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The debate between organic and conventional agriculture is not nearly as polarized as the news would have you think. There is a large gray area in the middle where conventional farmers are transitioning to more sustainable practices but not necessarily organic, at least yet.

I've often thought (and blogged about it. Click here for article 1 and article 2) that real change in the way we grow food is going to come from the farmers. They see first hand the devastating impact that chemical fertilizers and pesticides have on their land. They are also starting to see the money they could save in synthetic inputs by farming more ecologically and still have the same, if not better, yields.

Massive and sweeping change in the agricultural industry is probably never going to happen at the scale we would like. And for sure, the change is not going to be driven from the deep pockets of Monsanto. Rather, it's going to start at a grassroots level.But it isn't going to require that farmers convert cold turkey, however, and go organic overnight. It starts with baby steps like utilizing cover crops and crop rotations to better manage soil. Twilight Greenaway wrote a great article for Grist.org entitled, "Feed your soil - and the rest will follow." Here's my summary...

Instead of leaving a field fallow or bare over winter, a cover crop keeps roots in the ground feeding the soil food web 365 days year. Combined with a crop rotation, a field won't see the same summer crop for 2-3 years rotating a crop like corn with, oats, alfalfa and soy. Combined, cover crops and crop rotations reduce soil erosion, replenish lost nutrients, minimize pest outbreaks and grows stronger, more resilient plants. The secret behind these two simple strategies is how they build organic matter in the soil! Organic matter is the living part of the soil like microbes and fungi. Without organic matter soil is just dirt...clay, sand and silt (the inorganic bits). And dirt is what we are left with when land is farmed strictly conventionally because not enough organic matter is added to the soil and the little that is gets killed by the synthetic applications.

Non-organic farmers like David Brandt have been employing these practices for years and have the results to prove it. "This past summer, despite the drought, Brandt harvested 120-150 bushels of corn per acre compared to his neighbors who averaged 40-50 bushels. Plus, he is only using 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel per acre for applications compared to 30-40 gallons." You don't have to be a rocket science to realize that "$10 to farm an acre is much more economical than $120 per acre. The fastest way to a greener agricultural system is through a farmer's wallet!

Why the drastic difference? Soil rich in organic matter and living organisms can retain water better enabling it to weather drought years. And cover crops and crop rotations grow healthier plants which require fewer synthetic inputs. The fewer fertilizers and pesticides and less diesel fuel is needed to power tractors to apply it.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) manages $27 million/year in funding for agricultural programs which promote soil health. But its up to the farmer to opt in. The funding is already low so the NCRS waits for farmers to come to them. With the farm bill in jeopardy of not getting passed, the agency may have even fewer funds to work with next year. Let your voice be heard and ask congress to not shelf the farm bill but to reform this very important piece of legislation. SIgn the petition by clicking here.

 
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Adam & Laura - graduates of Organic Field School
I participate in a working group helping a land-grant university (name withheld) evaluate the best way to use their 1,000 acre field station. A 100-acre portion is in jeopardy of being rezoned commercial and sold-off. The sale would put much needed money in the pockets of the university but they would fail in their commitment as a land-grant institution.by taking prime farmland from the community. In a time when communities need to be focused on food security and realizing agriculture's green job potential for economic development, farmland needs to be preserved not removed. Below is my proposal outlining one of the ways to repurpose the 100-acres and make a little bit of money while educating new farmers of tomorrow...a farm incubator!

INTRODUCTION
A farm incubator trains people how to farm ecologically and subsidizes their start-up costs with the primary intent of generating new farmers.

The biggest risk in starting a farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if someone can afford to buy land, they have a huge learning curve in developing best farming practices. In a 2011 survey of 1,000 US farmers by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, "access to capital, access to land and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginning farmers." A farm incubator addresses these concerns and starts to build the infrastructure necessary to educate and support new farmers.  

With less than 1% of the population farming and 70% of today’s farmers about to retire, the United States is in desperate need of more farmers; farmers who can keep land in agricultural production and if necessary, rehabilitate the land away from conventional farming through regenerative, organic, farming practices.

Land-grant universities have an opportunity to open up the next green, job market by helping put people back to work as farmers and in the process create economic prosperity and healthy food for their community.

A farm incubator program is the agricultural degree for the 21st Century. A traditional agriculture degree leaves graduates with few options in today’s job market. And to train young farmers to be conventional, mega-farm operators is not progressive or ecological. But teaching farmers to be self-reliant, small-scale farmers creates jobs, ownership and environmental responsibility. Students learn sustainable, farming techniques and how to build a business plan. Upon graduation, they are provided further training opportunities as well as access to grants and subsidized land. University X has the opportunity to be a center for creating small-scale farmers and be a model for other land-grant universities to follow.

UNIVERSITY X MODEL
University X is primed to offer its community the opportunity of a farm incubator. With Cooperative Extension for classes, College of Ag for supplemental courses and available land at the adjacent field station, the foundation is in place. Unlike many incubators, the classrooms are already built, the land is available and there is access to qualified instructors of the university. Developing a farm incubator at University X is more about coordinating resources within the existing infrastructure than having to build one from the ground up.

A farm incubator compliments and cooperates with existing and proposed research plans for University X filed labs.  A farm incubator diversifies University X’s product offerings attracting students who are not targeting a 4-year degree but want more in-depth training than a community college can offer. To promote the program, an outreach campaign can be launched to area high schools in order to raise awareness for the career possibilities in agriculture and improve the perception of farming as a viable career opportunity.

A farm incubator provides University X’s development office an exciting, new fundraising opportunity and a “fresh” way to engage potential and current donors. The farm incubator will generate revenue from the tuition and fees collected but capital will still need to be raised over the life of the incubator in order to purchase equipment and supplies. Donors will be attracted by the innovative approach of the farm incubator. It enriches a donors gift  by being able to do more than just support education but also support the environment as well as social and economic stimulus to the community….with more people farming, more people have jobs; local food production increases; and money stays local fostering a more resilient and equitable economy.

All told, a farmer incubator is a good story and PR opportunity for the university. A farm incubator is an inspiring demonstration for modern education and an admirable way for the university to help increase city x’s food security by fostering new farmers.

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Sarita Schaffer - Viva Farms in WA
THE PROPOSAL
 A farm incubator is a revenue generating, academic opportunity. It is an alternative education model and positions University X as a cutting edge land-grant university committed to supporting and preparing farmers of tomorrow.

University X, however, should consider a variety of small farmer programs to diversify their course offerings. In addition to a farm incubator program, other traditional, but innovative, models can be developed such as a 2yr small-farmer certificate program and a small farm training series. By offering three programs, University X can leverage the classes designed, teachers hired and materials required over three programs. The 2-year program and the training series would utilize a 5-acre, demonstration garden to fulfill their course work. The 5-acres would be located on the University X’s adjacent field station property and ideally right along TBD Blvd where the public would have an aesthetic view of a working farm. Below is a recap of the three “small farmer” programs that University X should consider as a way to utilize a portion of the field station:                            

1.      2yr small farm certificate – a certificate-based program with an emphasis on business

2.      Small Farm Training Series – 6-month training program ONLY

3.      Farmer Incubator Program – 6-month training program with access to subsidized land and equipment after graduation.

SAMPLE: Economies of a Farm Incubator

·        80-acres @ $600/acre for year lease = $48,000

·        12 students @ $1200/6-month course = $14,400 every six months ($28,800/year)

·        12 students @ $150 annually for continued education and marketing support

·        40 farmers paying grounds fee, irrigation & equipment rental (not including gas) = $10,000

        Total = $86,800/year*

*$45,000 would pay a full-time farm incubator manager who oversees the program as well as the
5-acre, demonstration parcel.

CASE STUDY: ALBA Organics – Salinas, CA
ALBA stands for Agriculture Land Based Training Association. ALBA trains people how to farm organically and helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training on a sliding scale that ranges from $250-$2500. After graduation, farmers/students pay 20% the market value for their initial 1/2-acre and over time will pay 100% for up to 7 acres. Farmers work side-by-side learning from each other with continued education from ALBA's trainers. Business support is available for small entrepreneurs or farmers can sell produce to the organization's private label brand, ALBA Organics, which is sells to Whole Foods and other grocers. In addition to the lease payments, ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

CASE STUDY: Viva Farms in association w/ WSU – Mount Vernon, WA 
The Viva Farms Incubator Program was launched in June 2009 to provide new farmers affordable access to education, training and technical assistance; capital and credit; land and markets. Approximately, half of the thirty students who participated in the first year are Latino. Each completed Skagit County’s first bilingual “Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching” course and thirty-six students completed the first bilingual “Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning” course. The Port of Skagit has leased Viva Farms 33 acres for an incubator farm where course graduates may sublease plots on which to launch and grow their farm businesses. Access to shared infrastructure, equipment and low-interest “educational loans” minimizes participants’ start-up costs. Core areas of support include organic production practices, marketing, sales, distribution, record keeping and liability management. The farm incubator at Viva Farms is not an end point for farmers. It is a starting point to transition them to farm ownership and secure long-term tenure. Once farmers establish stable agricultural enterprises at the incubator, Viva Farms will help them relocate to new land and continue growing their operations. They will need capital to acquire land, equipment, seeds, livestock and other farm inputs so Viva Farm established the New Farmer Reserve Fund along with Slow Money NW and a local credit union. The fund acts as a microloan program to provide affordable start-up and growth capital to new farmers.
       

 
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I love NPR! I work from home so all the reporters and anchors are like my co-workers...Renee Montagne, Neal Conan, Kai Ryssdal, Melissa Block, Chris Simmons, etc. But yesterday on Morning edition, hosts, David Green and Steve Inskeep, really disappointed me with their one-dimensional interview about organic food...

Equally respected NPR correspondents, Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles, were there to talk about the nutritional value of organic food, or the lack there of. Even if it is true, which I don't believe it is, why even fill the airwaves with fodder for the opposition to say, "See, we told you so." Especially, when there are studies that show organic food really does have a higher nutritional value than conventional like the one released by Organic Farming Research Foundation this past August entitled "Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity." And if these counterpoint studies do exist, proper editorial would compare both not just present one side of the story.

But that's not what irks me! It's the other half of the story, the most important part of the story, that they marginalize...eating sustainably grown food is really more about the ecological benefits than the nutritional benefits. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides kill the soil food web disabling its biological functions to provide food to plants, store carbon and retain water. 70% of the chemicals used on crops aren't even absorbed by the plant. They run-off contaminating ground water  and contributing to the oceans' dead zones which increases the effects of global warming. Bottom Line...choosing organics goes way deeper than nutrition. it is an ethical and lifestyle choice.

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Even if you are not worried about pesticides on your family's health, there is no denying the detrimental effects these poisons have on the soil, air, water and farm workers! Yes, farm workers! If farm workers can get sick and even die from over exposure to these nasties, then it can't be that much better by the time it gets to my dinner plate.

Allison and Dan do mention the environmental upside to organics but by that point in the interview, all that people are thinking is..."Did I just spend too much at the grocery store today on organics?"

When the news dumbs-down the story and doesn't provide the full picture, we stop thinking critically. If the news doesn't present both sides equally then we only hear what they want us to hear..."organic food is not any more nutritious than conventional."

Alison and Dan did not linger on the environmental attributes which would have helped bring people around. And David and Steve did not bother to challenge them. The inclusion of organics' redeeming qualities was on the downside of the story and was mentioned as an after thought. Are they shortsighted, or just too busy reporting the facts than to really take beef with this bologna study?

Under-reporting is a problem in many parts of the news...people will talk about offshore oil reserves, the abundance of domestic coal and natural gas as a cleaner fuel. If the situation was that cut-and-dry then yes, let's get after that energy independence. But the ugly truth is in the extraction process of those fossil fuels and their degrading impacts on the land, the ocean wilderness and the neighboring communities. Like food, it is not just about the end product, it is about the means to get there and the toll it takes on the environment and people. We need to think holistically when considering these options. And the news needs to present it in such a way so people can make an educated opinion based on this holistic picture.

Farming ecologically is about taking care of the land so it can feed the next generation and the many generations after that. It is about treating livestock humanely and allowing them their innate right to interact with the land and work together to build a healthy agro-ecosystem. Sustainable farming practices are focused on the long-term whereas conventional is focused on the short-term. To feed the world, we need to start thinking long-term!

I started writing this post yesterday and already, the news wire is filled with angst against this study. I opened my home page just a little while ago and Grist.org had their review of the study front and center! Even if NPR, can't see past the end of their nose on this one, their media allies will get their back and help bring them along. Don't worry NPR, I still love you!

 
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Every week, I pretty much, have something that inspires a blog post. It may be a rant, an epiphany, a story, a farmer profile, an update about one of my food projects, etc. This week, not so much. So I visited my favorite web haunts to drum up some ideas. Nothing! I did some online searches about  food. Still nothing! Soon I found myself at Facebook lurking through my news feed and my friend Sarah had posted this quote! Enough said! I absolutely love it! it sums up the ag debate in a nutshell!

What would the "pesticide-laden" produce be called? I may need some help with this one but here are a few stabs...conventional produce, factory produce, synthetic produce, genetically modified produce, chemical produce, not-your-grandmas' produce, gag-me-with-a-spoon produce, don't-buy-me produce, the other produce, enslaved produce, unhappy produce, engineered produce...the list can go on.

I tried to find out more about the person. Ymber Delecto, who coined this saying. But yet again...I came up with nothing. I'm thinking it must be an alias for someone or a fictitious name. So strange! It dilutes the power of the quote not having a personality to attach it too! Or does the mystery of this elusive character make it that much stronger? Hhmm?? I may not have learned more about the author of this quote but I did learn about Handpicked Nation which looks like a rad food site where I might be looking for blog inspiration in the future when I hit a dry-spell or writers block. Check them out!

 
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Last month, I traveled just southwest of Chico, CA to Hamilton City. I was on assignment for the Rodale Institute and an article about organic rice farmer, Greg Massa. You can read the interview in its entirety by visiting the Rodale Institute's website, click here! To peak your appetite, here is a taste...

Dragonflies swarmed above a rice field under a hazy morning sun. With an orchestral maneuver, they darted into the sky then nose dived back to the water, occasionally swooping to the left or right as if trying to throw off the police in a chase. As my gaze was transfixed upon this dance, organic rice farmer Greg Massa informed me that dragonflies have an aquatic life stage in the beginning. When they dip and dive to the water, they are actually laying eggs. I had never made the correlation between rice fields and dragonflies before, but it made sense. I guess it’s no coincidence they are often depicted together.

Greg and his wife, Raquel Krach, along with their five children, own and operate Massa Organics, a brown rice and almond farm outside of Chico, CA. Greg is a fourth-generation rice farmer, and the 225-acres he farms have been in the Massa family since 1970. But it wasn’t until 1997 when Greg and Raquel returned from five years in Costa Rica as tropical ecologists that they began to transition the land to organics. “Rice farming offered an opportunity to do real conservation work on our own land rather than the theoretical work of university-based ecology,” says Greg. “Stewardship of the air, water and land are our primary concerns.”
Read the entire article by visiting the Rodale website.

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Cody watching over his flock of sheep who graze the almond orchard to keep the understory clean.
 
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On May 3rd, I spoke about the domino effect that California's GMO Label law, Proposition 37, could have not only in California but throughout the entire US food system, click here.

Well, my assumption was right...The food industry sees the threat it poses. Here is what Pamela Baily, President of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), had to say in a speech to the American Soybean Association on July 9th...

"The California Ballot Initiative to label genetically engineered food is "a serious, long-term threat to the viability of agricultural biotechnology. Defeating the Initiative is GMA's single highest priority this year." -

The conventional food industry isn't worried about the cost to redo their packaging or concerned about a little bad press. They realize that once California falls, so will the rest of the country. Ever state will want to have GMO labels and with GMO labels comes decreased sales. People aren't going to want to buy food with a label that will have the likeness to "skulls & crossbones." 

It's deductive reasoning...To increase sales, the food industry will have to start producing food that doesn't require GMO labeling. To obtain that stature, they are going to have to change the way they grow the food. Fingers crossed...Hopefully, that means more sustainable and earth-friendly farming methods. Conventional farming is so closely aligned with genetically engineered (GE) seeds that they are practically synonymous. Change will only be able to happen, if they change the way they do business.

Big Ag should be afraid...very afraid! The GMO Label could be checkmate!

 
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Our first corn!
As I inspected our small crop of corn in the growing dome today, I found one lone ear infested with aphids. The crop is almost ready to harvest so I thought I would take a peak and make sure the little buggers hadn't damaged the corn. As I slowly peeled back the husk to reveal the ear, I felt a little like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory unwrapping to find the golden ticket. Would my hard work be rewarded with a healthy ear of corn??

Lucky for me, it was stellar! I'm a little biased but it was the most beautiful ear of corn I've ever seen. I felt a little guilty as I revered this work of art thinking of my comrades in the Midwest suffering from the drought and entire corn crop failures.

Conventional farmers with "big ag" contracts are protected with crop insurance. The same can't be said for small specialty-crop farms especially organic farms. They aren't eligible for these benefits leaving them to take the hit. For CSA farmers, they can at least lean on their members for a type of "crop insurance." In these desperate times, CSA members are learning firsthand what it means to share the risk with the men and women who grow their food.

As I've been following the drought, I couldn't help but wonder, "how are the organic farms holding up?" Are they doing better? And are conventional growers starting to see the pitfalls of their farming methods which deplete the soil making them more vulnerable to drought? I haven't been able to find a report documenting this just yet but I did find an article by one of my favorite food & farming writers, Tom Philpott. I was glad to see he was asking the same questions. And while the results aren't in for 2012, studies have been done which prove that organic crops have higher yields than conventional crops during times of drought and heavy rain. Why?

Organics fields are high in organic matter. The organic matter is a result of regular composting, diverse crop rotations and cover crops. It feeds the soil and in the process stores atmospheric carbon. Carbon rich soil is able to retain moisture helping soil to be more resilient during drought years. During heavy rains, carbon high soil can manage water better so it can filter through the soil versus not being able to penetrate hard, nutrient deficient soil which leads to flooded fields.

It isn't surprising then to learn that organically managed soil is a great way to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. When carbon is in the soil it is not in the atmosphere. Conventional crops can't say the same. The soil food web which creates the environment to sequester this carbon is destroyed when treated with synthetic chemicals.

My hope is that the 2012 drought will be taken into consideration during the final stages of the 2012 Farm Bill creating incentives to help conventional farms transition to organic and in the process transfer some of the crop insurance over to the farms making the switch in order to protect  their efforts.

 
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I just had a series of articles come out in the most recent issue of "Edible Reno-Tahoe" magazine. Here is the first in that series! It is a profile that I did of an organic farm just west of Reno, in Fallon, NV. The entire article can be found online or in print if you live in the Reno-Tahoe area. Otherwise, click here!

“I’m worried we don’t have a good story,” Terri Marsh says modestly as we get acquainted and walk across the drive to meet the chickens. “Every farm has a story,” I say.  It quickly became evident that Rise and Shine Farms most certainly did have a story.

Driven by a changing economy and a desire to be self-sustaining, Terri and Mike Marsh decided to supplement their professional careers with a market farm on their property just west of Fallon. The Marshes started with a small, 14-person egg community-supported agriculture program (CSA) in 2006. By the next year, they had expanded to a 78-person egg and vegetable CSA. With that, Rise and Shine Farms was born...

Read the rest of the article in the Spring 2012 issue of Edible Reno-Tahoe, click here!

 
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Lisa's Organics' slogan
I've been back in Tahoe two months now. In the absence of snow, I've been hard at work shaping what will hopefully be a bountiful career in food activism. It is only the beginning but I can feel the momentum gaining.

First up is a philanthropic campaign for Lisa's Organics. Lisa's is based in Lake Tahoe and are producers of organic, frozen vegetables. They are taking their "Eat Your Veggies" slogan and helping schools and hospitals improve their meal programs.

School gardens are sprouting up all over the country,  lunch programs are becoming healthier and more hospitals are sourcing sustainably grown food. Lisa's Organics' "Gardens to Hospitals," hopes to keep that momentum going.
The program’s goal is to bring awareness to the role of nutritious food in raising and nurturing healthy children. The children themselves will help lead the effort advocating for healthier meals both in their schools and in hospitals. Students with a school garden will grow food for children in a hospital. They will come together in a food and information sharing event at the hospital snacking on the food grown. Together, all the kids will gain a better connection to their food and healthy eating habits. In the process, the food buyers at both the school and the hospital will be forced to look into the eyes of the children they are feeding and answer to the choices they are making. 

Institutional food, like at schools and hospitals, represents a significant percentage of the food consumed in the United States. Harnessing the collective buying power of institutions to  purchase more nutritious and ecologically grown food could dramatically alter the US food economy. Their critical mass could provide the organic market the weight necessary to tip the scales away from conventional agriculture.

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The grow dome at what hopes to be Truckee's community farm
Next up, is a farming project in Tahoe. Yes, Tahoe! I will be helping to launch a program to explore mountain farming techniques in a 1000 sq. ft grow dome (geodesic greenhouse). The practices utilized are those perfected by the 4-season, hoop-house, guru, Eliot Coleman. This is my first step in helping my high-elevation community achieve food security. If successful, more grow domes will be built and perhaps even a grants program developed to help citizens acquire smaller, 350 sq. ft. domes for their backyards. My goal...20% of Tahoe using grow domes by 2020.

The grow dome hopes to be an extension of the community garden in Truckee Regional Park. In a demonstration setting, people can get acquainted with agriculture and learn about the growing methods used at the dome. The grow dome(s) would be the community farm growing food not only for schools, hospitals and a CSA program but more importantly the local hunger relief program, Project Mana. The grow dome and the possibility of feeding Tahoe with food grown on its own soil, is the vision and inspiration of local entrepreneurs, Bill and Kevin Kelly.

 
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A common misconception is that chemical based fertilizers and pesticides didn’t exist till after WWII when Monsanto wanted to unload their reserve of biological arms on American farmlands in an effort to access cheap fertilizers and increase yields for a growing global population. The debate between conventional vs. organic, however, began many years before. In the book, Organic, Inc. by Samuel Fromartz, he talks about German chemist, Justus von Liebeg, who praised the ability of chemicals to replace manure as far back as 1840.

It was the Green Revolution of the 1940’s, one hundred years later, that opened the door for chemical fertilizers and pesticides to become the behemoth that is today. That door was opened even wider in 1971 when then secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, embraced modern technology as being able to out smart nature and the slogan for farmers was, “Go Big or Get Out!"

Justus touted, “If nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous were fed to a plant in proper amounts, even in depleted soils, the plant would grow." Instead of feeding the soil, it was feed the plant. Even then, in an effort to make a buck, the environment was seen as expendable and simply a means to an end versus a partner in food production.

Around the turn of the century, Sir Albert Howard of Britain started to be recognized for his research in organics at the Institute of Plant Industry in India. He pioneered the early research which debunked the growing belief that chemical versus natural farming was superior. His claim was simple...composted soil improved plant health. Howard is often considered the father of composting. He developed the systems that we still use today. By the time he left India in 1931, he was producing tons of compost. So prolific were his techniques that they could be conducted at any scale. He had no choice. He knew he was waging a war against the approaching Green Revolution. His methods had to out perform chemical-based fertilizers. He published his findings in the 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament.

Then along came J.I. Rodale. He brought the work of Howard, and others in the organic movement, to the people. Rodale launched Organic Farming magazine in 1942 (currently known as Organic Gardening). While one war was raging over seas, another was taking place on American soil, literally. It was a race to make organic not an alternative but the norm. His publications became a target of the food and the medical industry for making false health claims against conventional. Despite published reports by the USDA in 1938 which attributed the Dust Bowl to the soil degrading practices of conventional agricultural, the government was still persuaded to allow agricultural mega-corporations to take control of the food system.

The rest is history as they say. We've seen success and failures over the years for the now "alternative," organic movement. My hope is...the trend towards ecological and socially oriented framing methods will continue to grow and the work of our fore fathers will be honored in a greener tomorrow.