On the topic of the ‘greats’

We’ve had some fabulous comments on the blog lately, including two from Nita and Allison that warrant a careful read. I had many comments on my review of Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food that doubled as a review of Omnivore’s Dilemma. Many folks voiced that they enjoyed Omnivore, which admittedly I did too. My criticisms were mostly based on my own expectations for the book, which I didn’t feel were met. But, again, as I said in the original post, the new book is a beautiful accessible follow up, so I’m satisfied in the end. In fact, I should probably now reread Omnivore, because I’d be able to relax more and enjoy the ride.

Nita, however, commented on my references to Joel Salatin in that review. In addition to relating some personal experiences with livestock raising, Nita commented: “I have read and heard quite a bit about Joel Salatin lately. Personally, I don’t think his books make livestock production seem any simpler than Elliot Coleman does market gardening, or Lynn Miller does farming with draft horses.”

Good point, Nita. And, I agree. Here’s where things get sticky and I’ll probably raise some controversy … Casey and I lately have been finding less and less use for some of the ‘great’ farm writers, especially folks who have set out to write ‘how-to’ books, in particular Joel Salatin and Elliot Coleman. And, again, as with my earlier review of Omnivore, our criticisms lie less with those authors’ actual goals and more with our own needs. When we first started farming, we actively read all of Coleman’s and many of Salatin’s books (among others). If nothing else, these books gave us the language with which to understand and talk about all of our brand-new experiences with vegetable and livestock farming. The knowledge we gained from these explicitly ‘how-to’ books was inter-weaved with real world experience at Cedarville Farm and the information we gleaned from countless other farming books and journals (many of which were not ‘how-to’-style books).

So, when we finally started our own farm, Elliot and Salatin’s voices were just few among many. We frequently referenced their texts as we had questions, but we just as frequently emailed or called our mentor farmer or asked other farmers for advice. And based on our understanding of vegetable market gardening, we deviated all of our production methods from Coleman’s from the get-go. For example: we didn’t use soil blocks (we tried them briefly with much frustration), and we didn’t rely exclusively on a walking tiller as Coleman proposes one can do. Instead, many of our methods mimicked the farmer we trained with, but even those quickly evolved to suit our unique situation. And our methods shifted once again as we moved to our new land, which had an even different set of limitations and strengths.

Knowing what we know today, we can’t see a way that we could have copied any of Coleman’s proposed vegetable production methods with good success on our land. The situations are just vastly different in terms of scale, climate, soil type, market, labor availability, etc. (Incidentally, some of the production methods promoted in The New Organic Grower aren’t even followed by Coleman himself anymore, such as exclusive reliance upon a walking tiller.)

Also, both Coleman and Salatin’s books present themselves as exhaustive texts, but they’re not. They can’t be. I could describe to you, seemingly in detail, our transplant program here at Oakhill Organics and still not accurately convey every step or piece of infrastructure required. For example, we might describe the size plug trays we use, what our soil mix consists of and when we sow each vegetable. But infrastructure details that could be easily overlooked might be how we: drop seeds into flats, irrigate our starts, physically move the flats around the greenhouse and into the fields, provide heat and protection to starts, ‘harden’ them off, prevent pests, store empty flats, etc. And even more specific location details that could relate: how cold our average nighttime low drops, how soon we can work our fields for transplanting, what our day length is through the season, how many days on average are sunny or cloudy, etc.

Farming consists of specific details. And, I think that what frustrates Casey and me is when farm writers attempt to generalize from their own set of specific details, as though great transcendent lessons about production can be drawn from one farm. One production method might make great sense in one location with one farmer but not make sense at all elsewhere.

For example, at Cedarville Farm, where we trained, we transplanted almost everything we grew. At Cedarville there were many benefits to this plan. The growing season in Bellingham is relatively short and field space was maximized, so starting plants in plug trays allowed them to be already sized up as soon as the ground could be worked (giving a greater chance of maturity before season’s end) and to get a jump start before taking up valuable field space. So, at Cedarville we transplanted a wider variety of vegetables than most people would think possible, including some items often considered ‘untrasplantable’ such as peas, beets, corn and beans. At Cedarville, that choice made sense.

We copied that method our first year to fairly good success. At Seven Spoke, where we leased land, we had some of the same limitations: a late start on our land, limited space, etc. But last year, as we moved to our new land, we found ourselves experimenting more with direct sowing crops. We found that, if we waited long enough for the ground to be warm and suitably prepped, that we had great success with direct sown items. And for us, whose primary limitation is at this point is labor (because we don’t have employees), direct sowing has become a huge asset on our farm. Even if we might have less predictable yield from a direct sown bed of beets or corn, the labor we save by not transplanting makes it a more valuable planting for us. Also, since we have the cultivating tractor, taking care of those beds is easier than it might be otherwise. We also learned this last season that if we row cover every direct sown bed, we dramatically increase our germination rate (we think for three reasons: increased soil surface temperature; reduced risk of surface crusting; and increased moisture retention). Row covering takes time, but again for our situation the combination of direct seeding and row covering is a good choice.

All this to say that production method success is so incredibly situation specific. So much so that I think writers like Coleman and Salatin tend to leave out important contextual details, such as both being on the east coast where irrigation is not the enormous issue it is in the west (this is something that I don’t even think farmers on the east coast can fully appreciate unless they’ve spent a summer out west).

Ok, so the books are limited: who cares? We do. Why? Because we’ve met a lot of young, new farmers who not surprisingly treat Coleman and Salatin’s books as sacred texts (at least when they start out). More important, without real-world farm experiences, people can dangerously rely on these texts to be the exhaustive source of information they pose to be — not even knowing how much they are missing in real world farm experience. And, again, we still reference Coleman’s texts, so I’m not saying that they’re useless — they’re just not complete. I don’t think any book could ever teach any one farmer how to successfully farm. That would be like saying a book could teach someone how to be a successful doctor. As in medicine, farming is just too complex and filled with real world subtleties to be summed up in any number of texts.

Now that I’ve torn down the greats, what would I recommend a new or aspiring farmer read? Everything. Read Salatin and Coleman for sure, but also read hundreds of other books about farming, especially books that discuss the specific details of one or many farms rather than trying to generalize a set of production methods. We like books that rather than saying ‘here, you do this,’ say ‘this is what I do and here’s why.’

Some of our favorite texts for these attributes are the writings of Ann and Eric Nordell (published in The Small Farmers’ Journal). Even though we don’t farm with horses, the Nordells’ thorough analyses and descriptions of their own farm bear great gems (especially their thoughts on bio-extensive gardening and dry fallowing). We also love three slim little books that continually place farming in context: The Soul of Soil: a Guide to Ecological Soil Management by Grace Gershuny and Joseph Smillie, Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest by Binda Colebrook, and Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland. Another great free book is The New American Farmer, a SARE project that profiles dozens of sustainably-minded farms across the country (Download the entire book here). There are many other great free extension service documents available online, including Steel in the Field. Check out the OSU Small Farms website for links to many. For veggie cultural information, we find seed catalogs to be some of our greatest resources, especially Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Growing for Market (especially the old issues) has also been an invaluable resource for different ideas on marketing and producing vegetables. For a wider systems-level look at farming, we of course adore everything by Wendell Berry. We love reference books too, Weeds of the West (identification photos of various weeds!) and Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers. And, although his production information doesn’t always apply to our scale, we really enjoy Gene Logsden.

But of course, none of this will mean anything without real world experience. Reading about harvesting broccoli at ‘mature size’ doesn’t mean anything until you’ve walked a narrow path between dew-filled broccoli leaves and felt your shoes fill with liquid while you hunt for the appropriate balance between tight buds and open flower. And then done it a hundred more times.

And a huge part of our continued education (besides farming itself) is visiting other farms and talking to other farmers.

In other words, we simply wish books came with caveats: try this if you will, but be prepared to find your own methods for success. If we ever write a book, you bet it will be full of caveats, qualifiers and other warnings. (Although I imagine caveat-filled books don’t excite publishers quite as much however, so perhaps Coleman’s not entirely to blame!)

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2 Responses to On the topic of the ‘greats’

  1. Chris says:

    So see, now you two have officially become grumpy cynical farmers. Haha, just kidding.
    But it is cool to see the path you’ve taken. If you look closely you should be able to see Melanie and my footprints as well.

    I think what we see happening is the next paradigm shift in farming. Coleman and Salatin’s books were exactly what the small organic farming movement needed in the 90’s and early 2000’s. They set a tone and a foundation for what the next generations would build on. And I agree that both of them, at times, speak with a “This is how it is” tone. But I think that’s necessary for any modern day authors. If you don’t speak with authority people don’t generally take you seriously. And we’ve definitely seen a fair share of people not taking “those organic hippy farmers” seriously in the past. But now we’re growing up. And some people don’t like that organic has grown up, but that’s ok. I sure do. Having the movement grow up allows people like your farm, our farm, and others to actually be a viable business and buy things to be mroe efficient like equipment and (whoa!) health insurance. And have a life beyond just bunching carrots.

    So what will the authors of our generation look like? Not sure yet but I’m betting some of it will happen through blogs like this. More of a conversation instead of a tome.

    That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with my new farm resource blog (www.wannafarm.com) It’s just starting out but I ponder all the cool possibilities it will allow- especially through the use of online video. We can share ideas and tricks and check it out across the world. That’s innovation that our current farmers need to learn to use. And yes I know many of us are luddites of sorts. I am at heart, but I also don’t want to be left in the dirt of the even younger generation. I want to be able to pass the info that I have along in a language that they’ll understand. So if I have to learn HTML code to do that, then so be it.

    We’re still just at the tip of the iceberg here. We’ve got a long long way to go but it looks promising to me.

  2. Nita says:

    Wow! Katie thanks for the excellent review of Eliot Coleman, and thanks for mentioning Eric and Anne Nordell. We’ve been fans of theirs for years. I wish they would put out a mainstream book. Even though we only raise vegetables for ourselves, we have been using their rotation and weed control plans for quite awhile now with great success. Our water supply is limited for irrigation, so the Nordells’ approach to dry land farming/gardening fits our operation perfectly. A friend/colleague of ours, Laura Masterson has bought land in your area. I hope when we visit her new farm we can maybe meet you and see your beautiful farm in person. I have just started a blog about our farm, http://matronofhusbandry.wordpress.com/
    it will be a journal of our farm life, comparing farming on the same ground over the years 1881 – present day. Thanks again – for sharing your farm life. Nita

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