CONFERENCE PREVIEW: 8th Annual Georgia Organics Conference
February 11-12, 2005 – West Central Technical College, Waco, GA

Maine organic farmer Eliot Coleman describes how to adapt his winter production strategies to milder climes

Catch Coleman's entire presentation February 11-12, 2005 at West Central Technical College in Waco, GA

By Skip Connet

Eliot Coleman has gained national prominence for his ardent pursuit of growing vegetables during that time of year when most farmers are planning rather than planting. An accomplished writer, Coleman's latest book Four-Season Harvest is a follow-up to The New Organic Grower and expands upon his techniques of growing – and selling – fresh produce throughout the Maine winter.
Editor's note: Since 1997, non-profit Georgia Organics has been promoting healthy food, farms, and communities in Georgia and neighboring states. Their 8th annual conference, "New Harvest: Connecting Growers and Consumers Year-Round," will be held in partnership with the Alabama Sustainable Agricultural Network and will feature organic farming and season extension pioneer Eliot Coleman as a keynote speaker. New Farm freelancer Skip Connett caught up with Coleman a few weeks ago and contributed this interview to whet your appetite for the event. (A version of this interview also appears in the Winter 2004 issue of News from Georgia Organics.)

Connett: You are best known for your hoop houses. How portable are your ideas and techniques to other parts of the country?

Coleman: We have a layer of plastic a foot above the soil inside the greenhouse. So we have a double layered system. Each layer of covering moves me 500 miles south. So when I enter the greenhouse, I am in New Jersey. And when I reach my hand under the inner layer, my hand is in Georgia. You guys are already where I am spending an awful lot of money getting to.

We also have noticed that growth slows way down for the period of winter when day length is less than 10 hours. For us, that is November 15 to February 7. For you guys it is December 21. Period. You have all the sun anyone could ever want. Georgia doesn't need to import one single bit of winter food.

Connett: So why hasn't your system caught on down here?

Coleman: It's a curious thing. When we came over here as settlers we didn't bring that tradition of greenhouses with us because it didn't exist in the way it does in Europe now until the early part of the 20th century. People came from lower socio-economic strata, so the tradition never got started here.

Connett: So really technology has allowed hoop house farming to catch on.

Coleman: The miracle is nothing more than that sheet of plastic. I have greenhouses with metal pipe ribs but there is a neat kid I know in northern Vermont who makes his own poles out of what he cuts in the woods. He is putting up huge greenhouses for about 30 cents a square foot. At that price you can almost not afford not to build it. And there are new ways of fastening the plastic now that would allow someone in the South to take the plastic off at the end of March. You just uncover this thing and re-cover with shade cloth if you want, and put plastic back in November and run through until March again.

Connett: It sounds too good to be true. What is missing here?

Coleman: From where you are, there is absolutely nothing missing. Up here in our minimally heated greenhouses, with the present price of propane, I probably won't get paid in January and February. I'll keep working and pay the workers and pay bills, but I won't get paid. We are fighting enough cold, given the systems that are easy to use, that it is difficult. We will eventually have to put in a wood (heating) system. But where you are, none of these wintergreens need more protection then just a hoop house.

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"I tell people there is as much difference between my carrots and supermarket carrots as there is between a [Ford] Fairlane and a Mercedes."

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Connett: Have you reached the limits at Four Season Farm? How much further can you push nature?

Coleman: Last year, in 2003, on an acre and a half, we sold a $100,000 of produce. I think we can do $150,000 if we ironed out all the things we do wrong.

Connett: What is your five-year plan for the farm?

Coleman: We have put some heat into some of our greenhouses because crops like baby turnips and radishes won't play out in our totally unheated system here where it can go down to 20 below. So we are continuing to experiment with ways to run unheated greenhouses and there is an endless amount of messing around there. But we have been working with a local engineer in creating equipment for this type of farming because there isn't any. We have a little lightweight rototiller you can use in greenhouses. It goes very shallowly and is powered by a cordless drill. We are making a new seeder that will allow you to plant rows together in the greenhouse, so you can get maximum use out of it.

Connett: So you are improving tools and refining practices?

Coleman: Yes. Most people think that biology is the tough thing in farming, especially because it’s organic farming. Basically, the biology is pretty easy. It’s the economics that is difficult. What I keep working on is trying to figure out ways to make the production system more efficient. Human beings, unfortunately, given the choice between a Motorola and a Sony, will choose the Sony. Given a choice between a Ford Fairlane and a Mercedes, they buy the Mercedes. But those same people are convinced that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot. And I tell people there is as much difference between my carrots and supermarket carrots as there is between a Fairlane and a Mercedes. But that concept has just never been able to penetrate people's minds.

Connett: How do you market in the winter -- is it different than the rest of the year?

Coleman: We run a system where we sell from October through June. We often jokingly refer to ourselves as the backwards farm. There are tons of outdoor field growers in the summer, so why add to that competition. We just steal the rest of the year. We could easily be 10 times bigger. People are just dying to have something fresh. They instinctively realize that the week-old stuff from California is exactly that—a week old.

Connett: Is there research to support those instincts?

Coleman: There is a group in Europe—Organic Food Quality and Health —and it has some pretty respectable research from European universities there. So the research is beginning to come out. A new study from Denmark, for example, is showing there are far higher levels of vitamin E in organic milk, purely because of the way the cows are fed.

We have our acre and a half of about 40 different vegetables, year round. And we use no pesticides, not so much because we are opposed to them but there is no reason to. We have nothing to use them against.

Connett: But hasn’t that taken a long time coming about?

Coleman: Not really. Sure there have been pests that were more gnarly then others, but solving the problem was based on figuring out what I was doing wrong. And I take that as my foundation for thinking. My God, if it is possible to do that with plants, it is equally possible to do that with people. And what I am doing with plants, I am making sure they don't get anything dumped on their soil that Mother Nature didn't create, because she has been running this system for millions of years. I'm convinced the same thing is true of our bodies.

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"[Growing organic food] isn't a goal; it's a process. You have to figure out how to continue to get good."

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Connett: You make the distinction between “shallow organic farming” and “deep organic farming.” Whole Foods, Horizon, and other large organic retailers would fall into the first category, yet haven’t they played a big role in educating the public about the benefits of organic and in increasing the market?

Coleman: My objection is they set the bar too low or fail to set a bar at all. It isn't a goal; it's a process. You have to figure out how to continue to get good. It's kind of like Regis DeBray’s revolution in the revolution. You have to keep stirring the pot, otherwise you get complacent and fat.

Connett: So what is your vision of agriculture in the 21st century?

For More Information...

About the Georgia Organics Conference
visit www.georgiaorganics.org or contact Mary Anne Woodie on (404) 697-5279 or Maryanne@georgiaorganics.org. Register by January 28 to get the best rate!

About Eliot Coleman and Four Season Farm,
visit www.fourseasonfarm.com.

Coleman: Visions rarely change things. I am amazed that organic has done as well as it has. What is going to change things – and there is a lot of agreement among geologists – is that we are at the peak of oil production. And demand is going up so fast that there will no longer be cheap oil. It is cheap oil that makes it possible to ship tomatoes all the way from Mexico to Maine. In 20 years, the small local farm is going to look better and better because the cost of transportation is going to be a lot bigger chunk of the price than it is now.

Skip Connett is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. His last feature for NewFarm.org was "Ups and downs of worm growing keep Georgia farmer on his toes" (September 2003).