Through most of his time at Williams, Coleman was a self-described partier. He played sports, hung out with friends, and gave a small portion of his leftover time to academics. Coleman’s father and grandfather both worked on Wall Street, and he interned at a bank there during his summers in college. Spring of his junior year, however, Coleman was involved in a motorcycle accident and was forced to spend the next several months in a hospital bed. While he was there, he read a book on small-scale agriculture and became obsessed. When he finished that book, he sought out others. Before long, Coleman had given up any illusions that he belonged in New York. After graduation he traveled around the Northeast looking for a spot to start a farm of his own. He settled on a remote plot of land on the Maine coast and spent the next several years digging out stumps and removing boulders from the soil. Four decades later, Coleman’s Four Season Farm is a model for the organic farming world. Through his passion for innovation, Coleman has developed new techniques to promote soil growth and allow for more consistent growing.
Where did the stigma against organic farmers come from?
Well, none of the big chemical companies want to believe that organic farming can work. I suppose the first thing that set them off was Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. If you read the history of the book, the chemical companies tried to destroy her. She was a threat. No one’s interested in the truth unless it backs up what they’re selling. It’s interesting how much of that’s been forgotten today.
Were you ever tempted to go a more traditional route?
Only because my father was a stockbroker in New York City. After my motorcycle accident, I needed something to do before I could go back to Williams. He got me a job on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. What I was expected to do was pretty easy as long as you were paying attention. I did it for six months, and I told my old man that broking wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.
I went back to Williams for senior year, then went to graduate school, and then went and taught for five years. When I decided to do this, my parents would have nothing to do with it, which is why it was wonderful that the Nearings took pity on me and sold me the land for a price I could afford.
So the book is what motivated you to move here?
It fascinated me so I came over and met the Nearings. We got along well right from the start. The following year, I came back to see them. My first wife and I were driving around New England looking at farm properties, and we couldn’t afford any of them. The Nearings said, ‘we’re not using the back half of our place, why don’t you buy that?’ it was all forest. I said, ‘Sure, I want an adventure, and this is right up there.’ I was 28 at the time.
Were there times when you were clearing the land where you thought, ‘what am I doing?’
Well, I always had a lot of energy as a kid, and I suspect if I were in grade school today, they would have me on an IV of riddilin. I remember during the early days here, I was chopping out a stump and a neighbor came by. He said, ‘by golly, Eliot, that looks like a lot of work.’ I said, ‘well, let me tell you what I used to do for fun. I would go on mountaineering expeditions, and for 3 weeks I’d have a 70-pound pack on my back, and I’d be chopping steps on a vertical icy cliff and freeze to death in the tent at night. Compared with that, this is easy.
How long did it take to clear the land?
You take it bit by bit. I was here from 1968 to 1978 and then I got divorced, and my first wife wanted to stay here. By then, we had seven acres cleared. When I came back in 1990, I set to work clearing the rest of the 14 acres. By then, I had income from a book I’d written, and I knew a lot more about farming so I could hire people so I was using back-hoes rather than me with an axe.
What prompted you to write the book?
Because I had a Williams education, and you don’t get many people in farming with a Williams education. I knew how to learn, and there was an enormous amount of information out there about organic farming, but it wasn’t easily available. Most of the books had been published in Europe – Europeans were way ahead of Americans at sustainable agriculture. When I was teaching at Franconia College, I would go down to the Dartmouth library. I read every book they had about agriculture. There was a lot of wonderful material. The book is good – the bibliography is better because you find other things you should read. The French and Germans were doing some of the most interesting work with organic agriculture so I learned enough French and German to understand those.
In 1974, there was a large organic farming conference in Paris. Scott Nearing offered to pay my way. I jumped at the chance. I met all these European farmers, and they had all these techniques that hadn’t made it to the US. Small farming in Europe was a much more accepted way of life. It was so interesting meeting these farmers that in 1976, I started putting together tours to go visit some of the farms. When I was in Paris in 1974, I went to a meeting of what became the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. I actually served as the Director of that from 1978-80. I don’t know how we used to set those things up because it was all through writing letters.
In 1979, when Carter was in The White House, his Secretary of Agriculture had a neighbor who was an organic farmer. The farmer invited the Secretary to dinner, and he said, ‘you mean, this is really working?’ The Secretary put together a team of 4 USDA scientists. I took those four to Europe to visit organic farms, and we blew their socks off. They had no idea you could do some of these things.
They came out with a study in 1980 called the Report and Findings on Organic Agriculture, and that was very positive. This was a real surprise at the time. The USDA put in an office of Organic Farming. Then Reagan got elected, and that Office was taken away.
Has there been a move back towards Organic farming at all?
Well Michele Obama has an organic garden at the White House. My wife writes a column for the Washington Post, and she wrote a column, commenting on the fact that when Michele started her garden, she got letters from the chemical companies.
Have you ever experienced discrimination from the chemical community?
They find it so easy to ignore people. People today don’t realize how good the corporate world is at creating the truth they want you to see. Look at what Monsanto was able to do when they tried to have a vote to force food companies to label GMOs. Something like 86% of the country was in favor of the bill, but Monsanto poured so much money into the campaign that they were able to defeat it. The people who are running your world are graduates in psychology. Truth becomes however the power structure gets the press to report it to us.
What keeps you motivated to fight against this establishment?
Because I’m right, and they’re wrong. I’ve been here for 45 years and no etymologist from the University of Maine has ever come to visit. Don’t you think they should be a little curious? Let’s say I was in dry cleaning, and people heard that I was getting cleaner clothes than anyone, and I wasn’t using any solvents. Every dry cleaner in the state would come to visit.
There are a lot of other psychological things going on when it comes to farming. I don’t think we’re ready to admit that nature is perfect and the mistakes are ours. My experience is that the natural world is the most elegantly designed thing, and that if I want to work with it, I need to pay attention to how it’s designed and understand that design. That’s so much easier than trying to replace it.
The large strawberry growers in California who grow berries on the same land year after year sterilize the soil with chemicals. People have been trying to outlaw this because it has the bad habit of destroying the ozone layer. They want the ground absolutely sterile. You only want that if you are afraid of nature.
It’s like the castle that’s being attacked. As long as the castle is well put together with strong walls, and they’ve got plenty of food and water inside, the castle is going to be safe. Plant defenses and human defenses are the same way. But if the walls of your fortress aren’t built well – if your body is made up of Twinkies and Devil Dogs – you’re going to get sick.
It’s almost as if there’s two worlds out there – there’s the truth as it is and the truth as it’s presented to us because some industrial operation is making money off of that truth. I survive as an organic farmer because when there’s a problem, I correct the cause of the problem. Say, you have a headache – you take an aspirin. What if you have a headache because your hat is on too tight. You could take an aspirin or you could correct the cause and take your hat off. A very wise researcher from Texas said, ‘how many people think they have a headache because their body is deficient in aspirin.’ Aspirin isn’t correcting the cause, it’s treating the symptom. It’s the same thing with pesticides. You say, ‘I don’t care why the bugs are there, I just want to kill them.’ Well I do care why the bugs are there because I think there’s a reason that they’re there. The reason is that the plant is under stress. There are all sorts of studies that have been done about how plants behave when they’re produced under stressful growing conditions. Most of the studies agree that the synthesis of protein in their tissues gets stalled. When that happens, you get a buildup in the tissue of free amino acids that are trying to come protein, but it’s not working. When plants have high amounts of free amino acids in their tissues, they become snack bar city for insects and diseases. If you grow them correctly and protein synthesis is working correctly, insects can’t survive because they’re only nourished by the free amino acids, which were easier for them to access.
All of this is in the eytomological literature. I read it. Why don’t the etymologists read it? There’s no money to get research if you’re telling people that you don’t need to buy chemicals for farming because the chemical companies are funding the research.
So you have just been gobbling up books on farming for the past 45 years. Did you have a goal when you started your research?
I was curious. When you start reading the earliest books on organic farming, the authors state that when you grow plants correctly, there aren’t any pests. I thought that was fascinating because nature’s pretty consistent. What if it turns out that if I nourish my livestock correctly, they don’t get any disease? What if it turns out that if I nourish myself correctly, it will work better? I’m one of the few 75-year-olds you know who isn’t on any drugs.
I probably have the best private library on this stuff anywhere in the country because I’ve been collecting books on organic agriculture for 45 years, and I’m a relentless book nerd. There’s a section of the house that we refer to as “the stacks” because it looks like the Williams library.
Did you always read a lot?
It wasn’t until after my motorcycle accident when I was in a hospital bed for two months and had time to investigate myself that I said, ‘I’m wasting my time. Why aren’t I using my mind better?’ When I went back, I was on the Dean’s List senior year.
What I learned at Williams was how to learn. When I first started farming, it was long before the Internet, but I knew how to go through the card catalog and find books. I miss the card catalog because you’d find the book you were looking for and then you’d look at the titles for the books near it because all the books on the same topic were right there.
When you first got started, were you thinking that this would become your career?
I don’t know if I was planning that far ahead, but it was like being on a climb. You’ve gotten to camp 2, and there are a couple different routes to camp 3. I was trying to figure out how farming works. I planted seeds and tried to see what happened. I tried different things each year and experiment with what worked best. At the start, we would take a field, and I would till horse manure in one section and autumn leaves in another, and seaweed in another. The next year, I would cross plant every vegetable I was interested in. I ran my own experiment station basically.
The top of the mountain could be gotten awful close to if scientific agriculture got on board, but scientific agriculture is the purview of industry, and industry doesn’t want to know we exist.
What do you see as your role in the organic farming movement?
Well, I’ve written three books and my wife and I have co-authored a book. You can sit here and demonstrate that it works until the end of time, but if no one’s looking, then it won’t have a difference. At least books are something solid.
The book I’m working on now is about the whole concept that if you grow plants correct, pests are not a problem. The title is “The Other Side of the Tapestry.” I imagine that there’s a huge tapestry of the natural world hanging in a hall. It’s absolutely beautiful, but you’re the only one looking at it. You hear noise down the hall so you go to look, and everyone’s studying the back of the tapestry. They’re trying to piece together what the world is like by studying the various threads and weaving patterns. It isn’t that these people are ignorant, many are brilliant. But if you walk to the front of the tapestry, the picture is very clear.
I’m not saying that the scientists who are sending us towards industrial agriculture are ignorant, they’re just standing on the back side of the tapestry.
Even if the book was as successful in sales as Silent Spring, I don’t know how much difference it would have. We’re now using five times as many pesticides as we were when Silent Spring was published.
I imagine that Monsanto would say that maybe organic farming could work on a small scale but not in a way that would feed the world.
Yeah, I’ve heard all of those arguments. When I was starting out, I had friends in the Midwest who were operating thousand acre farms and hadn’t sold out to industrial agriculture. It was working great for them. You still use the same techniques that human agriculturalists have been using for thousands of years – crop rotations, green manures, cover crops, mixed livestock. I have a book in there entitled Roman Agriculture – they knew everything. Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter where he said that he suspected that the insects that harassed her crops were because of the lean state of her soil. People knew this stuff back then.
What made you shift away from being such a free spirit in college?
Sitting in the hospital and staring at myself for two months was really informative. I recommend it if you happen to have not found some direction. When I went back to Williams, I studied and paid attention. I’d always been passionate about things that interested me. I had every book that existed on whitewater kayaking because I was really into it and wanted to know how it worked. There was just nothing in the courses I was taking that was quite as compelling to me. I think spending time in the hospital was a very effective way to make me ask myself whether I was wasting time.
Who introduced you to the book “Living the Good Life?”
Junior year at Williams, a member of my class whose father owned Huffy Bicycles, bought 10 bikes and said that if anyone wanted one, he could have them for the wholesale price he paid. It was the fanciest 10-speed bike you could buy. My roommate and I jumped in and each bought one. That summer, we road across the country. We’re riding through Idaho, and a truck past us and pulled over. The driver said, ‘wow, I’ve never seen anyone on a 10-speed. I live in the next town up, why don’t you stay with us for the night.’ We found his place, and his family fed us. We were talking about training, and he said that he used to be skinny, but then he started eating yogurt and that bulked him up. The minute I got home, I started eating yogurt. When I was at Franconia College, I heard there was a store where I could buy a yogurt maker. It was the first health food store in Vermont. They had a lending library of all sorts of crazy books. I told the owner that I was an athlete, and so he gave me a book about this guy who competed as a swimmer in three straight Olympics. I read the book over night and came back the next day. Every time I went back, the guy would loan me another book. Eventually, he lent me “Living the Good Life.” I really got into the homesteading and growing your own food and the adventure of survival. I came to see him and rented a place and so began what my mother referred to as “when I went crazy.”
My parent’s said that I’d be wasting my education – here I am with a Master’s in Spanish Literature. Two winters ago, I was down in Chile and Argentina teaching courses in organic farming in Spanish. Every night I could say, ‘I’m no longer wasting my education.’
What advice would you give a current student?
I’d probably tell them that there’s one important word that you need to know and you need to use it endlessly: why. If you ask it enough, maybe you’ll get down to the hardcore, stainless steel truth.
It took you some searching to find farming as a calling. What advice do you have for people who are looking for something that interests them?
My grandfather had been a partner in a brokerage firm. My father and his two brothers ended up as brokers for the same firm. I knew an enormous amount of English poetry by heart because my father loved English poetry. I think if he’d created his own life, he’d have been a professor of English literature, but he let his father direct him into where he went. My father gave us all a good life, but it was never his passion. He lived for the weekends. I get to pursue my passion seven days a week. If you’re too anxious for Friday at 5 PM, maybe you’re not doing something you love. I think about that when I get my yearly checkup with the doctor. I realize that I’m reading a lot more about some of the medical stuff than he is because he’s playing golf all weekend. We’ve allowed quantity of money to become the satisfaction that you should get from what you’re doing everyday.
We have an acre and a half that we’ve been able to get enough stones out of to be productive land. On that acre and a half, we sold $165,000 worth of produce. The net was pushing $55,000. A couple, working as hard as we do, might hope to have a little more than that. But then, all our food is free, we’re doing what we love, and an awful lot of my compensation package is in doing what I love rather than in dollars. We make money doing lectures and consulting, but you can live pretty well on $55,000.