The Origins of Organic Agriculture in the United States

As close as anyone can determine, the first use of the term "organic" (in this country, anyway) was in 1940. J.I. Rodale coined it in an article for the publication Fact Digest.(5) Shortly thereafter, he launched Organic Farming and Gardening (OFG) magazine — for many years the flagship publication of Rodale Press. Along with OFG, Rodale Press published (and continues to publish) a large number of books and booklets on organic agriculture. For a long time the publishing house was the most highly visible and accessible source of information about "non-chemical" farming and gardening in the U.S. As such, it was probably the single greatest influence on the shape and underlying philosophy of mainstream organics. J.I. Rodale drew his concept of organic agriculture from a number of sources, including Louis Bromfield (the author of Malabar Farm and other books on conservation farming), Dr. William Albrecht (from the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri), and the Biodynamic movement. However, his key ideas about farming came from the British agronomist Albert Howard. Howard worked in the foreign service in India during the first quarter of the 20th century, and much of what he preached about agriculture came from his observations and experiences in that part of the world.

In his landmark books, An Agricultural Testament (6) and The Soil and Health (7), Howard pointed to emerging problems of animal and plant disease, soil erosion, and similar conditions. He laid the blame for these on mismanagement of soil. Howard specifically cited the failure of modern civilizations to properly return wastes from cities and industries to the farms. Sustainability issues were at the top of the list for this man, now considered the "father of organic agriculture."

Clearly, Howard did not believe that reliance on chemical fertilization could address these concerns. He thought it a misguided approach —the likely product of reductionist reasoning by "laboratory hermits" who paid no attention to how nature worked.

Howard promoted a natural approach to building soil and fertility. He wrote in great detail about the use of deep-rooting crops to draw nutrients from the subsoil, about managing crop residues, and about green manuring. However, Howard gave the lion's share of his attention to composting. The Indore Process, which he was responsible for popularizing, is exemplified today by the basic layered, bin composting system that is the standard in organic gardening.

In America, Rodale expanded on Howard's ideas. In his seminal book on organic agriculture, Pay Dirt (8), he identifies a number of other "good farming practices" — like crop rotation and mulching — that gave further definition and clarification to what have become accepted organic practices and inputs. This is important because organic farming embodies the elements of a sound agriculture — traditional practices that have been proven over time. In fact, a good, convenient, working definition for organic agriculture is good farming practice without using synthetic chemicals. This working definition distinguishes organic practice from the general milieu of agriculture that existed in the pre-chemical era, much of which was exploitative and unsustainable. Organic farming was never intended to be a "throwback" or regressive form of agriculture.

A truly significant event in the history of organics took place in 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.(9) Silent Spring is a strong and dramatic statement about the impact of pesticides on the environment. It was one of the key documents that gave birth to environmental consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s.

When environmentalists and others began looking around for an alternative to pesticides and industrial agriculture, organic farming was there. Not only was it an approach that did not use synthetic pesticides, it also had an attractive counter-culture name that grew to signify a philosophy of living as well as a method of farming.

While Silent Spring and the environmental movement were not about organic farming per se, they brought it to public consciousness on a vast scale. It is not uncommon, in fact, for some writers to suggest that organic agriculture began with Rachel Carson's book. Though this assertion is untrue, the book clearly played a major role in stimulating industry growth and in altering public perceptions. From the mid-1960s onward, organics was increasingly identified with pesticide issues. It became the idealized alternative for providing clean, healthy food and environmental protection.

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