DOWN on the FARM
with Tom Willey
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Organic Farm | Madera, California
DOWN on the FARM
with Tom Willey
Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann are deservedly regarded as the two living “philosopher kings” of our modern organic movement. Eliot borrowed heavily from the wisdom and practice of early nineteenth-century advocates of agricultural “improvement”, distant ancestors of our modern organic farming movement, and Europe’s intensive market gardeners who once fed cities like Paris, to create the exemplary farm he’s operated since 1968 on Maine’s rocky shores. It’s ironic that Coleman holds out and instructs from that now remote agricultural outpost, where forest has erased much of post-colonial agricultural history, from 1700s ‘stump farming’ days to domination of American potato production until the 1950s. Maine lost out when agricultural “improvers”, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, lost vociferous debates on the floors of Congress over corralling American populations east of the Appalachians, where they would necessarily develop proper soil husbandry skills to survive, versus unleashing them upon unexploited virgin soils “out West”. We are familiar with the outcome of that story. Soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt and Growing a Revolution, argues that “humans have been mining soils to feed ourselves for 12,000 years.”
Prior to the industrial revolution and Justus von Liebig’s unlocking chemical secrets of plant nutrition, all that soil mining, or “de-generating” as Eliot puts it, took place utilizing organic farming methods. Environmental historian Angus Wright, in Nature’s Matrix argues that “The accumulated fertility of [New World] virgin soils, due to the biological interaction of perennial grasses and trees with the mineral substrate, was perhaps as important to the emergence of Europe in dominating the world economy as was the gold and silver looted and mined from Peru, Mexico, California and Brazil.” Can the depletion of this ancient bank account of fertility continue indefinitely? According to David Montgomery, “It can’t go on.” Has our modern organic movement halted this “de-generation”, even theoretically? Yes and no, but mostly no. Coleman outlines the organic cannon developed over a century as “compost, cover crops, leguminous green manures, crop rotation, mixed farming, shallow cultivation, enhanced biodiversity, etc.”
Our T&D Willey Farms employed most of these practices successfully over a 35-year run. However, despite exemplary farms like Coleman’s, maybe Willeys’, and countless others, after some fifty years organic hardly commands 1% of America’s farmland. That can be a bit misleading when Certified Organic fruits and vegetables now represent greater than 15% of total produce sales nationwide, something to thrill over until one learns that all US fruits, and vegetables are grown on just 15 million acres, a miniscule slice of America’s farmscape, where corn and soybeans are sown on nearly 100 million acres each. How many California Certified Organic farms, which produce two-thirds of US organic fruits and vegetables, look anything like Eliot Coleman’s, in practice, though surely not in scale? Sad to say, precious few, as the market has expanded exponentially over recent decades. Since Walmart, Costco, and other conventional grocers entered the field as major buyers of organic produce, Certified Organic farms that consistently cover crop, use compost, or sponsor much biodiversity have become the exception, no longer the rule. Some large produce buyers discourage or prohibit compost use for “food safety” reasons, while savvy input suppliers press chicken litter into sterilized pellets for safe and convenient application as “organic fertilizer”. Input substitution is a reality which threatens to overwhelm the vast percentage of Certified Organic specialty crop production. This could be the noble reason Eliot has never sought or received Certified Organic status on his several acres in Maine. Coleman, amongst others, believed entrusting certification to USDA was entrusting a fox to guard the organic henhouse. So, throwing rocks at the nascent Regenerative Agriculture movement under such circumstances is unwise, in my opinion.
Robert Rodale coined the term and introduced the “regenerative” concept at our Eco-Farm Conference some 30 years ago. He appreciated the fact that 40% of Earth’s land surface is under human management for food production, and that organic systems were then, as they are now, only adopted over a small portion of that expanse. Rodale envisioned “regenerative” as a process by which farmers would gradually adopt natural systems practices that would wean them from the need for toxic inputs. Edward Faulkner’s 1943 Plowman’s Folly inspired the modern no-till farming movement, that was greatly accelerated by the invention of herbicides like 2-4,D, atrazine, and paraquat which facilitated the termination of cover crops by other than tillage. Herbicide dependence, most recently glyphosate, prevented the organic and no-till movements from influencing each other significantly. No-tillers were hung up on toxic weed killers, while organic farmers were tillage addicts. None of us paid much heed to Eliot’s organic mentors’ admonitions to go lite on the iron. Most of us eschewed the moldboard, as Faulkner admonished, but were perfectly comfortable with chisel plows and discs, with which we incorporated crop and cover crop residues and compost some 6”-deep, causing these to be mineralized by soil microbe communities that appreciated not being continuously poisoned. We and organic’s early proponents veritably worshiped soil biology, which was understood more from an intuitive perspective than an empirical one.
Though Darwin wrote his final treatise on the earthworm and Nobel Laureate Selman Waksman wrote on soil fungi in the 1920s, not until DNA sequencing in quite recent times have we gained a modest appreciation of the elegance of soil’s living system, as intricately complex as the heavens above. Such evolving insight, and Purdue plant pathologist Don Huber’s revelations on glyphosate’s disruptive effect on soil biology, spawned a progressive vanguard of Corn Belt no-tillers who gradually intensified mimicry of natural systems on their farms, without any intention of becoming organic. Soil health evangelist Ray Archuleta, an NRCS agronomist, urged this band of brave hearts on to seeding complex multi-species cover crop mixes, which they grazed intensively between a widened diversity of cash crops, maintaining continuous soil cover, while maximizing photosynthesis over as many months as climate allows. South Dakota’s Gabe Brown emerged as poster boy of this movement, soon reducing all synthetic inputs on his farm by 80%. Gabe’s recent Wheaties box appearance, usually reserved for rock-star athletes, might occasion Eliot Coleman’s suspicion that “regenerative” is just a shill for Food Inc. International food corporations like General Mills, Nestlé, and Anheuser-Busch are targets of immense pressure to clean up their environmental acts, inducing them to make outsized demands on their contracted farmers to adopt significant regenerative practices. Though “greenwashing” is certainly an element, in the age of climate change, these efforts have teeth and are driving meaningful change on farms. Food corporations, in most cases, insist on greater value from on-farm environmental enhancements while offering the same chronically low prices that farmers receive for commodities, ignoring the fact that cheap-food economics drove environmental degradation in the first place. To quote Nestlé’s conciliatory position: “If you want to sell your food to us, you’ll meet our specifications.”
Evolving characterization of soil biology, especially mycorrhizal and other fungi, caused some of us organic soil huggers to regret all the slicing and dicing of subterranean microbial architecture inherent in our tillage systems. Over the last decade we severally attempted isolated no-till experiments which largely failed. Two years ago, a trio of California high-integrity organic vegetable farms joined forces with UC Cooperative Extension and Chico State’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture in collaborative on-farm experimentation designed to crack the organic no-till nut. Thanks to dogged determination on the parts of farmers, mentor researchers and support from an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), some incremental progress is being realized. When Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta made plenary appearances at EcoFarm 2018, in part at my urging, a significant element in the audience resented their “conventional” status, so much so that one perennial conference sponsor discontinued significant economic support thereafter. The organic and regenerative communities have much to learn from each other, and the age of climate change is no time for agriculturists to retreat into insular tribal camps. International Federation of Organic Movements’ (IFOAM) 2016 ‘Organic 3.0’ document chimes in, arguing our organic movement must now gift its modest accomplishments to the world’s agricultural community which urgently needs to harmonize its practice with the natural systems underlying its abundance. Whether you agree or disagree with Jared Diamond’s assertion that agriculture’s invention was “the worst mistake in the history of the Human Race”, perfecting that tended garden is now the only way forward for seven billion souls that crowd the planet. The challenge of COVID and climate change demand that we act on a species level, in consort with those innumerable others that share life in this wondrous place.