Educational Agriculture

By Eliot Coleman

“History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of the king’s bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat.  That is the way of human folly.” —Jean-Henri Fabre

“Soil is the tablecloth under the banquet of civilization.” —Steven Stoll

Someday in the future, when advances in efficient equipment or different economic circumstances have made small-scale agriculture even more financially viable than it is at present, I want to recreate that famous scene in The Graduate.  I want to put my arm around the shoulder of some well-educated young person at their post-graduation party and tell them I only have one word to say to them – farming.  But I am afraid that the ability to make a good living from farming will not be a sufficient inducement.  There is another barrier to be overcome.  In most circles it is considered somehow unworthy of educated people to involve themselves in actual food production — to work with their hands in the soil like lesser mortals.

When the production of the foods that sustain us is considered a lowly activity, something for the unschooled, the educated have forfeited their essential connection to the source of life.  They have become parvenus, arrivistes who deny our humble origins by refusing to acknowledge the importance of the earth from which we spring and to which we will return.  By this choice, made not only by our society but, more importantly, by our institutions of higher learning, today’s young people are denied a real education.  They remain ignorant of that thin layer of fertile soil upon which their survival depends.  What better place for students to come face to face with life, death, and the transformative processes which keep our planet alive, than through understanding the processes of a compost heap?

Education’s dismissal of agriculture as a teacher of living systems has historical background.  For much of the past, for many people, farming was devoid of anything but incessant toil and illiterate neighbors.  That impression of farming has persisted to the present day.  But advances in agricultural biology since the 1850’s (which unfortunately in the public mind have been overshadowed by the propaganda of the chemical bandwagon) have unlocked mysteries that make today’s organic farming as intellectually stimulating as any other profession.  The interrelated activities defined by soil microbiology, nitrogen fixation, symbiotic relationships, mychorrizal associations, allelopathy, weed ecology, and systemic acquired resistance are not only mind expanding but, in addition, showcase the intuitive brilliance of age-old practices like crop rotations, green manures, mixed stocking, and compost making.

What better place for students to come face to face with life, death, and the transformative processes which keep our planet alive, than through understanding the processes of a compost heap?

In 1800 Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) wrote that whereas chemistry and physics could be considered as having achieved the status of sciences, agriculture remained an art.  I think that is still true today.  This art involves subtleties and judgment calls such as adding just enough limestone but not too much (and whether calcitic or dolomitic), finding the proper depth of tillage (if you till at all), figuring out the ideal balance of ingredients (fungal or bacterial) in the compost, knowing the optimum humification of compost for each use, managing green manures as either surface or incorporated amendments, maximizing the use of “inputs” that spring from natural processes on the farm itself, and involving one’s mind in all aspects of the biological world of the soil.  None of the above is dull or unskilled.  Balancing these factors is fascinating, challenging, and inspiring since skill grows with practice.  The result is a world of vigorous, healthy plants and animals, a clean environment and the satisfaction of participating in a truly sustainable agriculture that can feed the human population in perpetuity.  Such work cannot continue to be considered beneath the dignity of the educated.

I defy anyone to read Selman Waksman’s The Soil and the Microbe or N. A. Krasilnikov’s Soil Microorganisms and Higher Plants and not be awed by the miraculous creatures of the soil and the many ways in which humans can pattern agriculture in alignment with natural soil processes rather than against them.  Works such as these, which illuminate soil mysteries, are valuable not just as a science to be studied but as guides to practical techniques for planetary survival.  They describe how agriculture, rather than being a battle between humans and nature, should be a partnership, would we but learn to be aware of the biological intricacies involved and how to nurture them to assure adequate supplies of food and fiber.  What better way to make those concepts common knowledge than to give students in school and college the opportunity for practical hands on observation of the natural processes in action on a farm. 

But isn’t it anti-intellectual to propose giving the practical (the actual growing of food and working with hands in the soil) equal academic respectability next to the theoretical?  Doesn’t the dictionary define practical and theoretical as opposites?  Yes, but what better way to encourage the questioning of possibly erroneous complicated theories than by exposing students to the smooth functioning of practical systems that work within the elegant simplicity of natural processes.  If we expect today’s students to find solutions to ensure the future of their world (which they will need to do) what could be better than the direct knowledge that compost (the world’s best fertilizer, made for free in your back yard from plant and animal waste products) is a model for other solutions.  We have a belief on our farm that if what we are doing is in any way complicated it is probably wrong and we modify our practices accordingly.  Biologically based agriculture is not just a subject.  It is also a skilled teacher.

Modern education has been much too totally co-opted by the spectacular and the industrial while ignoring the fundamental and the biological.  Schools and colleges spend millions to familiarize students with Internet systems in the ether above their heads, while nothing is spent to introduce them to the vital systems in the earth beneath their feet. We impress students with the spectacle of millions of stars in the heavens but neglect to awe them with the miracle of millions of living organisms in a single teaspoon of fertile soil.  We introduce them to the chemical table of elements but leave them unaware of the susceptibility of the creatures in that teaspoon to the daily chemical residues of our industrial production.  How can we hope to train students to care for the planet when they are unfamiliar with the irreplaceable role of the skin of that planet in the miracle of their life?

Students know about the Adam of Genesis without knowing that his name comes from adama — a Hebrew noun meaning earth or soil.  They know the Latin words Homo sapiens without knowing that homo is derived from humus — the stuff of life in the soil.  They miss the connection that was so obvious in ages past.  Our educators are doing a reasonable job at explaining the intricacies of human society to students in lab and classroom, but they are neglecting to make them aware of the web of life in field and garden.  If we wish to teach reverence for the earth, we need to insist that practical time spent on the soils of a farm is just as valuable in training citizens for the 21st century as intellectual time spent in the halls of academe.