Posted by Tom Boyden in Organic Agriculture on November 14, 2012
“In the long run, the results of attempting to substitute chemical farming for organic farming will very probably prove far more deleterious than has yet become clear. And it is perhaps worth pointing out that the artificial manure industry is very large andwell organized. Its propaganda is subtle, and artificials will die hard’”
-Lord Northbourne, Look to the Land
A quick preface before I start the foundational part of this series. I started out my last post abruptly, slashing corporate organics down without any explanation. The organic farming industry today has transformed into a totally different animal, but its roots are clearly founded in sustainable, small-scale agriculture. Pioneers of this organic farming movement founded this form of farming as a reaction to the rapid onset of chemical and synthetic agriculture. One of the main reasons I’m writing this series is to give some background to the many people involved in the foundational process and the values they instilled in this craft. It’s not the corporate organic companies that will or have driven this movement. This movement will be driven and has been driven by the small-scale, sustainable farmers and the people that support them.
The 19th century brought two reform movements in response to industrialization and urbanization. In Germany, ‘Life Reform’, and the American ‘Food Reform’ brought light to consumers pursuit of organic food, but these movements were focused on vegetarianism and few of the members became farmers. At the turn of the 20th century, Franklin Hiram King, a former at University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, wrote his book Farmers of Forty Centuries, based on his experience with the agricultural practices of Far Eastern countries. This book showed the Western world that a modern, sustainable society based on gardening and small-scale farming was a plausible idea and not just a pipe dream.
Germany’s Life Reform movement began to develop into a movement based on natural agriculture during the early 20th century. A movement with principles very similar to organic farming, but lacking the use of animal manure due to the vegetarian ideals it instilled. A man named Ewald Konemann developed a scientifically based organic farming concept and wrote one of the first articles about organic farming. During the 1940s and 50s, the vegetarian and farming without animal manures aspect of natural agriculture was dropped, but a continued interest in science-based organic farming was apparent. Around the same time the natural agriculture movement was developing, a German philosopher would form the basis for a new type of organic farming.
Rudolf Steiner gave an eight lecture series in 1924 to a group of farmers who requested he speak about organic farming through an anthroposophic lens. His lectures proposed a guideline to an organic farming concept and biodynamic agriculture was borne from these ideas and the farmers that embraced them. Steiner himself was not a farmer, but as the creator of anthroposophy, he focused on working with nature as a ‘spiritual-physical matrix’. The key concepts of biodynamic farming involve the farm as a living organism and each individual in the farming system being characterized by cosmic, life, or ego forces. I won’t go into too much detail, because my next post will be detailing biodynamic concepts and Steiner and other biodynamic practitioners role in shaping what organic farming is today. Though Steiner’s concept formed a basis for organic agriculture, it was not focused on the science-based aspect of agriculture. Westerners and other organic agriculture advocates did not completely accept or understand this farming movement in its infantile stage, but it brought public awareness to a new movement. German allure to the farming movement counter to that of chemical, industrial agriculture spurred Great Britain in its development of a scientific approach to the organic agriculture movement.
A trip to India to observe soil fertility and Indian peasant farming methods by Sir Albert Howard and two sisters, Gabrielle and Louise Howard (obviously, Howard had it going on), brought about a focus on maintaining soil fertility through composting and application of organic residues. Arguably the Father of organic agriculture, Howard concluded that soil, plants, animals and humans are interrelated; humus and soil fertility were the cornerstone for a successful organic farm. He also studied and researched the Indore process, a type of aerobic composting used today. Read the first twenty pages of Howard’s historic book, An Agricultural Testament, and you will be taken aback by the eloquent, but stern nature of this aptly titled book.
During this time another Brit, Lord Northbourne, wrote his famous book Look to the Land. He carried with him many principles of biodynamic farming and embraced the farm as a living organism. Northbourne voiced many of the concerns and ideals that the organic and sustainable agriculture movement embraces today; a focus on localism and a fear of an agricultural society dominated by monocultures. Northbourne coined the term “organic farming” in this book, a term which was later used by J.I. Rodale and many other organic farmers to come. Soon after Howard and Northbourne published their agricultural statements, the first long-term experiment in organic farming would begin to take place.
The Haughley Experiment compared the effects of organic and conventional farming at the whole farm level over some three decades. Lady Eve Balfour began this experiment through private funding, a monumental task to back the organic farming movement scientifically. Balfour founded the British organic farming organization The Soil Association and the journal Mother Earth, which is widely popular to this day. Her book, The Living Soil, is a testament to the overarching role that soil plays in the health of society as a whole.
These farmers, scientists, and a philosopher formed the basic concepts of what organic farming stands for today. It was not a single movement that formed into what we think of as the organic movement, it was many counter-movements to the rampant spread of chemical, industrial agriculture. Science-based journals, books, and experiments brought the organic farming movement and the detriments of industrial agriculture into the public’s eye. The anthroposophy-based biodynamic farming played a major role in the development of organic agriculture along with the science-based approaches of other Germans and Brits; creating a concrete foundation for organic agriculture today.
CONTINUE ON IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN ORGANIC AND SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE SERIES!
PART II: Biodynamic Beginnings
PART III: A Natural and Permanent Agriculture
Organic Farming: An International History, edited by W. Lockeretz
Look to the Land by Lord Northbourne