I wanted to post this excerpt from Eliot Coleman* (one of our favorite authors) about the difference in types of organic farming.  Many people who purchase organic produce, whether certified or not, are not aware of the subtleties that exist within the organic description (what Coleman refers to as “shallow organic” vs “deep organic”).

From The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman:

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 long enough to have absorbed the old-time organic ideas, and I was alert enough to see 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 backwards.  Minds mired in an industrial thinking pattern, where farmers are merely sources of raw materials, cannot see beyond the outputs of production.  They don’t normally consider the values of production or the economic benefits to the producers.  But I believe that it is the original organic goal, and not the modern redirection set by governments, that can save the family farm, and thus 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, in addition to 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 from 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 mercantile businesses that normally put profits in the pockets of middlemen and put 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 agriculture establishment sees this approach as a threat to the status quo since it is not an easy system for outsiders to quantify, control, or 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 agricultural chemicals.  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, the 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.

The difference in approach is a difference in life views.  The shallow view regards the natural world of consisting of mostly inadequate, usually malevolent systems that must be battled or modified.  The deep-organic view understands that the natural world consists of elegant, impeccably designed, smooth-functioning systems that must be studied and nurtured.  The deep-organic pioneers learned that farming in partnership with natural processes of soil organisms also makes allowances 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 the livestock and 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 conscious 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.” Good 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 where so little scientific data has yet been collected. However, the passion is there because the farmer’s instincts are so powerfully sure that differences exist between organic and chemical. 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 sax player, 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, and use it as a metaphor for differences in food quality. That unfiltered music is 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.

The only way to know whether a farm – even a certified organic one – is practicing shallow organic or deep organic farming at this point is by getting to know your farmers.”

*Eliot Coleman is the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook.  He has written extensively on the subject of organic agriculture since 1975, including chapters in scientific books.  Eliot has more than 40 years’ experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. During his careers as a commercial market gardener, the director of agricultural research projects, and as a teacher and lecturer on organic gardening, he studied, practiced and perfected his craft. He served for two years as the Executive Director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and was an advisor to the US Department of Agriculture during their landmark 1979-80 study, “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming.”

 


 

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