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Harvesting Heroes: The Organic Farmers We Love

As an urban farmer invested in organic, locally grown produce, I would like to show some respect to a few of the innovative individuals who have inspired me in the past and those who continue to inspire me today, but first…

AN ORGANIC, ALBEIT BRIEF, HISTORY OF FARMING

Organic farming practices were the only farming practices from the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago until the creation of inorganic practices at the beginning of the 20th century. This sinister shift in perspective was intended to minimize effort and maximize profit. Subsequently, inorganic techniques were used often and without regard for their numerous negative consequences, and most still exist as commercial farming standards today.

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Fortunately, and also at the beginning of the 20th century, a few agricultural scientists in Europe launched a movement offering alternative farming solutions in the west, effectively updating the millennia-old practices that existed before then. With time, these new methods would contest the ease of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides and, in our present, become a necessary practice if we plan to continue eating nutritious and non-chemically modified foods.

One of these innovative farmers was Sir Albert Howard. Considered the father of modern organic agriculture, he learned his skills by studying traditional Indian farming practices which he enumerated in his book An Agricultural Testament. Shortly thereafter, Rudolf Steiner came up with biodynamic agriculture, a system of practices that mirror in many ways modern organic farming but also add some questionable spiritual components that have dubious efficacy. Finally, Lord Northbourne was an agricultural scientist of the biodynamic ilk who eventually coined the term “organic farming” in his book Look to the Land. After World War II and due to the efficacy of these newfound, rather rediscovered practices, organic farming took a more global foothold.

 

THE FARMERS WE LOVE

  1. Our journey begins in Japan with maybe the most deeply revered organic farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka.

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Masanobu Fukuoka (Ehime Prefecture, Japan)

Formerly a microbiologist, Fukuoka redirected his energies from the lab to the land. His famous method of “natural farming,” aka “do-nothing farming,” is an organic farming practice and also a philosophical school that respects the complexity of the plants, allowing them to grow in an uncorrupted and essentially untended environment. This process also takes a large burden off of the farmer who, in Fukuoka’s eyes (and mine), should work less. His four natural farming principles exist in spite of commercial, conventional agriculture and are as follows:

  1. Tilling – Harmful! Don’t do it.
  2. Fertilizer – Unnecessary
  3. Weeding – Unnecessary
  4. Pesticides – Harmful! Don’t use them.

This organic farming legend had 65 years of success growing difficult grains like rice and barley as well as many other crops at yields equal to or higher than the most productive farms around the world. In 1975, he wrote The One-Straw Revolution, a book that details his life’s journey, his philosophy, and his organic farming methods. Though he passed away in 2008, his impact on global organic farming initiatives will survive him for centuries. Similarly, his philosophies about life and nature are a must-read for anyone, farmer or otherwise. According to Fukuoka, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Bonus: if you ever have the urge for a bit of light eco-terrorism, check out the seed ball technique, an ancient and no-till farming practice reinvigorated by Fukuoka. If stopping a major corporation from dumping tons of waste into the earth and water is too much an endeavor for you, seed balls can be used in guerilla gardening! Just toss a few of the prepared pods into an unused space that you have no “legal” right to farm. With some water, sunlight, and a little luck, your plant should shoot up in no time! Seed balls can also just be used to plant in your yard.

 

  1. The second farmer on our list is Eliot Coleman.

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Eliot Coleman (Four Season Farm, Maine)

American born, he was stirred by the back-to-the-land “good life” movement. Thus, he and his family moved to a farm they purchased in Maine from the mother and father of American homesteading and pioneers of said good life movement, Helen and Scott Nearing. Over the subsequent two decades, Coleman tended the farm with his family and took many trips overseas to study the farming practices in northern Europe, which had a similar climate to the northeastern United States. There, he noticed, many farmers used innovative crop and fertilizer testing methods unheard of in the United States, for these practices rarely left the farms of their origins.

Armed with more knowledge after every trip, he returned to his own land to put the methods into practice. These studies, travels, and praxes culminated eventually into a book called The New Organic Grower that delineates the essential principles of successful, small-scale organic farming. Here are a few of the focuses of the book:

  1. Small is better – business growth is best achieved through improved production and marketing, not physical expansion.
  2. Appropriate technology – although a tool inventor himself, Coleman preferred that problems resolve through resiliency instead of the advancement of tech. An idea that necessarily requires the acceptance of external forces, avoiding the facility of expensive new tools can encourage a farmer to observe and adapt and thus be more prepared for future challenges.
  3. Prevention over correction – from weeding to soil health, this perspective necessarily requires years of experience in order to make informed decisions. However, Coleman found that the more work input at the beginning of a season can lead to more output later with less ongoing maintenance.  

Finally, Coleman is a bastion of sustainability. “The only truly dependable production technologies are those that are sustainable over the long term. By that very definition, they must avoid erosion, pollution, environmental degradation, and resource waste. Any rational food-production system will emphasize the well-being of the soil-air-water biosphere, the creatures which inhabit it, and the human beings who depend upon it.”

Bonus: Although Eliot Coleman was in the vanguard of small-scale organic farming, his response to the emergence of USDA organic certification is less than enthusiastic. Coleman thinks, “‘Organic’ is now dead as a meaningful synonym for the highest quality food. Responsible growers need to identify not only that our food is grown to higher, more considered standards, but also that it is much fresher because it is grown right where it is sold.” Local and organic should be imperatives for farming practices everywhere, not stamps on produce or part of political and economic agendas.

  1. Curtis Stone, a Canadian farmer and entrepreneur is next on the list.

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Curtis Stone (Green City Acres, British Columbia)

A musician turned urban farmer turned businessman, Stone has transformed small-scale organic farming into an impossibly profitable business venture. His flagship homestead slash urban farm, Green City Acres, sits on a quarter of an acre of land spread among five small plots on his own and his neighbor’s yards. The mini-farm produces an unconscionable $100,000 annually. Don’t forget how cold those Canadian winters can get, which means that this profit is from only three seasons. How does he do it? Well, he’ll tell you.

His book The Urban Farmer is a detailed resource for the establishment and maintenance of successful and profitable urban farms, but what is more exciting is his use of technology to disseminate his wealth of accumulated knowledge. His youtube channel is, in my opinion, an even more thorough resource for the aspiring urban farmer. Not only does it cover the obvious subjects of seasonal planting, crop scheduling, tool preferences and the like, but also features his own role models, DIY tutorials, dissections of his own failings, and much more. It is clear that Stone is more interested in inspiring a generation of dedicated and prosperous urban farmers than protecting the secrets to his success.

Because his own, small farm is business oriented, he focuses production on a handful of fast-growing, highly profitable crops instead of a plethora of different vegetables. Specialization is the name of the game if money is to be made. We will part with some of his cheeky words of wisdom, “If you think farming is hard, try being a working musician. Not only will you be poor, but you’ll probably be hungry.”

 

  1. The final feature is on the South African community farmer Tenjiwe Cristina Kaba.

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Tenjiwe Christina Kaba (Cape Town, South Africa)

The first farmer in this feature focused on reverence for nature, second on going back to the land, and third on higher profits in smaller spaces. Last but not least is a woman whose farming practices are community oriented. In a country where over half of the households are below the poverty line and are thus at risk of or have experienced hunger, Kaba has dedicated all of her time and energy to growing food and, more importantly, teaching others to grow food for themselves and their community. She says about her programs, “we train them, they train the others, we motivate them, they motivate the others, because they are out of poverty.”

The network of gardens that Kaba has helped establish runs through the poorest communities around Cape Town. It not only provides food for the people but also the opportunity for them to create a revenue stream by selling their produce in larger, more profitable markets in the city. “It’s so important because the soil is where they can create their jobs,” says Kaba, “the soil is gold.” The program through which local farmers are able to sell the produce from the many community farms is called Harvest for Hope. It creates sustainable income for the farmers and their families.

Christina Kaba did not finish school and may never write a book about her farming practices. However, her dedication to the land and to the people is a constant source of inspiration. Tireless effort on her part has resulted in a complex network of farmers and teachers forever changing the agricultural prospects of the city of Cape Town.

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