The Mid America Organic Conference in Kansas City, Missouri featured pioneering organic gardener, teacher, author of “The New Organic Grower” and “The Winter Garden”, and tool-maker Elliot Coleman.
Coleman farms in Blue Hill, Maine. In his keynote address January 27th, he described his beginnings in farming and the latest controversy facing organic farmers.
He began farming in 1968 when his passions for rock climbing and white water kayaking predisposed him to interpret the word “impossible” as a challenge to be tackled. Dismissing the scoffers, he applied his adventurer’s ethic to the challenge of farming organically. At a time when corporations were selling ‘better living through chemistry’, bucking that brainwashing took the same courage as looking up at a sheer rock and face and saying, “Let’s do this.” Coleman said he brought the five precepts of adventurers to the farm challenge: minimalism, independence, avoiding artificiality, leaving a pristine world, proceeding in harmony with nature.
In his farming, Coleman said he seeks ‘pure delight in the success of an adventure’. In his quest, he pursues a farming system where the soil fully nourishes the crops.
“Organic farming is an act of faith in natural systems,” Coleman said. “Ultimately, organic farming crops grow in fertile soil attached to the earth and sustained by biological processes, ideally with no off-farm inputs.”
These were the basics of the original National Organic Program focused on health from a balanced bioactive soil, Coleman said. This brings up the latest controversy in organic standards.
He said organic farmers defeated USDA efforts to include irradiation, sewage sludge and GMO’s in the US Organic Standard when the standard was being written. The integrity of the label is now facing more degradation pressures. Coleman said the popularity of the Organic label has some opportunists seeing dollar signs instead of the scientific and ethical commitment to bioactive soil. He said the integrity of the USDA Organic Label is in a ‘predictable descent’. Here Coleman cited Eric Hoffer’s quote from The Temper of Our Time: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” He cited unsustainable ‘organic’ 1,000 cow dairy operations as an example of how the relationship built on the soil has been corroded by a mentality that puts market capital above soil capital.
Coleman concluded with a call for a reaffirmation of the foundational principles of the National Organic Standards which are: All crops grow in fertile soil attached to the earth and sustained by biological processes; Farm derived organic matter and ground rock are applied to maintain fertility internally; crop rotations, green manure and cover crops to keep soil biology well fed; a plant positive philosophy focused on the cause of pests and disease, not the symptoms; livestock included, outdoors, on pasture; minimal reliance on outside inputs.
Coleman said this standard does not include hydroponic crops, which by their method of production are independent of bioactive soil because they are grown in solutions and fed nutrients. Coleman’s sentiments were met with enthusiastic applause from an audience of organic producers.
However you feel about the importance of soil in the integrity of the organic standards, keep up with the National Organic Standards Board activities. The National Organic Standard Board has a meeting in April. The agenda goes deep into farm inputs and food additives - some to approve and some facing the sunset list. You'll also find notes and reports on the hydroponic issue starting on page 127 of this document. See the agenda here: https://www.ams.usda.gov/event/nosb-spring-2017-meeting-denver-co
-Reported by Kathleen Logan Smith, Executive Director, Food Works