Sir Albert Howard published “An Agricultural Testament,” his best-known book, in 1940. In its 300 pages, he laid out the scientific foundation for what has become the organic farming and gardening movement. Of course, very little of what Howard expounded in his magnum opus was really new–much of it was the logical, scientific justification for, and tweaking of, age-old farming practices, such as composting, crop rotations, and the importance of soil structure and the microlife that maintains healthy soil.
But he wasn’t solely focused on plants and dirt. He understood the importance of the whole ecosystem that surrounds a piece of farmland–“The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible,” is a quote from him much treasured by The Soil Association, The United Kingdom’s premier organic farming organization.
His beginnings are not exactly humble. Howard was born into a successful farming family in England in 1873, and educated in “scientific agriculture” at Cambridge and other English universities.
And what was “scientific agriculture” at the turn of the twentieth century? It included the use of lead arsenate as an insecticide, a practice since discontinued due to the unfortunate tendency of the lead and arsenic to build up in the soil and poison not just the target insects, but the soil itself, anything grown in it, and anyone who eats the poisoned produce. Brilliantly, lead arsenate was replaced in the late 1940’s by….DDT! Oh, the marvels of unintended consequences! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After graduation, Howard went to Barbados for a few years, where he taught mycology and agriculture, then cycled back through England, and then, courtesy of the Empire that the Sun never set on, was sent to India to enlighten the heathen on the advantages of modern agriculture. Instead, the heathen enlightened him. He saw the profound, circular connection between land and the animals and people who feed from it, and turned his scientific training on the age-old process of composting, which resulted in what he called “The Indore Method” of composting, and no, it’s not intended to take place indoors! It’s named after a town in India. “The Indore method” involves the mixing of animal manure, green manure, earth, water, and air, and turns these raw materials into humus, the organic component of soil from which all the blessings of agriculture flow.
Howard’s work was brought to the U.S. by J.I. Rodale, Gandhi acolyte and Walnut Acres founder Paul Keene, Scott and Helen Nearing, and E.E. Pfeiffer, who married Howard’s science with the mystical biodynamic insights of Rudolph Steiner. By the end of the Second World War, the seeds of an agricultural revolution had been planted. But, just as the cultural revolutionaries of the 60’s and 70’s were overwhelmed by the marketing forces of Madison Avenue and the brute force of law enforcement, the agricultural revolutionaries of the 1940’s were overwhelmed when the U.S. industrial base, which had mushroomed to meet the production demands of the war, successfully sought to maintain its momentum by transforming America into a high-tech, credit-driven, consumer society. Down on the farm, this meant that the age-old skills of horse-driven farming were lost in an onslaught of cheap tractors, turned out on assembly lines that had made tanks. The wisdom of manuring and cover cropping lost ground to chemical plant food, as the country’s many munitions factories turned to the production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Crop rotation, the art and science of changing what is grown where to avoid nutrient depletion and weed or insect infestation, nearly vanished in a chemical fog as inexpensive pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides made their appearance, all alleged to be so much safer than the old lead and mercury potions that had taken their toll. As it turns out, most of them weren’t safer–but that’s another story.
Another roadblock for the post WWII organic farming movement was the growth of suburbia and its attendant cookie-cutter culture. Not only were most of the choicest fields near big urban areas turned into tract house lawns, but the local grocery supply networks were supplanted by national chain stores that bought big quantities of produce and other foods at low prices from large nationwide suppliers. Local restaurants, too, were driven out by fast food providers who, for the most part, heated up frozen foods from a central warehouse, to assure uniformity in their product.
The net effect of all these “improvements” destroyed the circular nature of traditional agriculture, and changed it into a linear process. Fields that had thrived on farm-produced manure and cover crops were now fed by chemical fertilizer that by its very nature could not be produced at home, and that must be paid for with money. As the country’s meat and dairy industry became increasingly centralized, manure was no longer a valuable soil amendment, but a pollutant that fouled the air and water for miles around the “super-efficient” (but not really) “Confined Animal Feeding Operations.” The new miracle chemicals–fertilizers,pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides–likewise killed far more than their targets, decimating wildlife and rural water quality.
But it would take a few decades for all this to sink in. Meanwhile, organic, locally grown food settled into being a “niche market,” something only the at least moderately wealthy could afford and only the true believers were willing to produce, and there things stayed for several decades, disturbed only distantly by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” popularized a little more by the counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s. Sure, there were plenty of stories of poisoned farm workers, unhealthy ingredients, and other dangers, but this did not dislodge the American public’s faith in the industrial food system.
Lately, however, there’s change in the air. The money, the oil, and all the agricultural chemicals that are made from or with that oil, are starting to dry up. Natural gas, the raw material for making ammonium nitrate, as well as many pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, is increasingly expensive to produce. And then there’s fracking, which is where more and more of our natural gas is coming from, but that’s a whole other topic. Furthermore, the world’s supply of phosphate, another of the most important plant nutrients, is nearly exhausted. As a result of all this, prices are rising, corners are being cut, and those cut corners are resulting in more and more incidents of large quantities of contaminated food, from meat to salads, being sold and consumed before anybody discovers the danger. Meanwhile, in the countryside where this factory food is being produced, air and water pollution are on the rise.
And this is only the beginning. The vast international apparatus that provides most of us with our daily bread, meat, milk, fruit and vegetables, runs on gasoline and diesel fuel, and the needle on the planet’s gas gauge is settling down towards that big “E.” Our world-wide food production and distribution system is in severe danger of falling apart, leaving us with empty grocery stores and empty stomachs.
It sounds like a job for Local Organic Man–or Local Organic Woman–and, indeed, a veritable New Model Army of visionaries with their hands in the dirt is springing up to meet this challenge, from Will Allen’s urban farming efforts in Milwaukee and Chicago to Wes Jackson’s work with perennial polyculture grain farming at the Land Institute in Kansas. Another such pioneer is David Kennedy, whose recently published book, “21st Century Greens,” is what inspired me to talk about farming this month–and hey, October is traditional harvest time here in the Northern Hemisphere, so it’s certainly an appropriate topic. I’ll tell you more about 21st Century Greens after this music break.
music: The Band, “King Harvest“