Why Small Organic Farms Are Radical (and Beautiful)

Four Season Farm

The radical idea behind by organic agriculture is a change in focus.

[This post was adapted from an address given at the recent Eco-Farm conference in California.]

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. Let me see if I can explain.

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 more 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 indomitably 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 the ideal metaphorical mascots for the small family farm.


I was being a rascal. In my studies I’m learning to interpret things in 70 different ways on each of 4 levels. So, in the second reading, I almost lost my coffee when I read the double meaning. I knew it wasn’t intended, but it was too good to pass up. Being in deep shit was happy for the bird until it started singing. (Hope you know the joke. My cat knows it.)

A little Hebrew lesson. The word “dominion” has a different meaning than many give it. The word “YiRaD” can be analyzed by looking at the letters. The Yud is a point of emanation, a starting point.It has the sense of Divinity, or the top of whatever levels you are comparing. The Reish can also be said as Rosh or head. It’s a level lower, so we are starting a descent. The Dalet means poor. The word itself can be interpreted as descending. As the word Jordan means “Descender” and the root of the word Jordan.

Going one verse before, we were created in the “Image.” Again, there is another meaning. It means “shadow.” The richer meaning is the we the lower one moves, the upper one will move also.
The problem is, the dominion verse contains the paradox of simultaneously being over and under at the same time. There is a clue in the numerical value of YiRaD. It is 215 which reduces to 8. There is an infinity above and an infinity below. However, when the relationship is perfect, the two circles overlap and have zero size. It’s a complete oneness with no supernal or inferior relationship.

Now to move to the Christian book. “The last shall be first.” Unfortunately, the book wasn’t written in Hebrew. But the meaning might be the concept must be formed in the mind first, before it can descend to the level of being done. It’s a command to plan.
Another one that I like better is “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Those willing to descend and put themselves in the position of being commanded by the earth, responding to the earth’s “desires” will inherit it.

And this pretty much defines the organic farmer, or in my case a gardener. I’m physically above the earth, but I’m accepting the wishes of the earth. I try to be very sensitive to what the soil, plants, insects, and birds are telling me. I’ve learned to stay away from the garden at the times the robins come. And to be in the garden when the grackles come. The ladybugs like to come out about 3 hours into the day and don’t like people. So I stay out then. The spiders start to weave their webs as sunset is approaching, so I disturb the areas around the garden, but keep the garden itself safe for them. There are now webs all over the garden in the morning.

So, am I taking a divine position by granting the wishes of the things I have dominion over? Or am I taking the servant position? Ideally, it’s neither and both at the same time. I become one of the organisms in the garden that makes the least effort of any of them, but I’m essential to the ecosystem of the garden. If I understand the point of the circle that is my existence, I can ensure the circle isn’t broken.

I was amazed as I examined the word “ORGANIC”

O There is no O in the written Hebrew language. (We don’t write the vowels. All vowels are formed with an open throat and are said to give life to the words.) Amazingly, the O sound is the vowel Dagesh which means life. It’s numerical value is 18. This is the same numerical value as the word for life. The 10 part of it would be the supernal part. The 8 would be the relationship and oneness. However, the vowel must be attached to a silent consonant. I’ll leave that discussion out as it’s too long.

R This had the concept of head, creation (It’s the middle letter in Bara which is usually translated as creation, but it actually means in the revelation of what is in the head.)
The first two letters spell “Or” which means light in Hebrew. That would take a book to explain.

G would be the gimmel, which is the sense of being a benefactor for someone. It is shaped like a person using a hoe. It is the first letter of Gan or Garden. It can also mean “to nourish until ripe.”

A This would be the unwritten letter Petach which is the birth opening.

The letters spell Gan which is the word for Garden in Hebrew.
N At the end of a word, it means to draw the Divine’s infinite light down into the world with man being the one to do it. If man doesn’t do it properly, it also has the meaning of deceit. It also can have the meaning o f kingship.

I I don’t have an explanation for this, but the probable letter is Yud. Probably related to our role as half of the relationship.

C This would be the Cof which has the meaning of a perfect kingship relationship in Hebrew. Put at the end of a word, it’s shaped like an upsidedown L in Hebrew and it reaches from above to below. The letter itself means to submit oneself to higher power. That should be the role of the gardener with the crops being the higher power. Or better yet, the soil….or the earth…etc. The meaning at the end of the word has the concept of a king reaching down to lower levels and being benevolent to the subjects. When added to the end of the word, it is a command with a singular You with you being required to do the action. (Like “Work.” I could write an essay on this, too.)

The word ORGANIC all together in Hebrew might have the concept of You are working to draw forth the Divine Light.

These are the types of things I think of when gardening. One thing I do know, it gives me a connection with whatever it is that is in the position of a servant, in the position of a king, and in the position of one who connects the servant and king. In its perfection, they are all one.

(That’s just two interpretations. I’ll pass on the other 278. It just keeps expanding as I ponder it.)

Now, now, Gershon…the last part wasn’t “good guy”, it was “for a fecophobe”. Which, judging by your little smiley icon, I think you got that but I want to be sure. If you did, then you’re being a rascal as well as a fecophobe and I am being afflicted by a fecophobic rascal. Meaning that I’m in karmic deep shit–the kind of shit you can’t compost.

Seriously, if only for a moment, I’ve been thinking since you first posted it that I should write and request that Gene offer you a guest post on tasting dirt. I was quite fascinated by that and I imagine a few others might have been as well. I don’t know how much there might be to elaborate about it but at first reading it just resonated as something that made great sense in a simpler, dirtier world.

So, Mr. Logsden, what do you think? Might you encourage this imp to provide us with an essay on dirt tasting?

Steve – I would personally change “thus” to “possibly”. It might also possibly imply that the garden is the best place to live or learn or serve. Dominion dwells in that Biblical paradox of the last being first.
I guess.
( to quote a line from the introduction in a world famous author’s latest irreverent but nonetheless holy book ).

Gershon – I love the line on “affliction therapy”. It has been permanently added to my vocabulary. All these years of failings now have a wonderful context. The contract must have some fine print though because I have definitely enjoyed some undeserved abundance along the way.


Why are you kidding about the good guy part? 😛

When I planted a garden in the front yard, I mentioned I was being a little rebellious to a friend. He said “You aren’t the one being rebellious. It’s those who aren’t planting vegetables who are being rebellious.” It seems like anyone in the minority is being rebellious.

Wull, Steve, I know yer not god, but how do ya think we’re doing with that mandate? Assuming your assumption about implications is accurate.

And Gershon, thanks for your generosity and willingness to say what you see. For a fecophobe, you’re a pretty good guy. OK, OK kidding about the last part.

My relationship with everything was forever changed by Michael Pollan’s book “The Botany of Desire” and Sir Albert Howard’s “The soil and health: a study of organic agriculture‎.”

Couple that with a lot of obscure Chassidic writings my daughter and I have studied and I’ve completely changed my view of it. (I don’t even know what to call it.)

Humans are the lowest form of existence on earth. We are the only ones who are almost completely unreliable. If I want to meet a spider, or some ladybugs, or a lot of bees, dragon flies, etc. in the garden, all I need to do is know where the sun will be when they come. They never seem to have other plans like people do. However, to meet them in quantity, I have to set the table with blossoms or the right plants. This is also very predictable.

It seems everything in creation except humans acts in a predictable way in response to our efforts as a servant to all of creation.

All the human adjectives for whatever Divinity one follows seem to fall short in some way. I’ve found divinity is the garden and responds in kind to the actions of the gardener. The analogy can go deeper into the soil, or wider to the earth, with the earth being a metaphor for Divinity with a capital D. But once one understands the garden – gardener relationship, with the gardener being the lesser one, other levels are similar.

In the Jewish book, we have an unbreakable contract. If, in general, we behave the way we are supposed to, we get abundance. If we don’t, we get affliction therapy. The book is similar to other books. It’s not a book that could have been written by humans. Maybe a bee, worm, vegetable, microbe or something that is faithful wrote it. But certainly not a human. On the other hand (we are good at accepting opposite opinions) only a human could have placed us over the rest of creation. If one believes the best selling metaphor/account/legend/myth (I can accept all of these) on the description of creation everything else existed just fine before we came along.

The notion of plants having personalities is precious. One that would almost have to emanate from the innocence of a child. Its something that connects not only the knees and the fingers to the earth, but also the mind. More so than the relative scale of small farming vs. home gardening, it seems that having one’s brain and/or soul in the dirt is what is at the core of these subversive practices. Someone Coleman mentions, Thomas Jefferson, was not at all a small farmer by the scale of his day, but he clearly had his neurons in the soil. Another aspect of small scale farming, though not addressed here by Coleman, is small scale husbandry and the parallel idea that not just things with sap in their veins, but things with blood in their veins have personalities and that they bear witness to and reward the quality of the care and love they receive. This practice, too, is sometimes shared by radical urbanites. All of these things point us toward a more profound relationship with our mother…she who, at least up to now, continues to feed us despite the abuse our tribe has heaped upon her.

Smaller is wondrous.

Organic farming is fine, and I’m a member of a CSA that uses a “look me in the eye and I’ll tell you how I grow” method. The vegetables taste very good and I enjoy going there.

But it doesn’t compare to the next radical step in smallness. The home garden.

This year, my daughter and I planted our first garden together. As we planted the peas on St. Patrick’s day, unknown to me, she named them all. How she came up with 300 names that quickly, I don’t know. She was very excited when they came up, and she ticked off their names as they sprouted.

To keep it short (too late) I’ll jump to now. We have been harvesting almost all the vegetables we eat since May 15th. Along the way, we have learned the wonders of the garden. An example is the spiders that come out to spin their webs in the same place at the same time each evening.

Then their are those just visiting, like the Banded Spider that makes a web which has what looks like a zipper in it.

It has me wonder if all the other insects are faithful to their “chores” each day.

The plants are growing based on how we treated them. We know each one as individuals. They are faithful to produce at the level we served them along the way.

I’ve learned people fear people who have gardens. I had one in my front yard, but the HOA got all upset, so I had to till it under.

Organic small farms may be radical, but the home garden is RADICAL.

I was there for the speech by Coleman, brought me to tears. Thanks for that. In a side note, Google has an add on your page for Farm Fresh to You, pretty hypocritical if you’re talking about small being beautiful- they have just under 15,000 CSA members. Quite a controversy here in California.

Bravo! Wonderfully put Mr. Coleman. As much as I am by nature reclusive, I need the conection to others of a similar mind to keep going. Thanks for the lift.

It makes me feel like I should be wielding a sword while tending my gardens.

Great stuff! I especially liked the idea that small, organic farms are subversive, and that they can keep the forces of globaloney at bay.

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