Shallow Organic Farming Versus Deep Organic Farming
I wanted to post this excerpt from Eliot Coleman* (one of our favorite authors) about the difference in types of organic farming. Many people who purchase organic produce, whether certified or not, are not aware that some types of organic gardening simply mirror industrial agriculture, instead of mimicking natural systems and improving the land (what Coleman refers to as “shallow organic” vs “deep organic”).
From The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman:
“Since the 1930s, organic farming has been subjected to the traditional three-step progression that occurs with any new idea directly challenging orthodoxy. First, the orthodoxy dismisses it. Then it spends decades contesting its validity. Finally, it moves in to take it over. Now that organic agriculture has become an obvious economic force, industrial agriculture wants to control it. Since the first step in controlling a process is to define (or redefine) it, the USDA hastened to influence the setting of organic standards – in part by establishing a legal definition of the word “organic” – and the organic spokespeople naively permitted it.
Wise people had long warned against such a step. Thirty years ago, Lady Eve Balfour, one of the most knowledgeable organic pioneers from the 1930s, said, “I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the attitude of the farmer. Without a positive and ecological approach, it is not possible to farm organically.” When I heard Lady Eve make that statement at an international conference on organic farming at Sissach, Switzerland, in 1977, the co-option and redefinition of organic by the USDA was far in the future. I knew very well what she meant though, because by that time I had been involved long enough to have absorbed the old-time organic ideas, and I was alert enough to see the changes that were beginning to appear.
When you study the history of almost any new idea it becomes clear how the involvement of the old power structure in the new paradigm tends to move things backwards. Minds mired in an industrial thinking pattern, where farmers are merely sources of raw materials, cannot see beyond the outputs of production. They don’t normally consider the values of production or the economic benefits to the producers. While co-opting and regulating the organic method, the USDA ignored the organic goal. But I believe that it is the original organic goal, and not the modern redirection set by the USDA, that can save the family farm, and thus we need to know the difference. To better convey this difference, I like to borrow two words from the ecology movement and refer to “deep” organic farming and “shallow” organic farming.
Deep-organic farmers, in addition to rejecting agricultural chemicals, look for better ways to farm. Inspired by the elegance of Nature’s systems, they try to mimic the patterns of the natural world’s soil-plant economy. They use freely available natural soil foods from deep-rooting legumes, green manures, and composts to correct the causes of an infertile soil by establishing a vigorous soil life. They acknowledge that the underlying cause of pest problems (insects and diseases) is plant stress; they know they can avoid pest problems by managing soil tilth, nutrient balance, organic-matter content, water drainage, air flow, crop rotations, varietal selection, and other factors to reduce plant stress. In so doing, deep-organic farmers free themselves from the need to purchase fertilizers and pest-control products from the industrial supply network – the mercantile businesses that normally put profits in the pockets of middlemen and put family farms on the auction block. The goal of deep-organic farming is to grow the most nutritious food possible and to respect the primacy of a healthy planet. Needless to say, the industrial agriculture establishment sees this approach as a threat to the status quo since it is not an easy system for outsiders to quantify, control, or to profit from.
Shallow-organic farmers, on the other hand, after rejecting agricultural chemicals, look for quick-fix inputs. Trapped in a belief that the natural world is inadequate, they end up mimicking the patterns of agricultural chemicals. They use bagged or bottled organic fertilizers in order to supply nutrients that temporarily treat the symptoms of an infertile soil. They treat the symptoms of plant stress – insect and disease problems – by arming themselves with the latest natural organic weapons. In so doing, the shallow-organic farmers continue to deliver themselves into the control of an industrial supply network that is only too happy to sell them expensive symptom treatments. The goal of shallow-organic farming is merely to follow the approved guidelines and respect the primacy of international commerce. The industrial agricultural establishment looks on shallow-organic farming as an acceptable variation of chemical agribusiness since it is an easy system for the industry to quantify, to control and to profit from in the same ways it has done with chemical farming . Shallow-organic farming sustains the dependence of farmers on middlemen and fertilizer suppliers.
The difference in approach is a difference in life views. The shallow view regards the natural world of consisting of mostly inadequate, usually malevolent systems that must be battled or modified. The deep-organic view understands that the natural world consists of elegant, impeccably designed, smooth-functioning systems that must be studied and nurtured. The deep-organic pioneers learned that farming in partnership with natural processes of soil organisms also makes allowances for the unknowns. The living systems of a truly fertile soil contain all sorts of yet-to-be discovered benefits for plants – and consequently for the livestock and humans who consume them.”
In 2015, Mr. Coleman issued a more recent warning about Certified Organic:
“Long time supporters of organic farming need to realize that the ground is shifting under their feet. Rapidly. Ever since the USDA (and by association the industrial food lobbyists) was given control of the word, the integrity of the “USDA Certified Organic” label has been on a predictable descent to irrelevance. The organic community initially insisted on integrity and thought they had achieved it. Unfortunately, they permitted the foxes to manage the hen house. We now have 4000 cow dairies with no real access to grazing and 1000 acre vegetable fields fed on “soluble organic” fertilizers of suspicious provenance.”
Marc and I believe that one of the most pressing issues in our world today is the mining of soil nutrients – which occurs in both conventional farming and in shallow organic farming. Here at Finn Meadows Farm, we seek to build soil as quickly as we can in order to replace the nutrients that have cycled off our farm in the form of vegetables, fruits, and meat to nourish our community. If we do not replace these nutrients, the quality of our soil diminishes, and therefore the quality of our products diminishes too, which in turn means less nutritious food for those who eat it. By taking care of our soil using bio-intensive methods, we are also taking care of the people in our community who eat from the farm, by providing them with food high in nutrients.
Improving the garden soil with vegetable scraps from on-farm which have been composted is something that most farmers do. But unfortunately, compost made from garden veggie scraps doesn’t go too far. Think about it: having a vegetable operation means that you are using your soil nutrients to feed the veggies as they grow. Then the gardener harvests the vegetables and sells them. The gardener is essentially selling the nutrients that came from the soil to nourish the community. It makes sense, then, that there wouldn’t be many nutrients in vegetable scraps to cycle back into the garden. I know here at our farm our vegetable scraps only give us a few yards (one yard is one Bobcat scoop) of compost, which doesn’t help a 5 acre vegetable garden too much (5 acres = 5 football fields). So farmers need to keep replacing those nutrients somehow, which could be composted versions of any of the following: leaves, animal manure, vegetables from off-farm, yard waste, etc.
The only way to know whether a farm – even a certified organic one – is practicing shallow organic or deep organic farming at this point is by getting to know your farmers.
To know for sure, ask questions: How do you enrich your soil? (fertilizers are not the same as soil amendments) Do you use organic fertilizer? If so, how often? Do you spray organic chemicals? (bug problems can be a telltale sign of poor soil)
Were you aware of the controversy of shallow organic versus deep organic?
*Eliot Coleman is the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook. He has written extensively on the subject of organic agriculture since 1975, including chapters in scientific books. Eliot has more than 40 years’ experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. During his careers as a commercial market gardener, the director of agricultural research projects, and as a teacher and lecturer on organic gardening, he studied, practiced and perfected his craft. He served for two years as the Executive Director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and was an advisor to the US Department of Agriculture during their landmark 1979-80 study, “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming.”
He has conducted study tours of organic farms, market gardens, orchards and vineyards in Europe and has successfully combined European ideas with his own to develop and popularize a complete system of tools and equipment for organic vegetable growers. He shares that expertise through his lectures and writings, and has served as a tool consultant to a number of companies.