Eliot Coleman will be one of the keynote speakers at the Real Organic Project symposium at Dartmouth on April 3 & 4. In 2019, ROP Associate Director Linley Dixon visited Eliot and Barbara Damrosch at their farm in Maine. Above is her her great interview with Eliot in his library. When we suggested that Eliot might give us something to send out with this video interview, he sent along his essay on his “agricultural grandparents” – the many men and women whose writings have helped to shape his understanding of organic farming. You can read that article below.

My Agricultural Grandparents by Eliot Coleman

It is not uncommon for farmers to talk about the influence their grandparents had
on their farming education and their eventual success in agriculture. I am no different. But
my story comes with a unique twist. My paternal grandfather, Leander Walter Townsend
Coleman, was born in 1868 but was not a farmer. Unfortunately for me, the Coleman
family association with farming on the family land had ended three generations before
Leander’s birth. So, the grandparents I am about to acknowledge are not related to me by
blood. And, although they are long deceased like Leander, they reside on my farm and I
consult them on a daily basis. My farming grandparents are old books and the people
who wrote them. They live on the shelves in my library and I am indebted to them. I call
them grandparents because all these books were published during Leander’s lifetime.
The farming techniques they convey were understood when he was born, were practiced
during the early years of his life, and were as successful then as they are now.

young eliot coleman asparagus

I became acquainted with my agricultural grandparents shortly after starting my
farming career. I have a passion for learning where ideas originate and how they
develop. I spent long evenings in the dusty agricultural stacks of many libraries. Dogged
research into old periodicals and old books slowly gave me access to more and more of
these delightful predecessors and their writings. These literary grandparents introduced
me to the age-old truths of agriculture. They gave me insight into how successfully and
how rationally food was produced before modern agricultural science started to tell us
that it couldn’t be done that way. These grandparents prepared me both practically and
philosophically for the world of farming I was about to enter.

One of the first I got to know was Stephen Alfred Forbes, once head of the Illinois
State Lab of Natural History. In 1880 he published a pamphlet in entitled “On Some
Interactions of Organisms.” Forbes provided me with philosophical assurance that the
solution to agricultural problems is not difficult. It simply involves learning how natural
systems work so that we will know how to cooperate with natural forces rather than
attempting to ignore them or control them with chemicals. Forbes wrote:

“From the consequent human interferences with the established nature of things,
numerous disturbances arise… We must study the methods by which nature reduces
these disturbances, and learn how to second her efforts to our own best advantage…
By far the most important general conclusion we have reached is a conviction of the
general beneficence of Nature, a profound respect for the natural order, and a belief
that the part of wisdom is essentially that of practical conservatism in dealing with the
system of things by which we are surrounded.”

young eliot coleman chops wood

young eliot coleman raspberry

young eliot coleman barbara damrosch

An extensive school of what I might call ecological agriculture existed in the 19 th
century along the lines expressed by Forbes. Its principal interests were, first,
understanding the functioning of the biological world, second, getting to the cause of the
problems arising from “human interferences with the established nature of things,” and,
third, learning to modify agricultural practices in order to work within natural laws.
Farming was not conceived of as a war but rather as a diplomacy of biological co-
operation, a nurturing rather than a roughshod trampling.

Not all my grandparents wrote in English. There is also a French grandfather,
Vincent Gressent, on the shelf. He was fully involved in the practical aspects of vegetable
production. During the 19 th century some of the most successful market gardening ever
known was taking place within the city limits of Paris, powered by composted horse
manure from the city stables. When I came across Gressent’s book, Le Potager
, first published in 1864, it supplemented Stephen Forbes philosophical
reassurances with the practical experience of a fellow grower. As Gressent wrote at that
time; “For vegetable growing chemical fertilizers don’t do all that one wants: they
stimulate the plant and produce quantity, but to the detriment of quality . . . insect pests
only attack weak, sickly plant specimens lacking proper nutrition . . . In proof of this I offer the market gardens of Paris where vegetable growing has reached perfection . . . One
does not see pest problems in Parisian market gardens wherever copious compost use
and rational crop rotations are practiced by the growers.”

eliot coleman constructs cold frames in his maine market garden

Constructing cold frames.

By the end of the 19 th century the increasing urbanization of Paris had forced the
Parisian market gardeners to move to less valuable land outside the city and a classic
horticultural model was displaced. Around that same moment in time (1898) an English
grandfather, Robert Elliot, wrote a book entitled Agricultural Changes. Elliot had
successfully demonstrated on his farm how perpetual soil fertility could be maintained by
alternating four years of rotationally grazed grass/legume pastures with four years of
annual crops such as grains, beans and vegetables. The extensive organic matter from
the roots of the tilled under pasture plants provides ideal growing conditions for the
annual crops plus soil structure to protect against erosion. Elliot’s biographer wrote that
Elliot had (and I find this phrase delightfully English) a “robust aversion to purchasing
anything he might be able to produce more cheaply for himself.” (But then that’s a
valuable policy for any farmer.) “Elliot therefore set out to devise a system which would
be as farm generated as possible in respect to fertility.” At our farm we share Elliot’s
robust aversion. We use the very same system he advocated because it is unbelievably
productive, efficient, and thrifty.

Operating in that same spirit is a second American grandfather, Cyril Hopkins,
Professor of Agronomy at the University of Illinois and director of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station. In his 1910 book, Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture, Hopkins
emphasized that soil fertility was not something the farmer had to purchase but rather
was a bi-product of intelligent farming techniques. It is hard to imagine an extension
pamphlet today that would state as Hopkins did, “The real question is, shall the farmer
pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy
nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million
pounds of free nitrogen?” Hopkins wrote numerous experiment station bulletins like that
encouraging farmers to realize that no salesman was going to tell them about green
manures, cover crops, crop rotation, legumes, incorporating livestock, and so forth
because they were management practices that did not have to be purchased.

Cyril Hopkins

Cyril Hopkins

The efforts of Cyril Hopkins serve as a metaphor for independent truths up against
advertising and a sales blitz that tries to pretend the truths don’t exist. The result of a
century of fertilizer salesmanship is that no one today remembers Cyril Hopkins. The soil
fertility truths that he championed, although they were understood for generations, have
been forgotten so long that they are regarded by agricultural science today as some sort
of revolutionary heresy.

A grandmother needs to be mentioned here. Maye Emily Bruce wrote a little
volume in the early days of the organic movement in England entitled From Vegetable
Waste to Fertile Soil
(1940) that has long had an honored place on my bookshelf. Maye
Bruce wrote some of the movement’s earliest instructions on compost making and
conducted experiments and devised herbal stimulants to make composting a faster and
more dependable process.

Maye Ellen Bruce at work

Maye Ellen Bruce

And then there is Selman Waksman, a professor at Rutgers and a leading
authority on soil microbiology. His 1931 book, The Soil and the Microbe, helped explain
why Maye Bruce’s compost was so important to soil fertility. Waksman wrote, “By reason
of the fact that microorganisms do not occur in the same abundance in all soils and that
they are generally favored by conditions that lead to best plant growth, there exists a
close relationship between the biological activity of soils and soil fertility.” The microbes
that feast on soil organic matter in the plant micro-biome and the inhabitants of the
human micro-biome are in a partnership which is gaining in respect every day and
coming to be seen as the new frontier of health.

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman

Another grandmother is Lady Eve Balfour, born in 1898. Lady Eve was a major
force behind the development and popularization of organic farming in England. Her 1943
book, The Living Soil, was one of the earliest expositions of the organic philosophy and the thinking behind organic farming. She was also influential in expanding the early organic movement in the US thanks to a number of promotional tours she engaged in during the 1950s. Back in the late 1970s I organized a number of tours in the other direction to show American farmers the high level of expertise among organic farmers in Europe. Most of the early hippie farmers on those tours were pretty left wing and certainly non-fancy. One night in England we were all sitting around a pub drinking Guiness and talking with our British hosts. Lady Eve joined our table and right away I could tell the group was impressed that she could knock back the Guiness as fast as we could while simultaneously demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of organic farming. After she moved on to another table one of the old leftist hippies turned to me and said, “Damn, if that’s the aristocracy I think there should be more of them.”

lady eve balfour and friends

Lady Eve Balfour and friends.

Another important grandfather is Leonard Wickenden, a past president of the
American Chemical Society, who became enthusiastically involved in organic growing
after he retired from his career as a chemist. He used his scientific background to defend
and refine the organic concepts that worked so well for him in his garden. In his 1954
book, Gardening With Nature, he explained the most basic rule for success

“Let your aim be to feed your soil – not your plants. The modern method of using the soil as an inert medium for conveying plant food to the crop is grossly unscientific. Feed the soil and it will convey well-balanced food to the crops in a steady stream throughout the growing season. There will be no brief stimulation of the plant . . . but a process of day by day nourishment which will produce sturdy vigor in the crop.”

A final influence is another grandmother, Dalziel O’Brien, whose 1956 book,
Intensive Gardening, described her incredibly productive organic market garden. Her
innovative techniques would make her as much a pioneer today as she was back then.
“We are not out to convince anyone of the truth of the discoveries we have made of the
way the soil transforms itself in three years using our methods, for we are confident
ourselves that time will do that for us… When we describe how something should be
done, we have done it that way and made a profit out of it.”

The important fact from my experience, after 50 years of practicing what my
grandparents have taught me, is that classical organic farming works and it works far
better than most people can imagine. These concepts have successfully fed mankind for
4000 years, a fact that another grandfather on my list, Franklin Hiram King, expressed so
eloquently in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. King pointed out that the
obvious answer to maintaining agricultural production in perpetuity is written on the soil of farms all around the world where the importance of feeding the soil is recognized.