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Interview: Extending the Growing Season — Organic Farmer, Author Eliot Coleman Shares Strategies for Successful Year-Round Growing

Eliot Coleman Interview

Eliot Coleman

Eliot Coleman interviewed by: Chris Walters


Anyone attempting to grow fruits and vegetables in the winter will likely come across the work of Eliot Coleman. A tireless innovator and skilled communicator, Coleman began writing about organic growing an astonishing 39 years ago. Along with fellow writer and wife Barbara, he was the host of the TV series, Gardening Naturally, on The Learning Channel. He and Barbara currently operate a commercial, year-round market garden at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, where he conducts the experiments he describes in this interview. He served for two years as the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and was an advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture during their landmark 1979-80 study, “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming.” Coleman’s books include The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook.

ACRES U.S.A. Didn’t your wife, Barbara Damrosch, play a large part in your story? Not only personally but professionally?

ELIOT COLEMAN. No question, she is the best thing that ever happened to me. We’ve been married 23 years this December. She writes a weekly column for the Washington Post called “A Cook’s Garden,” and she has written two books by herself and one with me. I’ve written three by myself. When my first book, The New Organic Grower, came out in 1989 my publisher told me the competition for it was something called The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. After I moved back here in 1991, I was down at Helen Nearing’s place, helping her tie up tomatoes in her greenhouse, and this very attractive brunette wandered in to visit Helen. I invited her to go for pizza, and we were married six months later. She had heard about my book, and obviously I’d heard about hers. She said she had always wanted to live on a farm, so I tell everybody that she stalked me.

ACRES U.S.A. Who were Helen and Scott Nearing?

COLEMAN. They wrote a book back in 1953 about their 20 years of homesteading experiences in the mountains of Vermont, Living the Good Life. I think 95 percent of the back-to-the-land hippies in the ’60s and ’70s read it. It was definitely one of the bibles of the movement. Scott was an old leftist who was thrown out of his professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in 1912 because he objected to child labor — amazing that something like that could actually have happened in the 20th century. He was put on trial by the U.S. government in 1918 for writing a pamphlet entitled The Great Madness, which suggested that the reason for World War I was the colonial powers just trying to one-up each other, which, in retrospect, was a pretty good analysis. He served as his own lawyer during the trial and he won. He had quite an active left-wing career. He ran for Congress once in New York City on the Communist party ticket, but none of the parties really liked him because he was a maverick who thought for himself. By 1933 he couldn’t get jobs anywhere teaching, so they moved to Vermont and supported themselves growing their own food and selling maple syrup. Living the Good Life was about how to live in the country and support yourself, and that was a very appealing idea to a lot of us. After I read the book I came to visit them. I visited again after I had been fired from my teaching job for being a contrarian, and was looking for land with my first wife. We got along very well with the Nearings, and Helen suggested we buy the back half of their place since they weren’t using it. They sold us 60 acres for $33 an acre — Scott was a socialist who walked his talk. He said he hadn’t done anything to it, so why should he get more than he had paid for it? He didn’t believe in what he called “unearned” income. We thought that was such a wonderful gift that we subsequently sold 20 of those 60 acres to three different friends for the same $33 an acre.

ACRES U.S.A. What was it like?

COLEMAN. It was all wooded land, spruce and fir forest, very poor, about 3 inches of topsoil, initial pH of 4.3, and a glacier had left most of its rocks here. It was quite an adventure. We now have 14 acres cleared. A lot of that is in pasture, but we have an acre and a half that we have been able to clear enough rocks out of and get enough fertility in to grow the best vegetables you can imagine. It was all done, interestingly enough, with local resources. We brought seaweed from the coast. When the summer people mowed their hay fields just because they wanted them to look nice, they’d give us the hay and we composted that. We used to get clamshells from neighbors who shuck clams and crab shells from neighbors who picked the meat out of crabs. We dumped all that in and it was amazing. We now have about 12 inches because it’s been continually tilled deeper and deeper and used deep-rooting green manures like sweet clover. The soil will grow anything with no pests at the moment, so that’s the story in a nutshell.

ACRES U.S.A. Where is the land we’re talking about?

COLEMAN. The Nearings were in Vermont from 1933 until ’53. There was a mountain to the south of them which at that point was becoming Stratton Mountain, a ski area. Scott and Helen sold that farm and bought land in Maine in ’53, so that’s how they came to be here. We’re about two-thirds of the way up the coast, about an hour south of Bangor up the Penobscot River. We’re on a peninsula called Cape Rosier, and my farm is sort of in the middle at the south end. There are three beaches I can reach to get seaweed from, all about a mile away in three different directions.

ACRES U.S.A. A peninsula in Maine means a short growing season?

COLEMAN. Yes, we’re in Zone 5, going to 20 below in the usual winter. For the first 10 years of my market gardening career here I more or less turned my business over to the Californians every fall and then tried to get it back every spring. They used to find this very annoying, so we started looking into ways we could inexpensively produce food throughout the frozen months. At first we had no money to buy regular greenhouses, so we built our own greenhouse.

We used the old-time technology of cold frames. As we continued experimenting with that in the ’80s, we put cold-frames inside a homemade greenhouse, and all of a sudden that was a great leap forward.

It turned out that each layer of covering moved the covered area climatically about 500 miles to the south. So outside I’m in Maine. I walk into the greenhouse, the first layer of covering, and I’m in a climate like New Jersey. If we have a cold frame in there, I reach my hand into the second layer of covering, and my hand is in the Georgia winter climate. Obviously there are no tomatoes or peppers or eggplants in there, but there’s plenty of spinach, carrots, scallions, Swiss chard, kale and Asian greens that don’t mind freezing at night as long as they’re safe from the dry, desiccating cold winds. That’s what actually kills outdoor plants in the winter.

ACRES U.S.A. How many cuts do you get off the spinach?

COLEMAN. This is the ideal situation for spinach. As anybody who lives where it gets warm quickly knows, they’re lucky to get one or two cuts off the spinach before it quickly goes to seed in the spring as the temperature warms up and the days get longer. But our overwintered spinach we plant on the 15th of September and that’s ready to harvest by the middle of November, keeps sending up new leaves every time we cut off a leaf because the temperature is so cold it knows it isn’t supposed to go to seed and the days are so short. We can keep harvesting from those beds right on through until the end of March, and by the end of March we have new crops that we planted through the winter coming up in other greenhouses, so it’s a wonderful system. Basically the soil barely freezes in a double-covered greenhouse, and we can replant almost any day in the middle of the winter.

ACRES U.S.A. You’re growing on how many acres?

COLEMAN. We only have an acre and a half in vegetables. The soil we began with was so unpromising it’s taken a good part of my life to get an acre and a half of it, but last year we sold $165,000 of produce off of that. If anybody tells you organic can’t feed the world, they ain’t been paying attention. We’ll triple crop, even some of our outdoor fields. In the greenhouses we get six crops a year. We finish a harvest, we’re pulling out the residue, we’re putting down more compost and we’re putting in transplants that afternoon. We keep it moving.

ACRES U.S.A. Where did cold frames come from?

COLEMAN. Cold frames — just a wooden box with a glass top, it’s technology that goes back to about the 1600s in Europe, once they started being able to manufacture glass in slightly larger sheets. That’s no longer what we use. That’s what we used when we experimented with these ideas, but now the inner layer in the greenhouses is one of those spun-bonded fabrics that you see over huge fields on market gardens in the spring as frost protection. People use the heavier weight models to cover winter strawberries. We have wire wicket that holds that spun-bonded fabric about a foot above the ground inside the greenhouse. When you use it in the fields, you always have to figure out how to anchor it so it won’t blow away. The nice thing about using it in a greenhouse is there’s no wind.

ACRES U.S.A. Before all of these winter stratagems, did just about everything die back around September?

COLEMAN. Everybody dreaded the first frost and would usually be out there with sheets or blankets to put over their crops. We did that too before we decided it was worth investigating what we could do by ignoring the winter. There’s a wonderful quote from Buckminster Fuller that I put up on my bulletin board — “Don’t fight horses, use them.” Okay, rather than fighting the force of cold by trying to put heat in the greenhouse and then go broke paying for the fuel, how can we use it? Well, we can use it by growing the crops that don’t mind the cold. That’s pretty much a simple capsule description of what we do. The more we investigated it, I started lecturing about it, I wrote a couple of books detailing it, and now enough people have gotten interested that I’ve put together a conference. It took place back on the 10th and 11th of August at an inn in Vermont, centrally located for New England growers. We got some government money to pay for plane tickets for growers from the upper Midwest. We rounded up the two dozen best grow-in-the-winter and unheated-greenhouse growers. We had a wonderful time exchanging information and trying to figure out how to do what we do better.

ACRES U.S.A. Could you describe some of the work you’ve done on shifting greenhouses around without taking them apart?

COLEMAN. We’ve been experimenting for years with ways to move greenhouses, moving the whole structure from one field to the next. The advantage is that I can have a beautiful summer crop of tomatoes or peppers or eggplants growing in a greenhouse, which I need to do here on the coast because our summers are so cool. It won’t get cold enough around here to freeze inside the greenhouse until well into October, but remember I need to plant my overwintered spinach crop in the middle of September. The way we make that happen is to have the spinach field right next to the tomato greenhouse, leave the tomatoes in there, and get the harvest as late as we can. The spinach is perfectly safe out of doors almost until November and then once the tomatoes freeze out, we roll the greenhouse next door and now it’s covering the spinach for winter. This is a fantastic way to get far more use out of a greenhouse than you would get if you had to leave the crop that’s in there until it matures and then figure out how to plant the next crop. We have some rotations where the greenhouse moves four or five different times. If we add up the number of months from seed to harvest for all the crops we’re covering — in that case we’re only covering them when they need protection — we find that we’re getting actually 24 months of use out of that greenhouse every 12 months. As a businessman who like any other is concerned with getting a return on my capital investment, that’s a pretty good deal.

ACRES U.S.A. Someone looking at a photograph of your rolling greenhouses on tracks might think they look pretty expensive and labor-intensive. Is that the case?

COLEMAN. Well, yes. There are many, many ways to move greenhouses, and we have experimented with all of them. Some of the early techniques we no longer use, but they were all based on the fact that we wanted the greenhouse to be movable for no more than 10 percent above the cost of the greenhouse itself. The model on pipe rails with wheels on the bottom of each hoop is one I designed for a greenhouse company but I’ve never been happy with it. It moves very easily, it’s a wonderful model but each of those wheels is between $25 and $35, and on a 50-foot house there are 26 of them with the hoops 4 feet apart. That’s a lot of capital to be sitting there doing nothing except when you’re moving the house. We have redesigned all of them. We’ve had ones that used sleds on which the greenhouse just slid across the ground, but that’s hard to move. You need to get a tractor in there, and sometimes you have such close spacing between fields you can’t get the tractor in. We now have a simple arrangement using one set of 10 wheels and those 10 wheels, five on each side of a house, will move every greenhouse on the farm and when you finish moving it, you take the wheels off and store them away and then bring them back out to move another house.

ACRES U.S.A. In other words, you’re bringing down the price of rolling greenhouses?

COLEMAN. As part of trying to figure out how to earn a living at this game, we have been working very hard to make movable greenhouses as inexpensive as we can make them. For the benefits they give, that extra 10 percent is paid for very quickly. We actually have other models that we can make here on the farm using a pipe-bending form sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. We can build those for about $1 per square foot of covered space. We build them in modules so a 48-foot house that’s 14 feet wide would be made of three modules, each 14 feet wide by 16 feet long. Those can be independently picked up by four people and carried to where you want them. You put them down and slide them in next to each other, then put in ground anchors to hold them down. Thus there are actually no wheels or almost hardly any expense with that one. We’ve tried out everything that seems to make sense economically as we’ve pursued this concept.

ACRES U.S.A. You’re just constantly finding a newer, cheaper way to skin the cat.

COLEMAN. It’s no different than what every farmer for the last 10,000 years has been doing — trying to find a better way to grow for a living.

ACRES U.S.A. You mentioned Buckminster Fuller. His concepts and his approach to engineering were a radical break with the past, and he seems to have influenced you quite a bit.

COLEMAN. Interestingly enough, his summer home was on an island about 10 miles off the coast from where I live, so maybe his spirit is still living on around here. I refer to it as imagination engineering or imaginative engineering — just looking at what exists and not thinking that that’s the only way to do it. Looking at what exists and saying, “OK, how can we do this differently?” Sometimes it’s really fascinating when you’re looking for a solution — you turn the problem 180 degrees backward and wonder if you can solve it that way. An awful lot of thinking in our world today is, I think, 180 degrees backward from an intelligent way of doing things.

ACRES U.S.A. Did you figure out a way to make the wheels affordable?

COLEMAN. We still have those 10 wheels, but they cost $50 each, so I’ve got $500 invested, but these wheels now can move every one of the greenhouses on the farm. They are stored away so they’ll last forever, rather than 26 wheels at $35 each sitting under each greenhouse forever and ever. The wheels on this new system are actually wheelbarrow wheels, so they have rubber tires on them. There is another greenhouse I helped design with easily rolling, ball bearing wheels, industrial wheels that roll on a V-track. The company that makes them is called Four Season Tools in Kansas City. They make what I think is probably the very best movable greenhouse. Because of the quality of their materials, it’s slightly more expensive than others, but I think it’s the top of the heap. Again, I’m designing for the small farmer, and I want the small farmer to make a living and survive. As a small farmer, I find the Four Season Tools’ greenhouses more expensive than I could invest in, so we’ve been looking for less expensive ways of doing it.

ACRES U.S.A. If you have something you can move with only four people, you’re finding it.

COLEMAN. Yes, and we move the ones with the wheelbarrow wheels using two winches. There’s a winch pulling straight down each side of the greenhouse so the thing doesn’t wreck. I presented a paper about it at an organic greenhouse conference in France last fall.

ACRES U.S.A. What did they think about it?

COLEMAN. I think everybody was impressed, but like all of these conferences I was the only farmer there. All these other guys were what I call organic bureaucrats or organic professors. The fascinating thing about this conference had nothing to do with greenhouses; it had to do with my sitting around, having coffee and talking to some of these people. These were some of the leading French organic researchers, and they were a lot younger than I am. None of them had ever heard of Chaboussou’s book, Healthy Crops. It was originally written in French as Sante des Cultures, and he was a researcher at the French Agricultural research group. Here were all these leading organic researchers in France, and they had never read this book that now has been translated from French to English, and when I told them that we use no pesticides because we have no pests if we’ve done right by the soil, these organic researchers looked at me as if I was about to sell them a bridge in Brooklyn. I just couldn’t believe that these guys were the best Europe had researching organics, because they didn’t understand the most important aspects of it.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you tell some of his story?

COLEMAN. Chaboussou died back in the ’80s. I heard him speak at a conference in Paris in 1974. I’d read all the Rodale books and I was fascinated by that line in all of the old organic books that healthy plants resist pests, but whenever I mentioned that to anybody in agriculture they would treat me like a nutcase. Then I’m at this large organic farming conference, it was very impressive. It’s in a huge hall in Paris, and here’s this speaker up there saying just as casually as he can that when you prepare the soil correctly there aren’t any pests. I speak enough French to get by over there, and I told him it was just amazing to hear someone who is a professor in the French version of the USDA saying these things. He looked at me and said, “Doesn’t everybody know that?” Apparently not. The English translation was published in 2004 by a British company called Jon Carpenter.

ACRES U.S.A. Did you enter growing from an engineering background?

COLEMAN. No, I came into growing with an adventurer’s background. I was teaching; I got a master’s degree after I got out of college so I could teach. I taught literature, mainly so I could have my summer, winter and spring vacations free to go adventuring. I used to be a rock climber, white water kayaker and mountaineer. The thing that got to me when I read the Nearings’ Living the Good Life, about feeding and housing themselves as homesteaders in the wilderness, was that it sounded like a fun adventure. That’s basically how I got into it. I tell people the reason I remained utterly fascinated for the past 48 years is that the dullest part of climbing a mountain was getting to the top. The fascinating part was trying to figure out how to get up the cliff or down the river or whatever you were doing. The nice thing about farming is that the mountain doesn’t have a top. There’s always some way to figure out how to do it better and that’s been utterly entrancing.

ACRES U.S.A. Growing food is obviously a lot of hard work. It seems an intellectual or emotional shift happened deep inside, and you suddenly saw it as an adventure, and that’s helped sustain you.

COLEMAN. Yes, but I remember something. It was probably during the first six months I was here. We’d built the house, and I was cutting down trees and chopping out the stumps to start clearing land so we could begin as vegetable growers. A neighbor came by. I was sweating and covered with dirt and chopping at the roots of this thing, and he said, “My gosh, Eliot, isn’t that a lot of work?” I looked at him and said, “Well, you might think so, but let me tell you what I used to do for fun. I used to go on mountaineering expeditions and spend three weeks freezing my butt off in a tent with a 70-pound pack on my back all day, chopping steps in an icy cliff to pack supplies up to camp. Compared to that, this is pretty pleasant.”

ACRES U.S.A. Atypical reasoning if there ever was such a thing.

COLEMAN. If I were a little kid in school today, they would have me on an intravenous drip of Ritalin. I always had a lot of energy, and this has been a great way to use it in some sort of socially redeemable way.

ACRES U.S.A. How does what you’re doing compare to the way agriculture was traditionally practiced in Maine or Vermont?

COLEMAN. There are lots of new, young farmers moving in so I think that’s just the tenor of the times. The young people today are fascinated by what farming has to offer. They come to Maine because land is less expensive, but once you get away from the coast land is less expensive because the farmland was never that great. Where it was good, up in northern Maine in Aroostook County where tons of potatoes are still grown, that used to be the breadbasket of New England. That’s where all the wheat was grown before those crops moved to the Champlain Valley of Vermont. Then they eventually moved out into the Midwest. Probably the main agricultural crops are wild blueberries, low-bush blueberries. Blueberries love acid soil. The rocks are no problem for them because this is a wild crop that you manage by burning the field off every other year. This acts as a form of pruning and stimulates the berries to come back thirstily so that next year they give two or three times as much crop as they might otherwise give. Mainers learned that from the Indians. Since we’re right next to the ocean, you can hardly eat a lobster in the United States that didn’t come from Maine, and that’s a whole other industry. There have always been people making their living from nature.

ACRES U.S.A. They’ve depended on the sea for a long time.

COLEMAN. Take an average Maine guy — there’s not much industry up here, so how are you going to get along? Well, digging clams has always been known as down-east welfare. If you didn’t have a job, you could always dig clams and make money selling them to the wholesalers. So this guy might be digging clams in the winter, he might be sugaring — making maple syrup — in the spring, then probably digging some more clams, then raking blueberries in the summer. In the fall there’s a whole industry of making Christmas wreaths. People have to go out in the woods and cut the tips off of fir trees for material to make the wreaths from. So this guy would be tipping fir trees in September and October and then helping make wreaths or delivering them, and then back to clamming again. There’s always been a tradition of hard work up here. My neighbors are some of the most wonderful, hard-working people you’d ever want to know.

ACRES U.S.A. Does what you’re doing introduce a whole new world of eating and food to life up there, where fresh vegetables were traditionally harder to find?

COLEMAN. Three of our crops have captivated people who might not otherwise eat vegetables. The first are the carrots we grow. We’re very careful about soil preparation. We grow an oat and pea green manure early in the season, and then we sow carrots around the first of August, quite late actually, up until the 10th of August. We harvest some of them out of the very cold ground just before things freeze up, but for the majority of them, we slide one of our greenhouses over them and then we can harvest them right out of the cold ground all winter long and when you leave carrots in the ground, they protect themselves against the cold by changing some of their starch to sugar, sort of like antifreeze. These are known locally as candy carrots. We’ve been told by parents that our carrots are the trading item of choice in local grade-school lunchboxes.

ACRES U.S.A. Let’s pause here to let that sink in.

COLEMAN. Then there’s our spinach. Parents are absolutely fascinated that their children will eat our spinach. I’ve always thought that the thing that made spinach taste good is getting enough calcium into it. I think you can probably do it with gypsum, but here we have access to all these crab shells. Crab shells are made out of chitin. I think that the calcium is delivered in a different way, but anyway we grow the sweetest tasting spinach anybody ever ate. Since it’s available all winter long the cold temperatures also keep it sweet. The third crop is our potatoes. When we started running our market garden we grew the old-time fingerling potatoes. Mainers who eat a lot of potatoes had never eaten anything quite as tasty as some of these yellow- fleshed fingerlings. Everybody always says their children won’t eat vegetables. Well, the local children eat our vegetables. Children have good taste buds, and they know that conventional vegetables taste like crap, and they have no interest in eating them. When you read about carrots having a sort of petroleum taste, that’s because the main carrot herbicide for years was called carrot oil, basically kerosene. People learned by pure chance that very few weeds would grow in kerosene-soaked soil, but carrots would.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you able to raise vegetables that are normally associated with a more Mediterranean style of eating?

COLEMAN. We grow incredibly delicious tomatoes but we grow them in greenhouses since we’re right next to the coast. Everybody comes to Maine in the summer because you can sleep at night. Here a 75-degree day in August is a hot day. Thus if we want to grow tomatoes or peppers or eggplant or cucumbers, we have them in greenhouses. All of those crops really respond to plenty of manure compost.

It’s just amazing when you see what you can do with techniques that have been known to farmers for 10,000 years. How the chemical companies ever talked farmers out of using what they had for free and buying inputs is beyond me.

ACRES U.S.A. As long as we’re taking the long view, on your video lecture you also mentioned the amazing things that went on in 19th century Paris, when the city grew much of its own food.

COLEMAN. All their vegetable growing was based on horse manure. Of all the manures I’ve ever used as a vegetable grower, if you can get horse manure from horses bedded on straw, not sawdust or shavings, that’s almost a magic soil amendment for growing good vegetables. It was amazing what the Parisian growers were doing. They were on 6 percent of the land area of Paris. I researched this — I have a bunch of the old books these guys wrote. There was no such thing as organic farming back then, but in the books these guys are saying that they had no pests. If they had a good crop rotation and used plenty of compost, they had no pests.

ACRES U.S.A. Was the conference you held in August the first of a series?

COLEMAN. It would be nice if the extension agents who were there picked up on the growers’ suggestions as to research they could do to make what we do better and easier. If any of them pick up on that I could see every two years getting a group together again to review the new information, what new greenhouse covering materials or what new floating covers have come out. I’m quite sure what I do today is going to look very old-fashioned in 10 years because people will be doing it so much better.

ACRES U.S.A. How are your relations with the agriculture establishment in Maine, into greater New England, do they just ignore you?

COLEMAN. All the university types really don’t dare say what they’re not supposed to say. We’ve been here for 48 years. No entomologist from the University of Maine has ever bothered to come down and look at what we’re doing. Back in 1979, I got a call from Bergland’s USDA, that was when they were starting that study they did, report and recommendations on organic agriculture, the first one the USDA ever put out. They had heard I ran tours of European organic farms and they wanted me to tell them about European organics. I said I’ll do better than that; I’ll take you there. They put together a four-man study team and we flew over to Europe. I took them to all the best organic farms. One day we stood on the edge of a field in Germany on this one farm, talking to a really good guy through the translator. One of the four people on loan from the USDA was the Dean of Entomology at Michigan State. He wandered out in the vegetable field, and we could see him leaning over, sweeping his hand over the back of the crops looking for pests and pest damage, like entomologists do. Finally we noticed he was just standing there, stunned. We looked over at him and he said, “There aren’t any pests. We can’t even do this well with pesticides.” I think the guy was never the same again. For a lot of those guys it’s a pretty scary thing to go to a successful organic farm and find out that the things they’ve been saying, that without chemicals you can’t grow anything, is pure bull.

ACRES U.S.A. It’s never pleasant to see years of your career vanish; just drift away on the breeze. Futility hits people hard.

COLEMAN. I can imagine some Ph.D. who’s spent his whole career developing pesticides. Now he’s about to retire, and he sure doesn’t want to meet me.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you plan to hold more conferences?

COLEMAN. Oh, we’ll see. If extension reacts to the suggestions we made and there’s some more new information coming out, I think it could happen every other year just to keep people up to date on what’s going on. We all learn so much doing it all winter, and a lot of it we share just informally by emailing each other.

ACRES U.S.A. Then you were able to attract some extension people to the event?

COLEMAN. Yes, a guy in Vermont who works with a lot of the Vermont growers, and there were two guys from the University of Michigan, an extension agent from Massachusetts and one from New Hampshire, so we did pretty well.

ACRES U.S.A. Did the difficult land of Maine come out of special conditions?

COLEMAN. Whenever there are rocks all over this part of the world, they were usually dumped here by the glacier. The middle of our farm is a slight knoll. If you understand geology, it’s what is called a terminal moraine. That means that the glacier melted back at the same speed it moved forward for a whole bunch of years there, so it dumped a lot more rocks than normal. That’s why there’s a slight rise to the land.

ACRES U.S.A. Then Mainers have always had to remove a lot of rocks?

COLEMAN. Yes. We’re on glacial till, glacial outflow. Our soil type is a sandy acid podzol, one of those soil names that came from the early Russian soil scientists.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there anything else we ought to discuss?

COLEMAN. No, it’s just that every day when I walk out the door and get to work, whether I’m cultivating or seeding or tilling or whatever, I just cannot believe these techniques will grow such continually magnificent crops, yet modern agriculture is determined to tell everybody it won’t work. That just blows my mind. I look at the beautiful fields of stuff we’ve got growing — we grow some 45 different crops — and it all looks good. We work hard to cultivate and grow, but just the idea that they’ve been able to convince farmers that this doesn’t work is beyond belief.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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