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Two Veg Gurus Walk into a Pub….

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One came rather a long way. Eliot Coleman grows vegetables in Maine, a state in the northeastern US which borders on Canada. He’s been farming organically and sustainably for over 50 years, he has written several books, he’s an educator, researcher and he’s long since become a veg guru: the man who knows how to make a market garden work. The other veg guru didn’t have far to walk – Guy Singh-Watson owns the pub, together with his wife, Geetie Singh, who founded the ‘Duke of Cambridge’ in London. But first and foremost Singh-Watson is a vegetable grower and the founder of Riverford, the organic veg and recipe box scheme that delivers some 50,000 boxes per week to customers in the UK. Since last year the company is employee owned which he sees as much of an achievement as founding Riverford in the first place.

Over organic, non vegan and vegan drinks and nibbles Ben Raskin, the Soil Association’s ‘Mr. Seed and Horticulture’, kicked off the transatlantic veg guru conversation[1]. The organic movement has bounced back and forth across the Atlantic and it has come a very long way. Coleman remembered British authors like Albert Howard (who wrote about the importance of soil health and integrating animals into farm systems in the 1920s), as the go to source for information when he started farming in the 1960s. And in Coleman’s opinion the US organic movement lost the battle over the issue of soil: The original standards for the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) organic label were published in 2000. Recently the fight over hydroponics, the question whether crops grown in water and without soil, can be certified organic, split the organic movement. A lot of big companies and wealthy businessmen, among them Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Trump Jr., hold stakes in hydroponics and to Coleman it seems that money won over the USDA. To him farming organically means ‘taking care of those three inches of top soil that cover our planet’. To him a functioning soil system is what nurtures plants and provides us with nutrient dense, healthy food. Farming means harvesting sunlight and converting it into food. He doesn’t oppose using LED lights and nutrients dissolved in water for growing stuff in abandoned warehouses or other inner city spaces: just don’t call it organic. ‘I think we lost the meaning of the word ‘organic’ and should come up with another name’, he says.

Coleman’s other bugbear is the fact that the USDA organic label allows for factory farming. For him there is just no way cows in a 20,000 head organic dairy herd will ever see grass, let alone graze it.

Guy Singh-Watson fears that large feedlot dairies are becoming more and more common in the UK, too. The figures back that up: while a record number of dairy farms have been closing down in England and Wales, the over all number of cows and the milk production have remained the same[2]. Both, Coleman and Singh-Watson advocate for small, diverse farms (Riverford works with a group of individual farms and farmers all across the UK). In regard to ‘conventional’ or ‘chemical agriculture’, as Coleman calls it, he quotes the farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry who quipped that industrial farming had turned a solution into two problems: Where farmers on integrated farms once used the manure and straw mixture from their animal barns to fertilize fields and vegetable beds, industrial farms now needed to buy tons of chemical fertilizer, while intensive animal operations fight a constant battle to get rid of animal waste.

Asked what he considers to be his proudest achievement Coleman refers back to the time when he started to farm organically. He and all those other ‘back to the land’ hippies had proven that it’s possible to grow excellent food without ruining the planet. The next challenge had been to work out how to do it year round – in particular in a state like Maine, where winters are long and freezing cold. He certainly has worked it out, the 30th anniversary edition of Eliot Coleman’s ‘The New Organic Grower’, published by Chelsea Green, is proof of that. The book was and still is a manual of how to become an organic market gardener. There is lots to learn for hobby gardeners, too, but if you are trying to grow vegetables on a small plot in your garden or in your allotment you might want to look at Coleman’s ‘Four-Season Harvest’ (also published by Chelsea Green) first. It hasn’t just got lots of details and tips what to grow how, where and when but it also lifts a mighty weight of the struggling London allotment holder: Eliot Coleman’s farm is at 44° latitude, London at 51° latitude – so his vegetables get far more light than ours because the days are longer! And though we can’t change the daylight hours, Coleman shares other insights that can suddenly change your perspective: vegetables won’t grow much in the cold season, but plant the right ones at the right time, give them a little protection from the weather and you will have something to harvest. Coleman’s books are practical manuals and guides through the seasons with a bit of travelogue and history thrown in. Read, plan, plant – and keep at hand for future advice and crisis of confidence.


[1] The conversation between Eliot Coleman and Guy Singh-Watson took place on Monday, January 7th, 2019. The event was organised by Chelsea Green Publishing.

[2] https://www.fwi.co.uk/business/business-management/80-milk-producers-quit-in-two-months-the-start-of-a-trend

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.

Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
Image (c) Lynn Karlin

The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here

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