REVIEW: Good Growing
Talking to farmers
A sociologist shares the results of five extended interviews with organic growers around the country

Reviewed by Laura Sayre

Details:

Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works

Leslie A. Duram
University of Nebraska Press, 2005
ISBN 0-8032-6648-0
$21.95 (paper)
240 pp

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March 17, 2005: Leslie Duram's Good Growing is one of a small stream of books on organic and sustainable agriculture to emerge from university presses in the past year, including Patricia Allen's Together at the Table, Michael Bell's Farming for Us All and Thomas Lyson's Civic Agriculture. I take this as a sign of two things (aside, of course, from the intrinsic fascination of organic farming as both practical craft and social movement): First, that graduate students and professors in the social sciences are undertaking research on organic agriculture; and second, that professors in the social sciences and other disciplines are offering courses, or sections of courses, on organic agriculture to undergraduates.

This is great news for the future of organic farming, of course, since it means more young people of diverse backgrounds are gaining opportunities to learn and think critically about our food systems and farming practices. Unfortunately, however, Duram's book makes but an uneven contribution to the genre. Only about half of the book is truly original material; the remainder amounts to a series of review articles that may of be of use to those new to the field but offer little in the way of in-depth analysis.

The book's first three chapters fall into the latter category. Their titles—"Organic Farming and Geography," "The Science of Organic Farming," and "The Social Context of Organic Farming," respectively—are somewhat misleading. Chapter 1 is in fact a summary of the problems of conventional agriculture and a brief review of the history of the U.S. national organic standard and the growth of the organic market; chapter 2 surveys the relatively limited scientific literature comparing organic and conventional agricultural systems; while chapter 3 characterizes the development of the organic market in somewhat greater detail, citing studies of farmers' markets and CSAs and tracking the 'mainstreaming' of organic.

Having established this context, Duram proceeds with the meat of the book, two chapters summarizing the extended interviews she conducted with the managers and owners of five organic farms around the country. These are: Steve Porter, who grows vegetables and runs a CSA in upstate New York; Mary and Rob Mitchell, who grow and pack citrus in Florida; Joel and Adela Rissman, who manage a mixed grain and livestock operation in north-central Illinois; the Bensons, who grow dryland wheat, millet, buckwheat and alfalfa in northeastern Colorado; and Phil Foster, who grows mixed vegetables and tree crops on 250 acres in California, selling to both wholesale and retail markets.

One wonders whether Duram might not have found it possible to visit with more than five organic farmers in the 10 years she says she dedicated to the book, but this complaint cannot detract from the genuine power of these interviews, which Duram presents in fairly raw form, with long, free-ranging quotations that allow the individual voices of the farmers to come through. While the interviews are primarily focused on the farmers' reasons for growing organically, marketing methods, and overall management strategies, specific production issues like soil fertility and pest pressures also come up for discussion. For those who haven't had the privilege to speak at length with organic farmers about why and how they do what they do, these interviews should be eye-opening indeed.

In her final chapter, Duram returns to literature review and state-of-the-industry mode, echoing the assessments of the conventional food system made by writers like Jim Hightower, Marion Nestle, and Sandra Steingraber, and urging vigilance with regard to the USDA organic standard as the sector expands. An evolving issue like this one is of course difficult to document in book form, but again, Duram's survey should provide a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the terrain.

At the beginning of the first chapter, Duram outlines four goals for her book: "to convince readers that a wholesale shift to organic farming would solve many of the problems that exist in U.S. agriculture; to offer extraordinary examples of innovative organic farmers who have successfully made this transition; to describe potential problems within organic agriculture (particularly Big O Ag: the large agribusiness corporations wanting to make a fast buck from the popularity of the organic label); and to outline clear actions that we must take to protect midsized family organic farms" (2). While Duram meets these goals, minimally, she falls short of the broader promise of the book's title. The book reinforces the idea that what successful organic farmers have in common are traits like curiosity, tenacity, open-mindedness, and resilience, yet it fails to explore why this might be the case, or how those characteristics might be encouraged among other farming (or potential farming) groups. The reason why organic farming works, Duram seems to have concluded, is neither more nor less than because there are hard-working, intelligent farmers out there making it work.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.