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New Roots for Inspiration

I had the good fortune to be able to attend a talk by Wes Jackson on Monday, sponsored by the University of Vermont Department of Plant & Soil Sciences. The room was packed with eager agriculture students as well as local agricultural luminaries such as Fred Magdoff. Among them were John and Nancy Todd, founders of New Alchemy Institute, both of whom have been major inspirations in my journey on this path. It was moving indeed to hear Wes pay homage to them as well, and to be able to bask in their glow.

The holistic and interrelated problems of the dysfunctional food system will require equally holistic and system wide strategies to address, and the key message I took from this talk was that there is no one thing to be done that is more important than anything else. We all should “follow our passion” and work on some way to protect soil and heal the wounds inflicted by modern industrial agriculture on this living planet. Of course I am most proud of the work I did as a grad student at UVM in the early ‘80s, when I produced the first version of The Soul of Soil. Almost thirty years later, with help from my compadre Joe Smillie, it’s still in print—and allows me to claim a place in Chelsea Green’s authors’ blog.

Even policy work, which is about all I do these days, is helpful – “kicking the giant sponge” in Washington, as Wes put it. I was greatly impressed with the forward thinking plan being proposed by Wes and Wendell Berry, among others, for a 50 year Farm Bill. Just thinking again about soil organic matter and the enormous beauty of soil biology, that “slab of space-time” of the ecosystem, and other such delights that were laid out for us that evening gave me the morale boost I was looking for.

So I take a moment to reflect on how far this movement has come, and to thank those like Wes who have continued to work—literally—on the root causes of agricultural malaise. We may still have a long way to go, but when the Secretary of Agriculture comes to speak at a winter NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Conference, as he is scheduled to do this Saturday, it has to mean something. If nothing else, my personal slogan is affirmed: “There’s no hope – but maybe I’m wrong.”

The organic imperative held hostage

“We no longer have the luxury of prevention. Now we are in the dire situation of needing a cure, a reversal. We know that correcting agriculture is an answer to climate chaos, and that it hinges on human behavior. ….The future is underfoot. It’s all about healthy soil.” This statement from ‘Coach’ Mark Smallwood, Executive […] Read More..

Sad news for the organic vision

I wrote the passage that follows near the end of 2010, in the midst of working on a chapter about the early history of organic certification and my role in it. This experience came to mind when I heard about the abrupt dismissal of Mark Keating, a former National Organic Program (NOP) colleague who had […] Read More..

CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS Part 3 – What is the future of organic?

Part 2 of this series left off in 2002 with full implementation of the NOP (National Organic Program) twelve years after enacting the OFPA (US organic law), following years of internal and external battles. The general message communicated by the activist community was that the new regulation was far from perfect, but acceptable, but that […] Read More..

CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS Part 2: Organic standards become law

This is the second of three articles published by The Organic Standard (TOS), an international online publication aimed at public and private organic policy makers, certifiers and businesses.  This part appears in the September, 2010 issue (see Part 1 of this story left off in the late 1980s, as the stage was set for […] Read More..

CONFLICTS OVER ORGANIC STANDARDS– Part I, History of organic standard-setting and controversies

NOTE: This article was published in the August 2010 issue of The Organic Standard, an international on-line publication aimed at policy makers, certifiers and the organic trade, published by Grolink AB, a Swedish consulting company ( This is the first of a three-part series that The Organic Standard (TOS) will publish on the story of […] Read More..