Perched on a California cliff high above the Pacific surf, with whales spouting offshore, the Esalen Institute beckons to those seeking physical and spiritual betterment. But for a week in January it served as Mount Olympus for two dozen organic farmers. It was an organic summit of “agrarian elders” convened by farmers Michael Abelman and Eliot Coleman, the latter of whom is my husband. And I got to be a fly on the wall.
These were the farmers who’d launched a movement, gained decades of wisdom and supported their families well. Said Frank Morton, a celebrated seed breeder in Oregon, “We’re examples, in that we have a life we enjoy.” The group’s members were as diverse as the crops they sow. Don Bustos, a New Mexico vegetable grower, works land farmed by his family for hundreds of years.Warren Webber earned a PhD in Shakespeare studies before popularizing specialty organic salads in Marin County, Calif. Most were from non-agrarian backgrounds, but their stories trace the arc of organic farming’s history, from idealistic beginnings through years of insanely hard work to the takeover by industry and the current threat to diversity by GMO patents on seeds.
What enabled these veterans to survive, thrive and advance the cause of earth-friendly farming? You’ve tasted the answer: It’s their food. Perhaps you’ve bought crops from Hiu Newcomb’s Potomac Vegetable Farms in Northern Virginia, or Jim Crawford’s New Morning Farm in central Pennsylvania; both sell at Washington farmers markets.
Organic farmers succeed with the superior flavor and nutrient density. They also reach out to customers and educate them. “We are good at talking about what we do,” said Dru Rivers, who farms 400 acres at Full Belly Farm in Northern California with her husband, Paul Muller. “Our customers want a story,” added Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Vermont. “Most of the [farm] stories you read are about organic people. Our governor says, ‘Local food is no longer just for hippies.’ ”
It always comes back to the food. When California’s Bob Cannard first started, his outlet was a market mocked locally as the place where kooks and hippies sell vegetables. But soon he was supplying succulent greens to Alice Waters, the most famous restaurateur in his state. “We can’t influence through the head,” he maintains. “It has to come through the digestive system. Feed kids good nutrition for three generations and you have a decent human race.”
The elders have passed on much of their accumulated knowledge to the thousands of apprentices who have worked with them. But they also voice hope in the wealth of insights yet to come — in the biological understanding of soil fertility, weed ecology, pest resistance, and more. Says Tom Willey, farming 75 acres in California’s San Joaquin Valley, “Organic agriculture will be able to do things with this information that conventional agriculture has been unable to do.”
But many wonder who’ll succeed them when the elders retire. All are buoyed by the waves of youngsters now heading back to the land, but how will these new farmers afford that land? By renting? By using new cooperative models to replace ownership? If they do not find their way we will all be the poorer for it.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”