A Visit from Maine’s Organic Gardening Guru, Eliot Coleman – The Atlantic Monthly
Yale’s Timothy Dwight common room is packed. The room quiets down, and a couple hundred Ivy affiliates surrender their ears … to a farmer.
The man, the farmer, the legend, is Eliot Coleman, educator, advocate of Four Seasons Farming (a year-round farming philosophy of his own creation), and author of several seminal books on organic farming. For nearly 40 years, Coleman has championed the organic farming cause, testing his methods on one and a half acres of the very successful Four Seasons Farm, on his property in Maine.
Coleman began by explaining that it was his taste for adventure that got him into farming. In his mid-twenties, Coleman was hiking, trekking, and climbing mountains, hauling a 90-pound bag of gear, venturing into nature for three or four weeks at a time: “It was a heck of a lot harder than farming,” he said. Coleman defines farming as a socially responsible adventure; the best adventure he has had so far, with the decades of dedication to the cause a hard-hitting testament to that fact.
In addition to farming and adventure, Coleman loves reading—a combination that birthed the success of his farming practice. Coleman briefed us on his story: he was a “kid from New Jersey” who started out at Williams College as a geology major, ending up with a master’s in Spanish literature, with absolutely no background in agriculture. Apart from having a sense of adventure, and paying attention to the systems already present in nature (a skill that he learned while hiking and mountain-climbing), Coleman got started in agriculture by reading old gardening books from the 1800s, to learn how people grew crops before pesticides and fertilizer. “I’m a Jeffersonian farmer,” Coleman said, “I read things.” What he learned, apparently, is alarmingly simple: You just have to grow them correctly.
Coleman explained that he utilizes a system of crop rotations based on regular soil amendments, and he uses the presence of pests to gauge if he is growing correctly: “Pests are the best Professors of Agriculture,” he said. He began to wax lyrical about nature, the force that is his second love (after his longtime wife, Barbara Damrosch, a renowned horticulturalist and author, who was seated in the front row).
“Nature is the most elegantly designed system,” Coleman said, going on to propose his theory that nature’s “flaws” are actually in man’s understanding of nature, not in nature herself. I began to get a sense of the greater mythology that governs Coleman’s practice. It seemed that if only we work with nature, instead of trying to control her, then we, too, could match the success of Coleman’s approach. “This mountain doesn’t have a top!” he exclaimed, reminding us that there is always more to learn.
Coleman segued to the heart of his story: He told us that he turned part of his 40 acres of rocky, woody land, with an initial soil pH of 4.3, in the harsh conditions of Maine, into a 1½ acre farm that yields $120,000 worth of produce a year. “Of course organic farming can feed the world,” Coleman said. The audience was dumbstruck; it was almost as if Coleman was responding to that feeling in the room when he said, “The word ‘impossible’ scares people off of things that if they tried, they’d realize weren’t so impossible.”
The Q&A session at the end of the event was a garden of anecdotes, advice, and quotations, dominated by the farmers and gardeners in the audience, asking for farming advice—after all, Coleman must be doing something right. The advice was sound, and simple: Rotate crops and livestock. Compost is the world’s best fertilizer. In fact, don’t use chemicals for anything: Chemicals result in deranged plants, the same way eating Twinkies results in deranged humans. Spinach, mache, corn salad, and claytonia (or “miner’s lettuce”) are the best crops for a winter hoophouse; also try asian greens, such as tatsoi and mizuna, or maybe even watercress or globe artichokes. If you don’t have time to save your own seed, existing seed houses—such as Johnny’s, FedCo, and Territorial—are doing a wonderful job.
Then there was the more eccentric advice. Problem with deer? Coleman recently put a deer fence around his whole farm, but before that he tried an electric box that, when triggered, would emit the call of a mountain lion. Or, you could put a radio out in the cornfield: Music is ineffective, but an all-night talk show will keep the fauna right away. Need more phosphorous in your soil? Use clamshells. More potassium? Use seaweed. Never put pig manure on your tomato beds. And so on.
This discussion eventually pointed to the idea of getting to the root of every problem in order to solve it. “The idea that is missing in modern medicine is correcting the problem, as opposed to treating the symptoms,” Coleman said. He cited examples. “If you have a headache, is your body deficient in aspirin? … War is symptom treatment … Diplomacy is cause correction.”
One of the final questions centered around Senate bill 510, which recently became law and, according to some, makes it illegal to grow, share, trade, or sell homegrown food. Coleman said the bill does not distinguish between large processors and small farms, and stressed that once something like this becomes law, it becomes easy to tweak and tweak it to put smaller growers out of business. But he added that in addition to policy, it’s American households that stunt the growth of local agriculture by spending only 9 percent of their income on food (compared to 15 percent for households in Europe). According to Coleman, if we are going to keep sustainable agriculture and small-scale farming alive, this desire for cheap food has to change.
Coleman’s parting advice: “Vote with your dollars.” He firmly believes that the entire agricultural cycle begins with individuals deciding what they will and won’t eat. “You’re in charge.”
This article originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com