Eliot Coleman

My Agricultural Grandparents

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Eliot Coleman has over 50 years of experience as an organic farmer. He is the author of The New Organic Grower (Chelsea Green, rev. 1995), Four Season Harvest (Chelsea Green, rev. 1999), and The Winter Harvest Handbook (Chelsea Green, 2009). Eliot presently owns and operates Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.

It is not uncommon for farmers to talk about the influence their grandparents had on their farming education and their eventual success in agriculture. I am no different. But my story comes with a unique twist. My paternal grandfather, Leander Walter Townsend Coleman, was born in 1868 but was not a farmer. Unfortunately for my farming career, the Coleman family association with farming on the family land had ended three generations before Leander’s birth. So the grandparents I am about to acknowledge are not related to me by blood. And, although they are long deceased like Leander, they still reside on my farm and I consult them on a daily basis. My grandparents in farming are old books and the people who wrote them. They live on the shelves in my library and I am as indebted to them as I would be to a blood relative. I call them grandparents because all these books were published during Leander’s lifetime. The farming techniques they convey were understood when he was born, were practiced during the early years of his life, and were as successful then as they are now.

I became acquainted with my agricultural grandparents shortly after starting my farming career. I have a passion for learning where ideas originate and how they develop, so I spent long evenings in the dusty agricultural stacks of many libraries. Dogged research into old periodicals and old books slowly gave me access to more and more of these delightful predecessors and their writings. These literary grandparents introduced me to the age-old truths of agriculture. They gave me insight into how successfully and how rationally food was produced before modern agricultural science started to tell us that it couldn’t be done that way. These grandparents prepared me both practically and philosophically for the world of farming I was about to enter.

One of the first I got to know was Stephen Alfred Forbes, once head of the Illinois State Lab of Natural History. In 1880, he published a pamphlet entitled On Some Interactions of Organisms. Forbes provided me with philosophical assurance that the solution to agricultural problems is not difficult. It simply involves learning how natural systems work so that we will know how to cooperate with natural forces rather than attempting to ignore them or control them with chemicals. Forbes wrote:

From the consequent human interferences with the established nature of things, numerous disturbances arise … We must study the methods by which nature reduces these disturbances, and learn how to second her efforts to our own best advantage … By far the most important general conclusion we have reached is a conviction of the general beneficence of Nature, a profound respect for the natural order, and a belief that the part of wisdom is essentially that of practical conservatism in dealing with the system of things by which we are surrounded.

An extensive school of what I might call ecological agriculture existed in the 19th century along the lines expressed by Forbes. Its principal interests were, first, understanding the functioning of the biological world, second, getting to the cause of the problems arising from “human interferences with the established nature of things,” and, third, learning to modify agricultural practices in order to work within natural laws. Farming was not conceived of as a war but rather as a diplomacy of biological cooperation, a nurturing rather than a roughshod trampling.

Not all my grandparents wrote in English. There is also a French grandfather, Vincent Gressent, on the shelf. He was fully involved in the practical aspects of vegetable production. During the 19th century, some of the most successful market gardening ever known was taking place within the city limits of Paris, powered by composted horse manure from the city stables. When I came across Gressent’s book, Le Potager Moderne, first published in 1864, it supplemented Stephen Forbes’ philosophical reassurances with the hard, practical experience of a fellow grower. As Gressent wrote at that time:

“For vegetable growing, chemical fertilizers don’t do all that one wants: They stimulate the plant and produce quantity, but to the detriment of quality … Insect pests only attack weak, sickly plant specimens lacking proper nutrition … In proof of this, I offer the market gardens of Paris where vegetable growing has reached perfection … One does not see pest problems in Parisian market gardens wherever copious compost use and rational crop rotations are practiced by the growers.”

By the end of the 19th century, the increasing urbanization of Paris had forced the Parisian market gardeners to move to less valuable land outside the city and a classic horticultural model was displaced. Around that same moment in time (1898), an English grandfather, Robert Elliot, wrote Agricultural Changes. Elliot had successfully demonstrated on his farm how perpetual soil fertility could be maintained by alternating four years of rotationally grazed grass and legume pastures with a couple of years of annual crops such as grains, beans, and vegetables. The extensive organic matter from the roots of the tilled-under pasture plants provides ideal growing conditions for the annual crops plus soil structure to protect against erosion.

Elliot’s biographer wrote that Elliot had (and I find this phrase delightfully English) a “robust aversion to purchasing anything he might be able to produce more cheaply for himself.” (But then that’s a valuable policy for any farmer.) “Elliot therefore set out to devise a system which would be as farm generated as possible in respect to fertility.” At our farm we share Elliot’s robust aversion. We use the very same system he advocated because it is unbelievably productive, efficient, and thrifty.

Operating in that same spirit is a second American grandfather, Cyril Hopkins, professor of agronomy at the University of Illinois and director of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station. In his 1910 book, Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture, Hopkins emphasized that soil fertility was not something the farmer had to purchase but rather was a by-product of intelligent farming techniques. It is hard to imagine an extension pamphlet today that would state as Hopkins did, “The real question is, shall the farmer pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million pounds of free nitrogen?” Hopkins wrote numerous experiment station bulletins like that encouraging farmers to realize that no salesman was going to tell them about green manures, cover crops, crop rotation, legumes, incorporating livestock, and so forth because they were management practices that did not have to be purchased.

Cyril Hopkins (right) taking a soil sample from the Morrow Plots.

Cyril Hopkins (right) taking a soil sample from the Morrow Plots.

The efforts of Cyril Hopkins serve as a metaphor for independent truths up against advertising and a sales blitz that tries to pretend the truths don’t exist. The result of a century of fertilizer salesmanship is that no one today remembers Cyril Hopkins. The soil fertility truths that he championed, although they were understood for generations, have been forgotten so long that they are regarded by agricultural science today as some sort of revolutionary heresy.

A grandmother needs to be mentioned here. Maye Emily Bruce wrote a little volume in the early days of the organic movement in England entitled From Vegetable Waste To Fertile Soil (1940) that has long had an honored place on my bookshelf. Maye Bruce wrote some of the movement’s earliest volumes on compost making and conducted experiments and devised herbal stimulants to make composting a faster and more dependable process.

And then there is Selman Waksman, a professor at Rutgers and a leading authority on soil microbiology. His 1931 book, The Soil and the Microbe, helped explain why Maye Bruce’s compost was so important to soil fertility. Waksman wrote, “By reason of the fact that microorganisms do not occur in the same abundance in all soils and that they are generally favored by conditions that lead to best plant growth, there exists a close relationship between the biological activity of soils and soil fertility.” The microbes that run the soil and the inhabitants of the human microbiome are gaining in respect every day and are coming to be seen as the new frontier of health.

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman testing Streptomycin, a bacterial antibiotic produced by the soil actinomycete.

Another grandmother is Lady Eve Balfour, born in 1898. Lady Eve was a major force behind the development and popularization of organic farming in England. Her 1943 book, The Living Soil, was one of the earliest expositions of the organic philosophy and the thinking behind organic farming. She was also influential in expanding the early organic movement in the U.S., thanks to a number of promotional tours she engaged in during the 1950s. Back in the late 1970s, I organized a number of tours in the other direction to show American farmers the high level of expertise among organic farmers in Europe. Most of the early hippie farmers on those tours were pretty left wing and certainly non-fancy. One night in England, we were all sitting around a pub drinking Guinness. Lady Eve joined our table and right away I could tell the group was impressed that she could knock back the Guinness as fast as we could while simultaneously demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of organic farming. After she moved on to another table, one of the old leftist hippies turned to me and said, “Damn, if that’s the aristocracy, I think there should be more of them.”

Lady Eve Balfour

Lady Eve Balfour

Another important grandfather is Leonard Wickenden, a past president of the American Chemical Society, who became enthusiastically involved in organic growing after he retired from his career as a chemist. He used his scientific background to defend and refine the organic concepts that worked so well for him in his garden. In his 1954 book, Gardening With Nature, he explained the most basic rule for success:

“Let your aim be to feed your soil—not your plants. The modern method of using the soil as an inert medium for conveying plant food to the crop is grossly unscientific. Feed the soil and it will convey well-balanced food to the crops in a steady stream throughout the growing season. There will be no brief stimulation of the plant with … nitrate of soda, followed by a famine when the soluble salt is exhausted or washed away, but a process of day by day nourishment which will produce sturdy vigor in the crop.”

The important fact from my experience, after 50 years of practicing what my grandparents have taught me, is that this production system simply works and it works far better than most people can imagine. These concepts have successfully fed mankind for 4,000 years, a fact that the last grandfather on my list, Franklin Hiram King, expressed so eloquently in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. King pointed out that the obvious answer to maintaining agricultural production in perpetuity is written on the soil of farms all around the world where the importance of feeding the soil is recognized.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

1 reply
  1. Irvine Herb, garden maintenance professional
    Irvine Herb, garden maintenance professional says:

    Gardening has so many aspects that you can’t simply “inherit” the whole knowledge from your grandparents. Books are always necessary. Given that in the past the two major gardening revolutions were situated in England and France you really chose your books well there. I have been going through various French gardeners and literature when I was young and relatively inexperienced(I’m from UK). You simply can’t acquire all the knowledge through raw experience or people. Excellent read, got me nostalgic.

    Regards, Irvine, a long time gardener 🙂


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