattle was mistaken because as I tell people, you know, I have a nice pasture out behind the house. If I have a steer eating that grass and fattening up, and I butchered that steer, I’m not responsible for any additional CO2 because the steer is just recycling what the grass took out of the air.
And the fact that cattle are being just the shamed and blamed for all of that, I found that to be really poor thinking. It’s the the feedlot mentality that was responsible; where you’re growing grain in Iowa and shipping it to Idaho. And in Idaho you have a huge pile of manure there’s no use for? I mean, this is what’s destroying the world.
The only time I think about what this farm is contributing [carbon-wise] is when I put diesel in my tractor, I am participating in that. What allows me to not feel bad about it is that I know that I could get a horse and be using it for the same soil preparation that the tractor is doing.
Because I thoroughly believe that organic matter helps make soil more fertile if it’s mixed into the top three or four inches. And so, that’s exactly what I do with the waste organic matter. Other than that well, we cleared this from the forest, so I did cut down all those trees. And some of them we sold, they became pulp; others we burned for firewood and others we just burned to get rid of. So I guess that is a contribution, but since then, it’s been growing grass and plants and making a contribution to human survival.
Dave Chapman: I can say having just walked around the farm, I saw almost no bare soil. And so you are managing the land very carefully. You are keeping something growing all the time. The land is green. It makes sense, of course it does. But it requires skillful management to achieve that.
Eliot Coleman: Right. We are actually investigating the use of fewer and fewer different green manures to see if we can get our green manures down to ones that we can easily save the seed from. And you know, whether it’s the buckwheat I let grow until it’s almost mature, mow it with my scythe, and you know, beat the seeds out – that’s my seeds next year. So I don’t even have to bring that in.
And rye is the easiest because it’s so easy to save seed from rye. But yeah, we’re, I won’t say maniacal, but we’re fascinated by doing everything as perfectly as we can. And so we’re looking at things I’m quite sure most farmers would totally ignore. What’s wrong with written agreement or assays, but I’m just curious about how self-contained we can be. I would like to have an electric tractor, but then I’m not convinced that all the energy that goes into solar panels or into a windmill is ever truly recovered by the power that’s made by that thing.
And if worst came to worst, I still have my spade and my fork and we could still eat very well with hand work. In fact, very often I’ve designed small cultivating tractors and stuff and looked at the ones that are being made and decided against it because basically the hand work we’re doing is perfectly adequate. And it’s pleasant work to do.
So, I wanted to make something that would allow us to put transplants in, but I got thinking about it. It was…that may cut the time in half, but that’s actually pleasant time. You know, you’re making a hole and tucking these little guys in. Yeah, we tend to celebrate the joys of human hand work.
Dave Chapman: Well, I think there’s a few places I might want to go back, but let’s step up to the last seven years. So about seven years ago, I discovered a lot of hydroponic tomatoes getting sold with an organic seal.
Eliot Coleman: You were the one who alerted us all to that. None of us had any idea that these guys had snuck in there. In fact, I remember back about that time someone asking me about hydroponics and I said, “Oh, organic hydroponics? Well, that’s ridiculous. There’s no way those guys could qualify.” And here they had qualified by bribing the USDA, by basically buying their way in.
Dave Chapman: We asked a number of soil scientists about it, and one of them was Bill Leibhardt He was great. I said, “Well, Bill, why wouldn’t that be organic?” And he was just sputtering.
Eliot Coleman: Well, it just couldn’t be…
Dave Chapman: It was, it was really funny… but I’ve gotten a lot of very eloquent explanations for that. An eloquence that I didn’t have. People who knew a lot and had really great explanations and it all made sense to me, but…
Eliot Coleman: Just from the point of view of sustainability alone.. I put a seed in the soil. All I need is the seed. My God, you, you need to pumps and filters and specially-made solutions and a floating… this is… The idea that it makes any connection at all to sustainability. And those guys are even using the word sustainable! That’s the…and they’re not just using it, they’re claiming it.
Dave Chapman: [Claiming] that they are more sustainable. It’s quite an impressive example of greenwashing, you know, the walls of lettuce like Plenty, the aeroponics, which are very popular for urban farms. That they are going to save us. If the power goes out, the plants all die within 15 minutes! Dead. And you know, they, they can’t function for 15 minutes without, without full electrical grid. So it’s, it’s just, it’s just crazy talk.
But that is the challenge of what we face. I look at the regenerative movement, which is great and you know, there are a lot of great people like Gabe Brown, who is trying to say, “Look at this great way of farming.” And as you say, it’s pretty much organic, but it is great. And if they want to call it regenerative, great.
But I just read yesterday that Dannon yogurt has embraced regenerative, right? General Mills has sworn they’re taking a million acres regenerative. That’s a million acres of glyphosate. Yup, yup. Right? So it’s an undefined word. That means whatever the marketing person wants it to mean. It’s going to be even easier for them to take over than it was for them to take over organic.
So I think that this issue is a real one, because as you said, it is important. Organic farming is something that’s actually important. People are so disconnected from food and what they’re eating and what it tastes like. And that’s a problem – that the unintended consequences are so profound, the health consequences, the climate consequences, the social consequences. We’re being colonized. You know, I really think that’s true.
And we don’t even have to say that these are evil people. They’re just, we’re just capitalists. They’re trying to make a buck. But it’s the smart thing to do, to take a label if you can. And they can. So when we discovered seven years ago that that hydroponic stuff was being certified. And I talked with Davey – Davey Miskell, and we thought, “well, this got resolved in 2010 when the National Organic Standards Board said, no hydroponic cannot be organic.”
And we thought it was finally resolved and over. There’d never been much hydroponic being certified, but good, let’s be done with that. All of a sudden there’s a great deal being certified. And so that was the beginning of Keep The Soil In Organic, which ultimately grew into the Real Organic Project.
And we had our first rally. And so, we did become a protest movement. At Stowe, Vermont at a National Organic Standards Board meeting – the USDA Advisory Board meeting. And you came to that rally. Could you describe that?
Eliot Coleman: Well, I loved it, Dave. Because the podium for the speakers was a pile of compost that a neighboring farmer had brought in his bucket and put there. So we had all the things that should attract the press. And it did. I mean, we, we were able to do a March down the highway with tractors and everything. The thing I loved as an old sixties hippie, is that the police were there holding up traffic rather than arresting us for doing bad things. They were very supportive.
Dave Chapman: And we did get support from most of the National Organic Standards Board. But it was obvious that there were members of that that had been put on there specifically to undermine the truth. But that was, that was a fun rally. And it led to all the other rallies.
We were just a step ahead of ourselves there. I think we did get an Associated Press article and that of course went far and wide. So, it was small, there were only 50 farmers there, and it was pretty fun, wasn’t it? We created that out of nothing. I mean, I didn’t create it. Pete Johnson thought of it two days before it happened.
Eliot Coleman: Oh, no kidding.
Dave Chapman: We said, good idea, Pete. Let’s call some farmers. And we did, and I happened to have some signs and t-shirts, and so we brought those.
Eliot Coleman: I drove over to the minute I heard about it and I said, “yeah, I want to be part of this.”
Dave Chapman: That’s right. You did Jim Gerritsen drove over. Yeah, it was really a kind of joyous event. And, you know, we almost won that day. Amazingly the Organic Trade Association met with me at that meeting and said, “okay, let’s fix this.” And I think they meant it, but they didn’t know that Driscoll’s was hydroponic.
And that was the game changer. They’re 70% of the organic berries in America, Driscoll’s. And they’re also the majority of conventional chemical berries. So they have a huge shadow that they cast. And I think that’s why we lost once to the USDA. Once the [Organic] Trade Association figured out that the people who were paying their salaries were actually on the wrong side. Boy, did they shut up, yeah.
Yeah, I mean, they’re lobbyists, that’s what they’re paid to do. They’re paid to lobby for their clients. It’s not personal, buy you know, the whole thing, we were so good that day and yet I was aware of it the whole time. And I think other people were aware that we didn’t stand the chance.
Well, if it hadn’t been for Driscoll’s, I think we did stand a chance, but..but we didn’t. We didn’t know it, cause nobody knew at the OTA didn’t know. I didn’t.. nobody knew about Driscoll’s [growing hydroponically]. I didn’t find that out for half a year. And when I was on the USDA Task Force and three weeks before the end of six months of work, we got a case study from Driscoll’s. And I was asking the woman who presented the case study, how many acres?
And I kept going, you know, 50? “No more.” And you know, a 100? “No, more.” 500? “More.” A thousand acres of hydroponic? “More.” And Eliot, like an idiot, I stopped asking. Cause I was..I was so stunned. We didn’t have any idea that berries were even part of the mix. We thought it was all tomatoes.
And then finding that raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries are all part of the mix. And of course now peppers and lots of greens. And on a scale that their own lobbyists, the hydro lobbyists, said it was over a billion dollars in sales. And he said that in two articles that that’s a huge, huge number. So I just want to budget.
Eliot Coleman: So the question is, have we ever learned when that exactly began? I remember somebody telling me that the guys in Oregon Tilth were the first people to certify a hydro operation.
Dave Chapman: Well, Tilth and CCOF were doing it quite early, but, you know, as one inspector said, “we would go and inspect a greenhouse and they’re growing tomatoes in the soil. And we went the next year and there are these huge bags of compost, they’re growing their tomatoes in the huge bags. And then we went the next year and the bags got smaller and smaller.” It just..it wasn’t that they walked out and suddenly certified, you know, a 40 acre Wholesum Harvest operation. It was very casual.
I did ask the person who presented the case study about Driscoll’s since she knew all about it. And I said, “were they doing this in 2010 when the recommendation was made?” and she went “no, it’s more recent. It’s the last, last two or three years.” So it was very recent, but it very profitable.
And they discovered they could make a lot more money doing it hydroponically. And that is why we lost that fight in the regulations. But the next year we had another rally, much bigger. And Senator Leahy, he spoke, well… you spoke. So tell me about that – what was that like?
Eliot Coleman: Well, that was wonderful. Mainly I got to see all my old buddies in Vermont because Jake [Guest] spoke. And I even drove [Senator] Chellie [Pingree] over to that cause she was here in Maine. We flexed our muscle, but it turned out that it didn’t make the damnedest difference.
I mean, when we had [Senator Patrick] Leahy on our side, fully on our side, speaking at this conference – and he was the original one behind getting the organic standards done – and he wrote the USDA and they just ignored him. He wrote the USDA letter calling on [Secretary of Agriculture, Tom] Vilsack to implement a moratorium on any new certification until we could work this out. And Vilsack refused.
And three weeks after Senator Leahy sent that letter. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics was formed because we were making progress and they realized that they were in trouble. They got scared. And so they started to really pump some lobbying money into the effort.
Dave Chapman: So I won’t say that we’ve lost. Well, we’ll talk about that. So, there were a number of rallies the next year. I think something like 17 rallies across the country. Some big, some little. You spoke in Vermont again at the Burlington rally. Yeah. You, you did a lot of traveling for the cause Eliot.
Eliot Coleman: Yep. Yeah, that was fun. We had the conga line drumming.
Dave Chapman: Yeah. Getting the rally, leading the march, and and we ultimately ended up in Florida. So could you talk about Jacksonville? Cause you went down to that too.
Eliot Coleman: Yeah, well it was almost our last chance because there was a vote that was going to be held. And I thought all of the people on our side spoke eloquently and yet, the scales had been tipped against us by putting enough bad guys on the NOSB that it didn’t make any difference.
So eloquent, but it was stacked against us. And that was so completely frustrating. And I was surprised by the people I ran into there, people who I thought would have been on the the right side of this because you were handing out these Protect Organic t-shirts and I had one on and I went and modified it. I got the desk clerk to give me an envelope and I wrote on it “From the OTA” [Organic Trade Association] and I taped it on under there, “Protect Organic From the OTA” and people who I would have thought were interested in protecting organic, came up and got really mad at me for suggesting that the OTA was on the wrong side of this.
And I mean, you know, I’m pretty confrontational. I said, “you’ve really lost it, haven’t you? What are you.. when did you get bought out?” You know, “when did you decide you’re going to trade your integrity for the almighty dollar?” I wasn’t nice any of these people, but it was surprising how many of the old timers, not old time farmers, old time bureaucrats were totally into the organic thing getting taken over by hydroponics.
Yeah. So I think that the issue that I see – and it’s, it’s an important thing to talk about – is there is the organic movement, and there is the organic industry. And the movement has wanted to build up a brand that it wanted more people to buy. Organic has wanted organic farming to expand. And in that we are completely in alignment with the organic industry, the organic trade, the processors and, and the stores. And you know, the retailers that we all agree, we want that to happen.
Dave Chapman: We want to see more organic farming and we want to see you know, more people choosing to buy organic. But I think the division has come that the trade doesn’t want anybody in the family to criticize, you know, what’s going on.
And, and until fairly recently, a great many organic farmers agreed with that. They said, you know, we have problems. We gotta clean this up, we’ve got to fight for a farm. And we are fighting for a forum. And a lot of the NGOs who support organic, they were fighting for a forum. I had no idea, but they go to all these meetings, but… that was when we came to that question: should we speak up and talk about what’s happening? Or should we remain silent?
And clearly, many of the farmers have said we can’t remain silent. And now many of the organic advocates, the bureaucrats, the people who work for nonprofits also are saying, you know what? It it’s reached a point. We can’t remain silent.
Eliot Coleman: What we got though, was we got more food on the shelves certified as organic, but we didn’t get more organic farming. And the thing that has always motivated me is the way we farm. I don’t look at it as a way of producing food. I look at it as the way, if we’re going to feed mankind into the future.
And these supposedly organic, these CAFOs who are cashing in on the value that the old hippies created with their integrity – and really the old hippies created this integrity. People came to believe that, and the customers aren’t getting that now. And the development isn’t proceeding at the rate it would proceed if this fake stuff wasn’t there, you know, sucking up all the business.
If in order to have all these organic strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, you had to be doing it right, we would be learning more every minute about how to do it. Right? And we should be learning. I mean, after 55 years, I’m still learning how to do it. Because I’m interested in meticulously improving everything we do.
But yeah, I mean, if you get me off on what Real Organic is you know, I’m weird enough to think Real Organic is a no input system. Is this truly an endogenous agriculture I’m talking about? And so you know, all these people buying some truckloads of industrial compost from God knows what sources, I haven’t vocally condemned them, but I don’t look upon that as any more organic than bringing in inputs to any other thing.
Dave Chapman: So that’s another huge conversation that I I’d probably save for another podcast, because it is an important conversation.
Eliot Coleman: Let me finish up. It’s going to be a better conversation if I live for another 10 years, because I will be able to tell you how we have been able to make this farm totally free from any inputs through better understanding of green manures, and how they fit into a crop rotations and which green manure proceeds which crop.
There is so much to be learned there. From the point of view on a grain farm, there’s not much to be learned because you’re only growing one crop; you’re growing beans, alternating. But we grow 55 different vegetables so there’s a lot to be learned here.
Dave Chapman: One thing that you said a minute earlier, that I would disagree with, is that there isn’t more organic farming. I think there is more organic farming. I think it’s continuing to expand. There are a lot of young people getting into it. And from that perspective, I would say the National Organic Program hasn’t been an unvarnished disaster. It has brought money into supporting organic and helping to develop markets. The markets mostly developed themselves because people want an alternative to the chemical agriculture. I believe that’s true.
Eliot Coleman: I’m going to correct you again.
Dave Chapman: Okay, good.
Eliot Coleman: There are more organic farmers, but there isn’t more organic farming. If we look at acreage, because the acreage is all in the guys who are using very suspicious soluble inputs on millions of acres in California, then yes. The numbers of organic farmers, all usually on a small scale like we are, are growing, but the acreage, I think the acreage has been taken over from organic, as well.
Dave Chapman: And of course we’re losing organic acreage now as the organic dairies go out and you know, that to me, the loss of the organic dairy farms – and they’re, they’re dying like flies now.
Eliot Coleman: Yeah. And that’s a perfect example of that chicken that oughta cost $30 and that in 1948 people were willing to pay that much for that chicken. And if you say, “well, yeah, but you can get a chicken that’s certified organic for $7.” Then it looks kind of outrageous to charge what that chicken actually is worth.
And I think that when we see the big CAFOs coming in and flooding the market with cheap milk, and if over half of the milk is coming from CAFOs and people say, “well, it’s not the CAFO, it’s [the competition from] almond milk.” I say, no; if you eliminate that CAFO milk from the market, the price goes up.
And the number of real organic farmers will expand fairly dramatically, fairly quickly. Those guys in Maine – The MilkHouse, they are cooking. Boy, these guys fight. They actually have ads on the radio. I mean, I’m impressed. This is a smart couple over there. Andy and Caitlin are fantastic. They’re real. They’re real stars.
Dave Chapman: I agree. I mean, that’s what any business has to do when the world is creating difficulties for you to continue ,like a has been created for the organic dairies. You have to just double down and work harder and get smarter.
Well, one of the things that we have to do that we didn’t have to do at first is, is to fight about the word organic. And I will say that many people say, “Oh, let’s just leave it. We’ll call it… we’ll call ourselves agro ecological, or some kind of regenerative.”
And, you know, I use this analogy: it’s as if we built a swing set in the playground with our own hands, and then some bully named Moe comes along and knocks us off the swing set and says “I’m going to take it now.” And yes, we can go and build another swing set somewhere else. But, we built that swingset.
Eliot Colelman: Oh, I agree.
Dave Chapman: And I’m willing to say no. No because it’s important. It is important. What we do, we sell you food as medicine and we sell good medicine. Right? And agriculture does affect climate and we help the climate. So, I think it’s worth fighting for, because we have built a huge market and people are right to say I” want to have an alternative to that chemical agriculture.” It’s just…it’s our job to make sure that they get what it is that they hope for.
Eliot Colelman: Well, that’s why the sign at the end of our driveway says “Real Organic” and it says “Guaranteed Real Organic” and the black helicopters haven’t arrived yet, Dave. So thus far, I’m not of to jail yet. I’m getting away with it.
I’m just as belligerent as anybody on that; that the old hippies created that word. And even before there was such a thing as hippies, wonderful people who I am old enough to be fortunate to have met back in the seventies, like a Lady Eve [Balfour], and the other real pioneers. Yeah, now we’re just continuing to defend the efforts that they made.
And it’s, it’s worth it. But despite all of that, I get to look every day at the fact that it works. It really works. I mean, we’re talking mindblowing, you walk out here… and I can find some article, not as many now, but there used to be a lot about how organic is foolish and will never feed the world. Well, then again, we’re feeding the world or at least our little part of it here.
Dave Chapman: Well, our challenge, and one of the reasons we don’t see those articles Eliot, is that the major companies of conventional agriculture are also the major companies behind certified organic agriculture. They’re the same. General Mills is the big one in both schools. It’s the big one in both. And so tell me, do you think that the Real Organic Project is important?
Eliot Coleman: Oh, absolutely. I think just the fact that we didn’t roll over and and give up when that happened. And even though I don’t think we have a snowball’s chance in hell of prevailing, just the fact that we are here raising hell is is what’s incredibly important.
Dave Chapman: Yeah. I once said to something about being a leader and you said, “hell, I’m not a leader. I’m just a nose thumb.”
Eliot Coleman: Yeah. Well, Dave, to me though, it’s nice to know that there are still places like this farm that are continuing to investigate ways to grow better and better food, healthier and healthier food. I mean, we use no pesticides. You know, there’s some occasional bug, but nothing that would ever maybe warrant spray, even if I did want to spray.
And just the fact that we are demonstrating on a daily basis, that this level of agriculture works. It makes it a lot harder for the nozzle heads that defend what they’re doing, because wait a minute, why are you using pesticides when people are showing that they’re absolutely unnecessary? And I wrote about this. I said, you know, back when I started, we didn’t know anything. And you know, Rachel Carson was getting hammered by the bad guys for what she’d said.
But as I said, what I became aware of was that before DDT, the leading pesticide was a combination of lead and arsenic called Lead Arsenate. Now what species is stupid enough to have countenanced spreading lead and arsenic on people’s food? And when you think about it that way, you say, “Oh my God, somebody really sold the world on the fear of insects to the point that they would allow something like that to happen.” And so, you know, long before I was aware of anything and was born in ’38, that was on the food I grew up eating. That was.. that’s just horrifying.
Dave Chapman: Well, hopefully we will do better Eliot.
Eliot Coleman: Well, we are doing better, you know, and I really should stay around here. Because in this little world, the people I know? We’re eating this good food and they’re intelligent enough to realize that it is making a difference in their health. I mean, we get comments all the time.
I talk to the customers, especially now that they have to stand in line a long time because of COVID. There’s only six people at a time in the farmstand and they know why they’re here. And it it’s flavor, but it’s also because they understand the quality. And there is a connection between flavor and nutritional value, because flavor indicates the food is put together correctly. And that’s what you want if you want nutritional value.
Dave Chapman: So one last question, and I’ll make sure this one’s a complicated one. We’ve talked about it a lot of times; I want to talk just briefly about scale. Obviously you have chosen small is beautiful.
Eliot Coleman: I didn’t choose it. You know, it’s taken so much time and energy to turn two acres of what we started with into land that will grow these amazing crops. And you know, I’m not gonna live long enough to have 20 acres like that on this spot. If I moved somewhere else, that’s fine. But to me, the fact that we were able to grow exceptional food on the most and promising to begin with a place in the world the world’s never going to starve. If we do it here, you could do it anywhere. Yeah. So we’re on this scale just because of the reality of trying to create more good fertile soil on this particular spot.
Dave Chapman: I think it’s a very good scale. I will even make a value judgment and say I think it’s the best scale, but I think that there’s farming all over the world of many scales. And I think, I guess my question for you is: can it be done correctly on a large scale?
Eliot Coleman: Farming? Yes. Yes. One of the best large-scale organic farms in the world is about an hour West of Heathrow in England. And it’s run by an ex race car driver named Jody Scheckter and the reason it’s so good – it’s 2,000 acres – is because he has a passion for quality. And it’s the passion of the farmer that determines the quality of the results. And if everybody on 2,000 or 5,000 acres had the same passion for quality that Jody Scheckter has, you would see exceptional, large farms everywhere. And to me, it’s just fascinating to see somebody on his 2,000 acres that has this total passion for quality that I have here. And he makes it work on that scale. But it’s..it’s the farmers mind. Yeah.
Dave Chapman: The farmer’s mind and the farmer’s footsteps. Yeah. Alright. So Eliot Coleman, thank you so much.
Eliot Coleman: Thank you for coming by Dave. This has been great.
This was wonderful to come and see your farm again. In the age of COVID I don’t get out much, but it was great to come here.
Eliot Coleman: Yeah. Well, we’re going to go inside and eat an exceptional dinner, so let’s do that.