Living on the Earth, August 8, 1997: Growing Organically
When I started growing food almost thirty years ago, my training and experience
as an environmental artist informed my approach. As a result, it was easy to
decide not to use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Why would anyone want to
apply poisons to food they were going to eat? The more I learned about
synthetic fertilizers, the less I liked them.
Back then, however, agriculture, as taught and defended by the USDA Extension
Service and vocational agriculture schools, promoted chemicals as the mainstay
of production. At the time, organic agriculture was scoffed at and dismissed as
irrelevant, except perhaps for small gardens.
So I tapped into the knowledge of organic growing that Robert Rodale, Ruth Stout
and others had been spreading for over two decades. I discovered that organic
methods using composts, cover crops, mulches, mixed cropping and companion
plantings had fed the world for thousands of years. These methods made sense
ecologically and aesthetically.
I joined NOFA, now the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and other folks
who were making the same journey; people who believed that food and how it is
grown, are important for the health of their families, their communities and for
the earth. We had lots to learn and to share. We discovered similar
organizations all over this country and interest in sustainable and organic
methods all over the world. In 1980, the USDA's very positive "Report and
Recommendations on Organic Farming" offered the hope that even the
slow-to-change government establishment was waking up. The report said
basically that organic agriculture addressed serious problems successfully and
worked well. The sense that things were moving ahead was destroyed by the
election of Ronald Reagan as president. He shelved the report, fired its
author, and the chemical approach persisted and grew. Through the 1980s,
however, there was a steadily-increasing awareness of the environmental damage
inflicted by conventional agriculture, and of the serious dangers of pesticides.
The public learned faster than agribusiness and government did.
The evidence against pesticides keeps growing. Recent community health studies
in Iowa link herbicide use with a number of serious, infant-health problems.
Another study from the Great Lakes region shows that some farmers are increasing
their profits and protecting wildlife by reducing their pesticide use. Closer
to home, Yale Professor John Wargo's new book Our Children's Toxic Legacy,
details the very flawed processes this country uses to regulate pesticides, and
particularly how children are adversly affected.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s, NOFA members, as well as farmers and gardeners
all over the country, kept on learning how to use organic methods, while they
created organic certification programs, community gardens, farmers markets and
the other important elements of a secure, local, food system. Organic and other
lower-input ways of farming are now rapidly growing. Through the 1990s, demand
for organic food has risen over 20 percent each year. The number of farmers
markets is at an all-time high. In addition to co-ops and health-food stores,
giant supermarkets now sell organic produce. Even a mainstream line of hair
products lists ingredients that include certified organic herbs!
Earlier this summer, Swissair announced that the food and beverages on its
flights from Switzerland are now organically-grown. The Bangor newspaper which
the kids brought back from their vacation, reports about the rapid change to
organic dairy farms in Maine. An increasing consumer demand for organic milk,
in order to avoid synthetic hormones (that are now in most other dairy
products), influenced the farmers to "go organic." Another story reported that
many chefs are demanding local organic food for its flavor and for its positive
But watch out! The same folks* who thought that pesticides were necessary, are
now pushing genetically-engineered foods and a global food system. But we're not
easily fooled. We're still learning and working together to create a regional,
organic food system.
Today through Sunday, about a thousand gardeners, farmers and eaters from the
northeastern states are gathering at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts
for the 23rd annual NOFA Summer Conference. For more information, call (413)
549-4600, and ask for NOFA.
Hope to see you there!
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
*The Secretary of Agriculture, large input suppliers, land grant institutions
and state departments of agriculture, for examples.
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.