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.)
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.
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
So really technology has allowed hoop house farming to catch
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.
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.
* * *
"I tell people
there is as much difference between my carrots and supermarket
carrots as there is between a [Ford] Fairlane and a Mercedes."
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
* * *
food] isn't a goal; it's a process. You have to figure
out how to continue to get good."
* * *
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
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
So what is your vision of agriculture in the 21st century?
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"