When I started growing food almost thirty years ago, my training and experience as an environmental artist informed my approach. As a result, it was easy to decide not to use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Why would anyone want to apply poisons to food they were going to eat? The more I learned about synthetic fertilizers, the less I liked them.
Back then, however, agriculture, as taught and defended by the USDA Extension Service and vocational agriculture schools, promoted chemicals as the mainstay of production. At the time, organic agriculture was scoffed at and dismissed as irrelevant, except perhaps for small gardens.
So I tapped into the knowledge of organic gardening that Robert Rodale, Ruth Stout and others had been spreading for over two decades I discovered that organic methods using composts, cover crops, mulches, mixed cropping and companion plantings had fed the world for thousands of years. These methods made sense ecologically and aesthetically.
I joined NOFA, now the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and other folks who were making the same journey; people who believed that food and how it is grown, are important for the health of their families, their communities and for the earth. We had lots to learn and to share. We discovered similar organizations all over this country and interest in sustainable and organic methods all over the world. In 1980, the USDA's very positive Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming offered the hope that even the slow-to-change government establishment was waking up. The report said basically that organic agriculture addressed serious problems successfully and worked well. The sense that things were moving ahead was destroyed by the election of Ronald Reagan as president. He shelved the report, fired its author, and the chemical approach persisted and grew. Through the 1980s, however, there was a steadily-increasing awareness of the environmental damage inflicted by conventional agriculture, and of the serious dangers of pesticides. The public learned faster than agribusiness and government did.
The evidence against pesticides keeps growing. Recent community health studies in Iowa link herbicide use with a number of serious, infant-health problems. Another study from the Great Lakes region shows that some farmers are increasing their profits and protecting wildlife by reducing their pesticide use. Closer to home, Yale professor John Wargo's new book, Our Children's Toxic Legacy, details the very flawed processes this country uses to regulate pesticides, and particularly how children are adversly affected.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s, NOFA members, as well as farmers and gardeners all over the country, kept on learning how to use organic methods, while they created organic certification programs, community gardens, farmers markets and the other important elements of a secure, local, food system. Organic and other lower-input ways of farming are now rapidly growing. Through the 1990s, demand for organic food has risen over 20 percent each year. The number of farmers markets is at an all-time high. In addition to co-ops and health-food stores, giant supermarkets now sell organic produce. Even a mainstream line of hair products lists ingredients that include certified organic herbs!
Earlier this summer, Swissair announced that the food and beverages on its flights from Switzerland are now organically-grown. The Bangor newspaper which the kids brought back from their vacation reports about the rapid change to organic dairy farms in Maine. An increasing consumer demand for organic milk, in order to avoid synthetic hormones (that are now in most other dairy products), influenced the farmers to "go organic." Another story reported that many chefs are demanding local organic food for its flavor and for its positive environmental effects.
But watch out! The same folks who thought that pesticides were necessary are now pushing genetically-engineered foods and a global food system. Be we're not easily fooled. We're still learning and working together to create a regional organic food system.
Today through Sunday, about a thousand gardeners, farmers and eaters from the northeastern states are gathering at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts for the 23rd annual NOFA Summer Conference. For more information, call
Hope to see you there!
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.