Biological Agriculture’s First Rule

Harborside, Maine
Excerpted from The Winter Harvest Handbook (2009)

Once you become determined to eliminate the cause of insects and disease rather than just mask the symptoms, a whole new world opens up. A plant bothered by pest or disease need no longer be seen in the negative. The plant can now be looked upon as your coworker. It is communicating with you. It is saying that conditions are not conducive to its optimum growth and that if the plants are to be healthier next year, the soil must be improved.

But to succeed at that you have to accept what I call the first rule of biological agriculture–“Nature makes sense.” If something is not working, it is the farmer’s, not Nature’s, fault. The farmer has made the mistake. You have to have faith in the rational design of the natural world, and thus have an expectation of success, if you hope to understand the potential for succeeding. To do so, it helps to restate Darwin more correctly as “the un-survival of the unfit.”

Learn by Observing

Take your lawn as an example. Say you have a lawn that is growing mostly crab grass, sorrel, dandelions, and other weeds but none of the finer grasses that you would prefer. There are two courses of action. For one you could purchase all the heavily advertised nostrums, herbicides, fertilizers, and stimulants to suppress the weed competition so the finer grasses would be able to struggle ahead. Conversely, you could study the optimum growing conditions for the grasses you want and then by adding compost, rock powders, peat moss, manure, aerating, draining, or whatever seemed indicated, you could try to create the soil conditions under which the finer grasses thrive. If you doubt this approach, look closely at wild vegetation on undisturbed land. Certain groups and types of plants grow in one place and not another. The native vegetation is an excellent indication of how differing soil conditions favor the physiological needs of some plants over others.

The same approach suggested for the lawn is valid on the market garden. Whatever crop you want to grow, you need to strive to create the ideal conditions for its needs. Determining the conditions at first may require a little detective work. Closely observe the plants, the insects, the diseases, and every aspect of the garden. Are all the plants equally affected or are those at one end of the row or along one edge not showing symptoms? What is the difference in the soil of those areas? Is that where you limed or didn’t lime because you ran out? Did you compost that area with compost from a different windrow? Did you chisel-plow the whole field or just along that edge? Is the good section where all the fall leaves end up being blown onto? Or where that old pile of rotten hay bales sat for years? If you can find no clues to follow use different soil-building techniques in general next year. Use different types of organic matter or rock powders or trace elements. Make and use more compost. Change your crop rotation. Organize and evaluate all the possibilities and keep experimenting.

Marketing and Economics

I have been involved in organic agriculture since 1965. In those days the distinctiveness of organic farming gave small growers a unique marketing advantage. Small growers lost that niche when organic become industrialized. Nowadays more and more organic produce is available from faraway sources. Unfortunately, industrial organic produce is nowhere near as well grown or as flavorful as the organic produce from a small family farm. The “profit at all costs” mentality of industrial organics has undermined the traditional values that motivated the organic pioneers. Consequently the word “organic” isn’t an adequate distinction anymore. Small farmers need a new way to advertise the superiority of their produce. The important words we have stressed ever since the USDA became involved in organic certification are fresh and local!

No matter who grew it or how it was grown, produce shipped from faraway is at least a week old by the time it gets to where we live. Long-distance produce is not “fresh” by any definition. Astute eaters, the types who regularly shop at roadside stands and farmers markets, know the superiority of truly fresh vegetables, and they seek out local growers. In order to attract and keep those appreciative food lovers as loyal customers either at our farm stand or in the stores to which we sell, we have focused on establishing a reputation for quality. In addition we have further branded our produce through imaginative packaging…

When it comes to food prices, “fair” has two different meanings — “affordable” and “equitable.” The most difficult challenge for the small-scale grower producing high-quality vegetable crops is charging an equitable price — sufficient to make a decent living — without being accused of being elitist or unfair. Even though most people can easily discern the quality difference between brands of automobiles or appliances, that same astuteness, with the exception of visible cosmetic quality, does not seem to be applied to vegetables. The myth has been successfully planted in the public mind (possibly for the benefit of homogeneous supermarkets) that biological quality differences do not exist and a carrot is a carrot is a carrot.

That myth is patently untrue. In forty years of growing crops and feeding livestock and people I have seen many striking examples of superior biological quality in properly grown crops. There is as much quality difference between our carrots and run-of-the-mill supermarket carrots as there is between local “organic” and imported “organic.” The small-scale local grower can produce a more finely crafted product through meticulous attention to soil care, superior compost, and variety selection than can the large-scale shipper. Add the obvious benefits of fresh over week old (we deliver within twelve to twenty-four hours after harvest), and there is no question: the dedicated local grower is selling a premium product and deserves a premium price commensurate with that quality.