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
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'
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
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.