Monday, August 31, 2015

Organic History and the NOFA Summer Conference ~ "The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible"

by Bill Duesing

The 41st NOFA Summer Conference last month at the University of Massachusetts in
Amherst provided an exciting combination of cutting edge and practical information so useful for organic growers and eaters as well as opportunities to visit with old and new NOFA friends, just as it has for four decades.

It also provided an opportunity to reflect on the history of the organic movement and how the holistic organic approach with deep roots in traditional cultures has the ability to solve current environmental and social problems. (For more on the value of this approach, I highly recommend Bill McKibben's recent essay "The Pope and the Planet" in the New York Review of Books.)

Over 1,100 people of all ages attended this year's conference which was dedicated to Juanita Nelson, a peace and civil rights activist, war tax refuser, subsistence farmer, the impetus behind Greenfield, Massachusetts' Free Harvest Supper and Winter Fare and a longtime NOFA member.

The theme, "Healing the Climate, Healing Ourselves: Regeneration through Microbiology" referred to the two keynote presentations.  On Friday night, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride talked about the numerous roles the microorganisms in our intestines (the human microbiome) play in our physical and mental health in a presentation titled "Overcoming Psychiatric Problems by Healing the Digestive System." On Saturday night, Ronnie Cummins talked about the role of the soil microbiome in soil, plant and planetary health in "Reversing Global Warming and Rural Poverty through Regenerative Organics."  These two presentations were a near perfect expression of the holistic nature of organic agriculture as expressed in the quote at the beginning of this piece which is variously attributed to Sir Albert Howard and to Lady Eve Balfour. 

Howard went to India nearly a century ago to teach farmers there good British agricultural methods.  Instead he a discovered a better way to farm based on composting, crop rotation and human labor.  His An Agricultural Testament was published in 1940 and was very influential in the early organic farming movement.

Organic farming pioneer, Lady Eve Balfour, began farming in Britain in 1920.  In 1943, she published The Living Soil based on the first three years of her pioneering side-by-side comparison of  organic and chemical farming. A few years later she founded the Soil Association, still Britain's organic farming organization.

Before the Saturday night keynote, NOFA/Mass premiered its video on restoring carbon to the soil with the help of plants and a vibrant soil ecosystem.  The organization also distributed its white paper, "Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology do the Job?" written by Jack Kittredge. Both of these valuable resources are available here. The short version is that much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is altering the climate originally came from the soil as a result of tillage, agricultural chemical use, long periods of bare soil between cash crops as well as from deforestation. One of the most powerful and viable ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere is to restore it to the soil by using growing methods which keep the soil covered with a variety of plants as much a possible and tilling as little as possible.  Another important tool in this work is careful, rotational grazing by animals to encourage deep rooted, diverse pastures and vigorous soil life. These strategies can also help restore water to soil and aquifers and increase plant health and resistance to diseases.

Of the more than 100 workshops offered, I attended five, all of which provided valuable information for use on our farm.  Farmer Daniel Botkin's workshop "Build and Manage Low-tech, Low-cost Low-tunnels" demonstrated many ways to expand the use of low tunnels including as nurseries for a variety of crops, to grow crops that are not quite hardy here and to extend the harvest season at both ends. He keeps any soil that isn't covered by plants mulched with hay. He doesn't ever till his soil. (This reminded me of Connecticut gardener Ruth Stout who was famous for using mulch instead of tillage in her garden.) Julie Rawson, who presented the workshop "Raising High Quality Vegetables while Building Carbon" does some tillage, but always adds compost or cover crops at the same time. Julie uses many different cover crops and creates specialized composts for different plants.  The workshop "Improving Soil Health with Cover Crops" was presented by Thomas Akin, the Massachusetts State Resource Conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He encouraged vegetable farmers to use a diverse mixture of cover crops whenever possible to fix nitrogen, scavenge nutrients and feed a wide variety of soil organisms.  In the past few years, the NRCS has become very active in promoting practices which increase and maintain soil health.

UMass Extension Associate Susan Scheufele's very informative workshop on "Integrated Pest Management in Brassicas" (using organic strategies) provided examples of the effects the changing climate is having on our growing practices.  New pests have moved into this region as temperatures warm and the growing season lengthens. Fortunately, for managing most of these insects and diseases, there are low-tech organic methods, such as using straw mulch, perimeter trap crops and good scouting. It was wonderful to hear this UMass extension educator talk so knowledgeably and respectfully about organic methods. It hasn't been and and still isn't always so. (You can view Susan's Powerpoint slides here.  Be forewarned  that it includes information about chemical controls which she skipped at NOFA.)

I finished up the conference with Dan Rosenberg's excellent  "Advanced Vegetable Fermentation" workshop to learn more about this low energy and healthful way to preserve the bounty of the harvest for winter eating. The founder of Real Pickles, Dan was able to address questions from folks who were fermenting a wide variety of vegetables at home and on a commercial scale.

Receiving the first "Bill Duesing Lifetime Achievement Award"
This year's conference also provided me with three opportunities to reflect on the growth of the organic movement in this region, on the deep roots of organic practice and my involvement with NOFA. I presented a workshop on "Organic History, Theory and Practice" and was interviewed as part of the oral history project at the W.E.B. Dubois Library at UMass which is collecting NOFA archives as part of its social change in New England collection. Then on Saturday night, I was awarded the first "Bill Duesing Lifetime Achievement Award" by the NOFA Interstate Council.

How it all began . . .

It was just a little notice in Organic Gardening magazine early in 1972 that got me connected to NOFA, then only a few months old and based in Vermont. The notice advertised a meeting of organic farmers that winter. (I believe it was in a Grange hall basement.) For three years before that I had lived on an old farm and grown food as part of the Pulsa artists' commune at Harmony Ranch in Oxford, CT.  Several members had parents who were organic gardeners so Organic Gardening magazines were always lying around the farmhouse.  

My first garden at Harmony Ranch as seen in the article, "The Public Sensoriums of Pulsa: Cybernetic Abstraction and the Biopolitics of Urban Survival" in the fall 2008 issue of Art Journal.

I'd also read and been inspired by F. H. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries, Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, published in 1911, in which the USDA soil scientist describes how farmers in China, Japan and Korea had managed to feed a large population from a small land base for 4,000 years without destroying the fertility of the soil.  He understood how linear, industrial agriculture decreased soil health and fertility in this country. King describes many practices that are now standard on good organic farms: multiple cropping and intercropping, intelligent rotations, cover crops, growing food almost everywhere and recycling all organic matter.   I was also inspired by Louis Bromfield's description in Pleasant Valley (published in 1945) of the way he returned dust bowl ruined farms to fertility and made springs that had been dry for years flow again by using organic methods, sustainable forestry, compost and careful grazing.

The owners of Harmony Ranch wanted to sell it for industrial purposes. Some of us wanted to have a piece of land where we could plant trees and see them mature. I wanted to continue the organic growing which had excited me for several years.

Earlier that winter, we had found a beautiful piece of land on the other side of Oxford, part of what had been Joe and Josephine Solar's farm. I was ready to learn more about organic growing and homesteading, so the NOFA meeting sounded very good.

After that first meeting I was hooked on NOFA. I found many kindred spirits - well educated back-to-the-landers who were interested in growing healthy food for their families and communities.  People who couldn't imagine spraying poisons on their food, or even handling toxic pesticides. At that time the agricultural establishment was resistant to new farmers who wanted to grow organically.  It just didn't work they said. So we decided that we needed to share information among ourselves and NOFA has been facilitating that for nearly 45 years through its conferences, workshops, advocacy and outreach programs. It is amazing to see how consumers, farmers and even some in the ag establishment now understand the importance and effectiveness of organic farming methods.

Within a few years, NOFA consisted of chapters in Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as a growing number of members in other states in the Northeast. At some point in the late 1970s, I volunteered to be on the NOFA Interstate Council as one of two representatives of members who weren't in Vermont or New Hampshire.  

Beginning in 1975, the Council created the Summer Conference.  Wendell Berry was the keynote speaker at the first conference held at High Mowing School in New Hampshire. Although I missed the Friday night keynote, I remember especially NOFA Founding President Samuel Kaymen's workshop on soil fertility the next day and the workshops on Biodynamic Agriculture which were featured on Sunday. Until the mid 1980s, the Conference alternated between Vermont and New Hampshire.

The Council also published the organization's newspaper, The Natural Farmer and was ready to accept new state chapters as membership in other states grew.  During the 1980s, chapters were formed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.  The Rhode Island Chapter was formed in 1990. I was the founding president of the Connecticut chapter in 1982 and served as a board member until I started working for CT NOFA in 2001 when the organization hired its first coordinator before expanding my title to Executive Director. I retired from this position in 2013, but still serve as the Organic Advocate. 

The Interstate Council provided a way for state chapters to work together on important issues. Organic certification, for example, which most of the states had initiated in the 1980s and the formation of the National Organic Program in the 1990s were a strong focus. The Council also spread the expertise of Northeast growers through farmer-to-farmer meetings, a multiyear project to encourage CSAs, The Real Dirt (published in 1993 to share the strategies of successful organic farmers) and the NOFA Organic Practices Handbook series.

Over the years the Council was a founding member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and of the Agricultural Justice Project. The Interstate's policy work has grown significantly in the past decade.

Once the Connecticut NOFA chapter was formed, I represented it on the Council until 2014.  It was my privilege to be president of the Interstate Council for several three-year terms in the 1990s and 2000s. The work of the Council in tying together the NOFA members is critically important. 

I was honored to be able to play a part in the leadership of this pioneering organization for nearly four decades, humbled by my Lifetime Achievement Award and am excited by the next two generations of organic farmers, gardeners and activists who attended this year's conference.


1 comment:

  1. Bill ~ Your passion, dedication and good humor are an inspiration to many.