A Farmer Speaks - Small is Beautiful (and Radical) by Eliot Coleman
When a friend told me of two of the proposed discussion topics for a major agricultural conference—“What is so radical about radical agriculture?” and “Is small the only beautiful?”—I told him that I thought both questions had the same answer.
The radical idea behind organic agriculture is a change in focus. The new focus is on the quality of the crops grown and their suitability for human nutrition. That is a change from the common focus on growing as much quantity as possible and using whatever chemical techniques contribute to increasing that quantity.
None of the non-chemical techniques associated with organic farming are radical or new. Compost, crop rotations, green manures and so forth are age-old agricultural practices. What is radical is the belief that these time-proven “natural” techniques produce food that is more nourishing for people and livestock than food grown with chemicals. What is radical is successfully pursuing that “unscientific” belief against the counter-propaganda and huge commercial power of the agrochemical industry.
The initiators of this new focus were a few perceptive old farmers from the 1930s and ‘40s who had not been taken in by commercial pressures and saw clearly the flaws of chemical agriculture. The popularizers of the new focus were the young idealists of the 1960s and 70s who were attracted to the idea of food production based on non-industrial systems, even though most of them had no previous connection to agriculture.
The effect of those new young minds entering agriculture defined the early days of organic farming in the US and thus also provides a context for the second question—“Is small the only beautiful?” Small became beautiful because of the passion of the new generation of idealistic young farmers. I was like most of them. I had no farming background, no farmland, and very little money. None of us would have been able to buy 500 acres in the Imperial Valley even if we had wanted to. So we ended up on a few acres of inexpensive, abandoned land because of economic reality rather than by conscious choice, and we started farming with compost and rototillers. The flavorful produce we sold, plus our passionate belief in quality, established the connection between the words “small” and “beautiful” in the public mind.
Once our combined efforts succeeded in making “organic” popular, the real farmers, the large-scale professional farmers, became interested. (We always knew we weren’t considered “real” farmers.) For most of them, growing organically was a market decision as opposed to the deep passion for soil quality and food quality that had inspired us hippies. Since the age old farming techniques had not been abandoned because they couldn’t work but because chemicals were promising miracles that they couldn’t deliver, the transition to organic farming was not difficult for the large farmers and they began selling “organic” produce. But the “small is more beautiful” idea remains in the public mind, because the organic-buying public intuits that the large-scale farmers may have changed their agronomy but not their thinking; that their minds are still logically focused on how much they can produce rather than on how well it will nourish their customers. I don’t think the public objects to scale (America is the land of large farms) but rather objects to organics by the numbers. They don’t see the old-time hippie passion for quality produce or any innovative new soil fertility improvement ideas coming from the large farms. They just see coloring between the lines according to the minimum standards that USDA certification requires.
From the point of view of this old hippie who carved his farm out of spruce and fir forest on the rocky Maine coast and had to learn everything about farming as he went along, I envy people who are able to farm on large expanses of flat naturally fertile soil and who have generations of farming experience behind them. Because of the poor quality of the land on which I started 40 years ago it took the first ten years of removing rocks, and stumps, and creating fertility to give us the marvelous soil and ability to grow exceptional food that we have achieved and continue to maintain. I often think of how much further all that effort could have gone had I grown up on a “real” farm but then I realize that if I had, it would have required an equal effort to change from the “quantity first” focus that has so characterized American agriculture to the new “quality first” focus established by the organic pioneers.
So if we go back to the two questions about what is “radical” and what is “beautiful” they come down to the same thing—the passion for quality food and sustainable systems that the new young farmers brought to American agriculture. There is no reason that large farms, whatever path they may have been on, cannot learn to meet those standards if they understand that it is not the scale of the farm but the attitude of the farmer that the public is interested in. I think if the large farmers used all their experience and natural advantages to try to lead food production along ever more nutritious and sustainable lines, they would have the respect that so many of them obviously feel they deserve.
But there is one other connection between the word “radical” and small farms that I need to mention. The small organic farm greatly discomforts the corporate/industrial mind because the small organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet. Over centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power. Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20% of the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it. It is very difficult to control people who can create products without purchasing inputs from the system, who can market their products directly thus avoiding the involvement of mercenary middlemen, who can butcher animals and preserve foods without reliance on industrial conglomerates, and who can’t be bullied because they can feed their own faces.
An observer today cannot help noticing the continuation of a trend that started at the beginning of the industrial revolution, a trend away from autonomy and independence for human beings and towards manipulation, consolidation, and control by large corporate entities. The early destruction of small farms in the 18th century drove the dispossessed peasants into the cities and a bleak existence in the “dark, satanic mills” as William Blake so aptly termed them. The propaganda in favor of becoming larger, more industrial and more centralized is so subtly pervasive and so effective that the majority of people have little idea of what has been regimented into their lives. Massive industrial conglomerates that look upon people as anonymous passive serfs, obedient cogs in a mechanistic world, now control far too many aspects of human existence. Circuses and bread, bread and circuses are presented as diversions for the masses today as they were for the masses of Rome. But it is worth noting that according to the historians, it was the Roman consolidation of land into ever-larger farms that ended up destroying Roman agriculture, and resulted in the lack of bread that led to Rome’s eventual demise.
So I’d like to suggest a foe of Rome’s power as the perfect figurehead for the small family farmer holding out indomita-bly against the economic forces trying to subjugate the whole planet. Our hero’s name is Asterix, and he is an immensely popular French comic book character. In France there is a natural connection between the persona of Asterix and the fight against all things corporate.
Asterix and his buddy Obelix live with other members of their self-reliant community in a fictional Gallic village in northwest Brittany. Asterix and Obelix hunt wild boar together and Obelix makes “menhirs”, those prehistoric stone monuments that are scattered all over Brittany. The year is 50 BC. Rome has conquered all of Gaul. Well, not quite all because this one little village of indomitable individuals is still resisting—still holding out against all the soldiers that an ever more frustrated Caesar sends against them in a vain attempt to complete his conquest. The village cannot be defeated because of the super-human strength the villagers get from a magic herbal potion produced by the resident village druid.
The Asterix characters are ideal meta-phorical mascots for the small family farm:
- First, Rome, to whose power the villagers refuse to submit, obviously repre-sents the bigger-is-better, all conquering corporate/industrial mentality.
- Second, just like these villagers, made invincible by their druid’s magic potion, we small farmers cannot be defeated because we too have a homemade magic potion. It is called compost and is the secret to the soil fertility that sustains us. Who can possibly defeat people who know that the world’s best fertilizer can be produced in quantity for free on their own farm from what grows thereabouts?
- Third, like the menhirs that Obelix makes, we too create ageless monuments. They are our small farms, because, in the words of British farmer George Henderson, we leave the land far better than we found it.
- And, best of all, we have ASTERIX himself, small and tough, possessed of a confidence in his own ability. Asterix perfectly embodies the small family farmer, independent and unconquerable on the land.
Eliot Coleman has over 30 years experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. He is the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and most recently The Winter Harvest Handbook. He has contributed chapters to three scientific books on organic agriculture and has written extensively on the subject since 1975. Eliot and his wife Barbara Damrosch presently operate a commercial year-round market garden, in addition to horticultural research projects, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.