Can Organics Save the Family Farm?

Thor Heyerdahl’s classic adventure story, The Ra Expeditions, has a lesson for agriculture. Heyerdahl wanted to prove that ancient Egyptian sailors could have reached the New World in traditional boats constructed of bundled papyrus stalks. He and his crew studied fresco paintings, three to four thousand years old, on the tomb walls of pyramids for instruction on the size, shape, and style of the crafts. In the paintings there was one rope represented, from the stern’s curled-in tip down to the afterdeck, for which they could discern no purpose suggested by modern physics, and in the ensuing construction it was left out. Ra I collapsed in mid-ocean for lack of that rope. Their second attempt, Ra II, with the newly appreciated rope in its assigned place, completed the voyage without a hitch.

In the story of agriculture’s transition from the traditions of the past to the realities of the present, there is a missing element that is the rope’s equivalent—an unappreciated detail without which the worldwide agricultural system will eventually fall apart.

That crucial element, found in healthy, viable dirt, is called “soil organic matter.” In the mid-1930s, organic farming arose from a recognition of the vital importance of this soil ingredient. Some farmers saw the undesirable changes in their soil and the diminished health of their livestock that followed the shift to chemical farming in the twentieth century. Their appreciation for soil organic matter was reborn. They realized that they needed to return to pre-chemical practices, and improve them if possible, rather than reject them in favor of chemical shortcuts. They believed this was the direction they needed to go if the health of the soil, the health of the produce, and the health of the human beings consuming the produce were to be maintained. Some of their improvements to old methods included more successful methods of compost making, better management of crop residues—the leaves, roots, or stems that are left after harvest—and adding mineral nutrients, where necessary, in their most natural form.

The organic pioneers wrote and spoke about their realization that the farm is not a factory, but rather a human-managed microcosm of the natural world. Whether in forest or prairie, soil fertility in the natural world is maintained and renewed by the recycling of all plant and animal residues which create the organic matter in the soil. This recycling is a biological process, which means that the most important contributors to soil fertility are alive, and they are neither farmers nor fertilizer salesmen. They are the population of living creatures in the soil—whose life processes make the plant-food potential of the soil accessible to plants—and their food is organic matter.

The number of these creatures is almost beyond belief. It was often said that a teaspoon of fertile soil contains at least one million live microscopic organisms. Hard to believe as that may be, that number is now considered far too conservative. Once you begin to understand that the soil is a living thing rather than an inert substance, a fascinating universe opens in front of your eyes. I once watched a specialist on soil creatures perform a minor miracle. He held the rapt attention of a roomful of teenagers by showing slides and telling tales of the endlessly interrelated and meticulously choreographed activities of these creatures. The students were entranced because the subject matter was like a trip to another planet. They were peeking into the secret world of nature.

The idea of a living soil nourished with organic matter also helps cast light on the difference between a natural and a chemical approach to soil fertility. In the chemical approach, fertilizers are created in a factory to put a limited number of nutrients in a soluble form within reach of plant roots. The idea is to bypass the soil and start feeding the plants directly with preprocessed plant food. In the natural approach, the farmer adds organic matter to nurture all those hard-working soil organisms. This approach is usually called feeding the soil rather than feeding the plants, but what it’s really doing is feeding the soil creatures, and that’s why it works so well. The idea that we could ever substitute a few soluble elements for a whole living system is a lot like thinking an intravenous needle could deliver a delicious meal.

Through the years, as organic farmers have worked with this world of nature, they have developed harmonious farming practices that are outstandingly productive. The general level of expertise today among the best organic growers allows them to equal chemical agriculture in yield while far surpassing it in quality. Coincidentally, they discovered that this approach to farming could save not only their soil, but the family farm itself—especially from the crushing onslaught of petrochemical agribusiness.

Since the 1930s, organic farming has been subjected to the traditional three-step progression that occurs with any new idea directly challenging an orthodoxy. First the orthodoxy dismisses it. Then it spends decades contesting its validity. Finally, it moves to take over the idea. Now that organic agriculture has become an obvious economic force, industrial agriculture wants to control it. Since the first step in controlling a process is to define (or redefine) it, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hastened to influence the setting of organic standards—in part by establishing a legal definition of the word “organic”—and the organic spokespeople naively permitted it.

Wise people had long warned against such a step. Almost thirty years ago, Lady Eve Balfour, one of the most knowledgeable organic pioneers from the 1930s, said, “I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the attitude of the farmer. Without a positive and ecological approach, it is not possible to farm organically.” When I heard Lady Eve make that statement at an international conference on organic farming at Sissach, Switzerland, in 1977, the co-option and redefinition of “organic” by the USDA was far in the future. I knew very well what she meant, though, because by that time I had been involved in organics long enough to have absorbed the old-time ideas and I was alert to the changes that were beginning to appear.

When you study the history of almost any new idea, it becomes clear how the involvement of the old power structure in the new paradigm tends to move things backward. Minds mired in an industrial thinking pattern, in which farmers are merely sources of raw materials, cannot see beyond the outputs of production. They don’t consider the values of production, or its economic benefits to the producers. While co-opting and regulating the organic method, the USDA has ignored the organic goal. And since it is the original organic goal, and not the modern labeling requirements of the USDA, which I believe can save the family farm, we need to know the difference. To better convey this difference, I like to borrow two words from the ecology movement and refer to “deep” organic farming and “shallow” organic farming.

Deep-organic farmers, after rejecting agricultural chemicals, look for better ways to farm. Inspired by the elegance of nature’s systems, they try to mimic the patterns of the natural world’s soil-plant economy. They use freely available natural soil foods like deep-rooting legumes, green manures, and composts to correct the causes of an infertile soil by establishing a vigorous soil life. They acknowledge that the underlying cause of pest problems (insects and diseases) is plant stress; they know they can avoid pest problems by managing soil tilth, nutrient balance, organic matter content, water drainage, air flow, crop rotations, varietal selection, and other factors to reduce plant stress. In so doing, deep-organic farmers free themselves from the need to purchase fertilizers and pest-control products from the industrial supply network—the commercial network that normally puts profits in the pockets of middlemen and puts family farms on the auction block. The goal of deep-organic farming is to grow the most nutritious food possible and to respect the primacy of a healthy planet. Needless to say, the industrial agricultural establishment sees this approach as a threat to the status quo since it is not an easy system for outsiders to quantify, to control, and to profit from.

Shallow-organic farmers, on the other hand, after rejecting agricultural chemicals, look for quick-fix inputs. Trapped in a belief that the natural world is inadequate, they end up mimicking the patterns of chemical agriculture. They use bagged or bottled organic fertilizers in order to supply nutrients that temporarily treat the symptoms of an infertile soil. They treat the symptoms of plant stress—insect and disease problems—by arming themselves with the latest natural organic weapons. In so doing, shallow-organic farmers continue to deliver themselves into the control of an industrial supply network that is only too happy to sell them expensive symptom treatments. The goal of shallow-organic farming is merely to follow the approved guidelines and respect the primacy of international commerce. The industrial agricultural establishment looks on shallow-organic farming as an acceptable variation of chemical agribusiness since it is an easy system for the industry to quantify, to control, and to profit from in the same ways it has done with chemical farming. Shallow organic farming sustains the dependence of farmers on middlemen and fertilizer suppliers. Today, major agribusinesses are creating massive shallow organic operations, and these can be as hard on the family farm as chemical farming ever was.

The difference in approach is a difference in life views. The shallow view regards the natural world as consisting of mostly inadequate, usually malevolent systems that must be modified and improved. The deep-organic view understands that the natural world consists of impeccably designed, smooth-functioning systems that must be studied and nurtured. The deep-organic pioneers learned that farming in partnership with the natural processes of soil organisms also makes allowance for the unknowns. The living systems of a truly fertile soil contain all sorts of yet-to-be discovered benefits for plants—and consequently for livestock and the humans who consume them. These are benefits we don’t even know how to test for because we are unaware of their mechanism, yet deep-organic farmers are aware of them every day in the improved vigor of their crops and livestock. This practical experience of farmers is unacceptable to scientists, who disparagingly call it mere “anecdotal evidence.” The farmers contend that since most scientists lack familiarity with real organic farming, they are passing judgment on things they know nothing about.

It is difficult for organic farmers to defend ideas scientifically when so little scientific data has been collected. However, the passion is there because the farmer’s instincts are so powerfully sure of the differences that exist between organic and chemical production. I often cite an experience of mine in an unrelated field—music—in defense of the farmer’s instincts. Twice I have been fortunate to hear great artists perform in an intimate setting without the intermediary of a sound system. The first was a saxophonist, the second a soprano. The experience of hearing their clear, pure tones directly, not missing whatever subtleties a microphone and speakers are incapable of transmitting, was so different, and the direct ingestion of the sound by my ears was so nourishing (that is the only word I can think of), that I remember the sensation to this day. The unfiltered music was like fresh food grown by a local, deep-organic grower. That same music heard through a sound system is like industrial organic produce shipped from far away. Through a poor sound system, it is a lot like chemically grown produce.

Like most other farmers I know, I am sensitive to the reactions of my customers, especially young customers, as evidence of the advantages of organic farming. Children are notorious for hating vegetables, but that is not what I hear from parents in the neighboring towns in response to the vegetables we grow on our farm. We have been told that our carrots are the trading item of choice in local grade-school lunch boxes. We have been told by stunned parents that not only will their children eat our salad and our spinach, but that they ask their parents specifically to purchase them. I put great faith in the honest and unspoiled taste buds of children. They can still detect differences that older taste buds may miss and that science cannot measure.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk alerting us to the takeover of many organic labels by industrial food giants. But to anyone who wishes to eat really good food, I say the sky is not falling. These takeovers only involve industrial shallow organics. They only involve those companies large enough to attract takeover money. Most of these companies sell processed foods, which are substandard nutritionally, whatever the provenance of their ingredients. When the organic version of the Twinkie eventually appears, it will be immaterial who controls it. Some of these companies do sell staple foods, but they only meet the shallowest of standards, thus ignoring those valuable production practices that only family farmers seem to care about anymore.

For example, I don’t buy organic eggs from the grocery stores. Merely feeding organic grain to chickens, without giving the animals honest access to the outdoors, does not make a free-range hen or produce truly edible eggs. The yolks of these eggs are pale and, being mass-produced somewhere far away, they are not fresh. I purchase eggs from a neighboring farmer who runs his chickens on grass pasture where the sunshine, green food—and a host of unknown factors—produce eggs with deep orange yolks and awesome flavor. I don’t buy organic milk from the large producers who keep thousands of cows in confinement and who claim their milk is special because they feed the cows organic grain. As if preventing access to grass is not bad enough, these producers then ultra-pasteurize the cows’ milk so they can ship it nationally—thereby destroying the amazing natural cultures and enzymes in uncooked milk. I buy milk from a very successful local raw-milk dairy where the cows eat grass outdoors (as they were designed to do) and produce milk that studies have shown is far richer in many important nutrients due to the grass diet alone.

In other words, the only organic companies that have been bought out are those whose quality is so dubious you don’t want to buy their food no matter how many times they can legally print the word “organic” on the label. Real food comes from your local family farm, run by deep-organic farmers. These farms won’t be bought out because they are too honest and too focused on quality over quantity to attract the takeover specialists. The good news is that small, committed, organic family farms are the fastest growing segment in U.S. agriculture today. Old-time deep-organic farming will save these farms because there will always be a demand for exceptional food by astute customers who can see past the hype of the USDA label and realize the importance of making their own fully informed decisions about food quality.


How did deep get turned into shallow and good food revert to mediocre? It is a logical result in a world blind to the elegance of natural systems. Humans think in terms of more milk rather than exceptional milk, cheaper eggs not better eggs. Since modern humans tend to consider nature imperfect, they focus on improving nature rather than improving the function of agriculture within nature. Humans want to change the rules rather than try to operate more intelligently within them. A recent advertisement from a biotech company reinforced that idea by highlighting the phrase “Think what’s possible.” It’s true that these companies think they have the power to remake the parts of nature they don’t understand. However, if they understood them, they would realize they don’t need remaking. It is our human relationship with the natural world that needs remaking.

Family farms thrive when they operate as participants in nature’s elegantly structured system. Take my own farm. I have visited organic vegetable farms across the U.S. and Europe, and I believe ours is fairly typical. We augment the fertility of our soil with both homemade compost and green manures to provide all-important organic matter, plus locally available organic residues (in our case from the fishing industry). We grow thirty-five different vegetables year round, both in the field in summer and in greenhouses in winter. We use no pest-control products because we have no pest problems that need to be controlled. Fertile, healthy soils teeming with beneficial life grow vigorous, healthy plants. Rather than depending on product inputs, we have created a knowledge-input agriculture where biological diplomacy and management skills replace war mentality and chemical weapons. Our aim is to cultivate ease and order on our farm rather than battle futilely against disease and disorder. When we have had problems (low soil fertility, plant stress) we dealt with them by correcting the cause so the problem would no longer exist. If, instead, we had treated the symptom, then that treatment would have been required again and again unless the cause went away on its own.

If we view modern society through the lens of this agricultural model, the parallels are striking, and the potential for deep-organic farming to transform more than just the family farm becomes obvious. It has the power to transform the world. Our present economic infrastructure is focused on selling treatments for symptoms, rather than finding inexpensive ways to correct the causes. For example, the medical profession, under the influence of the drug companies, peddles pills, potions, and operations rather than stressing alternatives to destructive Twinkie nutrition, over-stressed lifestyles, and toxic pollution. The economists push conspicuous consumption as a panacea, despite the fact that alternatives to hollow lives, addictive behavior, and meaningless work would bring us far more satisfaction. The government colludes in preparing for conflicts and then waging them (symptom treatment), rather than committing our country to permanent resolution of differences through diplomacy (cause correction). Although deep-organic farmers demonstrate daily the existence of a successful parallel universe where cause correction rules over symptom treatment, the significance of that option is unknown and thus unheeded. If its implications were fully known, deep organic farming would certainly be suppressed, because it exposes the artificiality of our symptom-focused economy and, incidentally, explains why society’s most intractable problems never seem to get solved.

So what is the future? If you want to eat really good food, support your local deep-organic farm. Committed growers are engaged in a quest to grow better food because they understand that real food makes an enormous contribution to human well-being. In the food world, family farmers are the last link maintaining the old-time values of quality rather than quantity, of the deep satisfaction from meaningful work rather than the shallow return from excess consumerism. The values of caring farmers were once so common, so basic to human existence, that they did not need to be expressed. In today’s world these values have been so overwhelmed by greed and shoddy thinking that they now very much need to be put into words. When pronounced, those words seem quaint and idealistic. Just as organic foods have become the last refuge protecting eaters from GMOs, rBGH, and food irradiation, so have family farmers become the last refuge protecting the values of the early organic pioneers against the onslaught of the industrial organic hucksters. I cast my vote for quality and for idealism—and for putting the rope back in place.