Reconnecting with the Roots of Organic Farming[1]

John Ikerd[2]


The Roots of Organic


I think most agricultural historians would agree that the modern organic farming movement began in the early 1900s. Others may disagree, but I credit Rudolph Steiner with laying the philosophical foundation for organic farming in his landmark series of lectures on Biodynamic farming in 1924. He wrote, “Central to biodynamics is the concept that a farm is healthy only as much as it becomes an organism in itself – an individualized, diverse ecosystem guided by the farmer, standing in living interaction with the larger ecological, social, economic, and spiritual realities of which it is part.” [1] To Steiner, a farm is a living organism and the farmer is an integral part of the organic farm. Steiner was also concerned that food grown on increasingly impoverished soil couldn’t provide the inner sustenance needed for spiritual health.


I credit Sir Albert Howard of Great Britain with adding the ecological foundation for organic farming. In his 1940 classic book, An Agricultural Testament, he wrote, “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture. In the ordinary processes of crop production fertility is steadily lost: its continuous restoration by means of manuring and soil management is therefore imperative.” [2] He added, “The agriculture of ancient Rome failed because it was unable to maintain the soil in a fertile condition.” He linked the fall of the Roman Empire to the failure of Roman agriculture.  He concluded, “The farmers of the West are repeating the mistakes made by Imperial Rome.” And, asked, “Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession—the fertility of the soil—is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization depends.” A permanent agriculture is the first condition for a permanent civilization.


J. I. Rodale provided the social and ethical foundation for the movement. Rodale began publishing the Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942—which became the bible for many early organic farmers in the U.S.  He wrote, “The organi-culturist farmer must realize that in him is placed a sacred trust, the task of producing food that will impart health to the people who consume it. As a patriotic duty, he assumes an obligation to preserve the fertility of the soil, a precious heritage that he must pass on, undefiled and even enriched, to subsequent generations.”[3] To Rodale, organic farming was not just an occupation, it was a calling, a life’s mission, a sacred trust.


The work of George Washington Carver paralleled that of Steiner, Howard, Rodale and other organic pioneers in the racially segregated society of the early 1900s. Carver is generally recognized for promoting peanuts and sweet potatoes as alternative crops, but his work focused primarily on crop rotation, composting, and other means of restoring and sustaining soil fertility. He believed that soil health is essential for human health and that farmers had a responsibility to produce healthy foods for their own families and communities. Carver held a graduate degree from Iowa State University and founded Tuskegee University. So, he would have been aware of the work of the other scientists and they were likely aware of his. Carver believed that scientists must learn from nature as well as about nature.  He wrote, “Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books.”[4] Nature provides the pattern or design for an organic farm. 


All of these scientists build on the work of others who had come before. Franklin Hiram King visited Japan, China, and Korea between 1902 and 1904 conducting a study commissioned by the U.S. Bureau of Soils. He studied how people in these ancient cultures had been able to sustain the productivity of their farmland for thousands of years. Upon arriving in China from the U.S. he wrote, “We had gone from practices by which three generations had exhausted strong virgin fields and were coming to others [fields] still fertile after thirty centuries of cropping.”[5]  King emphasized the necessity of returning all biological wastes, including human wastes, back to the soil where the crops were grown. He documented his observations and conclusions in his classic book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. 


Liberty Hyde Bailey, while Dean College of Agriculture of Cornell University, wrote the foreword of King’s book. He wrote, “We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture. We have really only begun to farm well. The first condition of farming is to maintain fertility.”[6] Bailey credited the productivity of American agriculture at the time with the practice of farming virgin soils until their productivity declined or was depleted and then moving on to new virgin lands. During the early 1900s, agriculture research and educational programs of Land Grant Universities began focusing on restoring the productivity of declining and depleted soils through the use of animal manure, legume crops, crop rotations, and integrated crop and livestock systems.  


If Native American and African American cultures had not been denigrated or destroyed by genocide and slavery, the organic pioneers would not have needed to go to Asia learn how to preserve the fertility of the soil, and pass on, undefiled and enriched, to future generations. Prior to colonization, the indigenous people of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere also had done so for centuries. They understood they were not separate or apart from the earth but were a part of the earth they depended on for food, clothing, and shelter. They altered natural ecosystems to meet their needs, as do other species. But they understood they had to respect the needs of nature if nature was to continue meeting theirs. Nature was sacred and its stewardship a sacred trust.


Unfortunately, the wisdom of indigenous peoples and early advocates of organic farming were largely ignored. In 1977, Wendell Berry, Kentucky philosopher, writer, and farmer, presented a scathing indictment of modern industrial farming in his landmark book, The Unsettling of America,.[7] He wrote, "If agriculture is to remain productive, it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well.  If the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well."[8] Berry also wrote about farming according to the patterns of nature on “farms they know and love, farms small enough to know and love, using methods they know and love, in the company of neighbors they know and love.” Berry urged farmers to reconnect with their land and with their local communities—to return to the wisdom of indigenous peoples who were integrally connected to their specific places and people.


The wisdom of nature and indigenous culture has also been acknowledged by other leaders in the organic farming movement. Wes and Dana Jackson, founders of the Land Institute, looked to the ecosystems of native prairies in developing their approach to sustainable farming.[9] Founded in 1976, the Land Institute focuses on the genetic development of “perennial polycultures” as a means of restoring, regenerating, and sustaining the fertility and productivity of farmland.[10] Alan Savory, founder of Holistic Resource Management,” patterned his planned or rotational grazing systems on the grazing patterns of wild animals in Rhodesia.[11] Prior to colonization, the Indigenous people of Africa, America, and elsewhere moved or moved with the wild animals they depended on for food and other necessities. Farms are managed holistically as an integrally interconnected living system, and holistic farm managers develop and work toward three-part goals that reflect their unique ecological, social, and economic realities. 


Land Grant Universities redirected their research and educational programs to support industrial farming systems during the 1960s and 1970s with the growing affordability and popularity of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. However, scientific interests in organic farming were rekindled in the late 1980s by the Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program, which was initiated and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1988.[12] The LISA program was initiated by advocates of organic farming, particularly Robert Rodale, son of J. I. Rodale. Rodale joined forces with rural advocate groups concerned about the impacts of industrial agriculture on rural communities and advocates for family farmers concerned about high costs of agricultural inputs during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s. Organic agriculture was considered as a radical idea in the agricultural mainstream at that time. “Sustainable” agriculture was chosen as a compromise to bring the interests of three groups together.


Agroecology provided a scientific foundation not only for sustainable agriculture but also for the modern organic farming movement. Miguel Altieri’s 1995 book, Agroecology; The Science of Sustainability,[13] applies the scientific principles of ecology to agriculture and treats farms as integrally interconnected agroecosystems. The first principle of ecology is that “everything is interconnected”—soils, plants, animals, farms, farmers, communities, bioregions, economies, and beyond, to the universe. The word “sustainable” has since been co-opted by agribusiness and so abused and denigrated that it has been abandoned by many early advocates. However, the principles of authentic sustainable agriculture are firmly grounded in the science of agroecology. Furthermore, agroecology is firmly rooted in the permanent agriculture of Steiner, Howard, Rodale, Carver, and other early advocates of organic farming.


Many others have contributed to the understanding of organic agriculture, sustainable agriculture, and the more recent iteration, regenerative agriculture. Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the theory and practice of Permaculture, which envisions a perennial and sustainable form of agriculture. North Dakota rancher, Gabe Brown, is perhaps the most articulate advocate of an ecologically, socially, and spiritually regenerative agriculture, as reflected in his book, Dirt to Soil.[14] Booker T. Whatley explained how farmers can make a decent living without using industrial farming methods in his book, How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres.[15] He was also the first American to propose Community Supported Agriculture or CSAs—farms supported by urban consumers. Eliot Coleman, an advocate for small-scale farms and local foods, is best known for demonstrating that high-quality produce can be grown organically year-round, even in Maine.[16] John Jevons’ demonstrated that “biointensive” farming methods can produce tremendous quantities of fruits and vegetables in urban backyards and other limited spaces.[17] Restauranter Alice Waters started the farm-to-table movement, championing the superior qualities of organic foods and linking organic farmers with restaurateurs.[18] The list could go on and on…


All of today’s prominent advocates of authentic organic farming “stand on the shoulders” of indigenous farmers and the early pioneers of organic farming.


The Industrialization of Organics


Organic farmers were the first to understand the inevitable negative consequences of applying the principles of industry to agriculture. Industrial agriculture treats the plants, animals, and other living things on farms as inanimate mechanisms or machines, rather than living organisms and treats farms as factories rather than living agroecosystems. Industrial agriculture treats nature and society as infinite sources of resources from which to extract economic value, rather than living systems that must be renewed and regenerated to sustain their productivity.  Industrial farmers see their farms not as part of nature, but separate or apart from nature. Nature is something to be conquered and dominated rather than be nurtured. Industrial farmers are extractors and exploiters, rather than the stewards and caretakers.


Sustainable agriculture was an attempt to provide conventional farmers with an alternative to industrial agriculture by focusing on the organic principle of permanence rather than the organic philosophy of farms as living systems. Sustainable agriculture is most generally defined as the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Advocates of industrial agriculture saw sustainability as an opportunity to “greenwash” their image by claiming that industrial farming was actually more sustainable than organic farming. They emphasized their economic advantage in meeting the food and fiber needs of the present and promised new technologies that would protect the natural environment and ensure equal or better opportunities for those of the future. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz said, “Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve."


In spite of strong opposition, organic farming continued to increase in popularity in response to growing consumer demand. Markets for organic food grew by about 20% per year during the 1990s, doubling every three to four years—and continued growing more than 10% per year into the 2000s. The rapid growth in the organic food market during the 1990s attracted the attention of mainstream food processors and retailers. The large agri-food corporations began to buy out the more successful early organic farming operations and started organic production on their own. By the early 2000s, the organic food market was dominated by large agri-food corporations that saw farming as a bottom-line business rather than a way of life, patriot duty, or sacred trust.


The industrialization of organics was facilitated by uniform national and international standards for certification. As Eve Balfour of Great Britain wrote in 1977, “the techniques of organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules.”[19] Uniform standards allowed the organic market to be captured by corporate producers who could meet the minimum requirements for organic certification at the lowest economic cost. As corporate producers gained control of the organic market, they also gained the ability to reshape organic standards even further to accommodate industrial production. Today, a large proportion of organic produce is grown in giant hydroponic greenhouses—without soil, the foundation of “real organic” production. Large percentages of organic milk and eggs are produced in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations—CAFOs or factory farms—which clearly are not organic, sustainable, or humane. 


Even though sales of organic foods have grown dramatically with the industrialization of organics, conventional chemical-intensive agriculture still dominates the food market. Organic foods account for only about 6% of total U.S. food sales.[20] Organics claims about 15% of the total fruit and vegetable sales, but sales in other food categories were much lower. A USDA study placed local or direct sales of foods at farmers markets or through CSAs and food hubs, organic and otherwise, at only $9 billion, less than 1% of total U.S. food sales.[21] The challenges in restoring ecological and social integrity to the current agri-food system seem daunting.



Restoring the integrity of the Food System


The situation might seem hopeless, but there is growing public awareness of the ecological, social, and rural economic costs of industrial agriculture. In response to the industrialization of organics, the Real Organic Project was organized with the stated mission: “To grow people’s understanding of foundational organic values and practices; crops grown in soil and livestock raised on pasture are fundamental to organic farming.” [22] Over the past three years, the project has certified nearly 1,000 farms. Their add-on label to USDA certification prohibits hydroponics, CAFOs, and other “non-organic” practices. A similar organization in Europe, Naturland, provides an add-on label to help small farms compete. Naturland is one of the leading organic labels in the world and is an add-on to the EU’s certified organic program. Founded in Germany 40 years ago, their membership has grown to 140,000 farms around the world, as they have established and maintained a global reputation for organic integrity.


The agroecology social movement also represents a strong and growing challenge to industrial agriculture globally. A 2016 study by an International Panel of Experts on Sustainability-Food (IPES) reviewed and cited more than 350 sources in support of its indictment of industrial agriculture and its call for fundamental change. They concluded, “Today's food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.”[23]


They concluded, “What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strong under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.”[24]


Olivier De Schutter, leader of the IPES panel of experts, stated, “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. The way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems. Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates. We must change the way we set political priorities.”[25] In fact, industrial agriculture would not exist, at least not at the scale of today, without generous government subsidies that absorb most of the economic risks inherent in large-scale, specialized agricultural production. Lax government regulations also allow industrial agriculture to impose high environmental and public health costs on society.


Today’s U.S. farm policies reflect a fundamental redirection that took place during the 1960s and 1970s.[26] U.S. farm policies were initiated in the 1930s to ensure long run domestic food security by ensuring the economic viability of independent family farms and farming communities. The farm bill of 1938 was actually an amendment to a conservation bill that had been enacted in 1935 to address soil erosion. Thus, the original intent of U.S. farm policy was to ensure the long run sustainability of agriculture.  However, new mechanical, chemical, and biological technologies following World War II made it possible to increase agricultural productivity by applying industrial production strategies to farming. Fundamental changes in farm policy during the 1960s and 1970s made the shift from family farms to industrial agriculture inevitable.


The most basic purpose of U.S. farm policy is to ensure domestic food security by making food more affordable and accessible to more people. While the change in farm policy during the 1960s and 1970s may have been well-intended, it failed. In 2021, one-in-nine households in total, and one-in-seven households with children, were classified as “food insecure.”[27] In 1968, when CBS-TV aired its classic documentary, “Hunger in America,” only 5% of the people in the U.S. were estimated to be hungry.[28] U.S. government food assistance programs have expanded dramatically since the1960s, alleviating hunger for many, but socioeconomic inequity has expanded even faster. In addition, an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and various forms of cancer have paralleled the industrialization of the American food system.


The good news is that the general public is beginning to awaken to the social, environmental, public health failures of industrial agriculture. Numerous policy proposals have been developed to support another shift in U.S. farm policy, similar to that of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal was released in January 2020.[29] Among the specific proposals are: Phase out government subsidized crop insurance programs for single crops and all commodity-based programs unless accompanied by supply management programs. Replace the current crop insurance programs with a Whole-Farm Net Revenue Insurance program that shares risks of family farms transitioning to regenerative, sustainable farming systems. Redirect the agricultural research and extension programs to facilitate the transition for industrial to agroecological farming systems.


As Olivier De Schutter stated, “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates. We must change the way we set political priorities.” In fact, the scientific and technical knowledge to support alternatives to industrial agriculture is further advanced today than was the scientific and technical knowledge of industrial agriculture during the 1960s and 1970s. There is no lack of logical proposals for transformative change in farm policy, only the political will to do it.


Regardless of the need, significant changes in state and national farm and food policies are not likely in the near future. However, changes at the local community level need not wait for state or national policymakers. The global Food Sovereignty movement provides a logical conceptual framework for community- and bioregional-based food systems. Food Sovereignty is defined as “The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems."[30] Agroecology provides the logical framework for producing healthy and culturally appropriate foods by ecologically sound and sustainable methods.


I have suggested using existing legal provisions for public utilities to provide organizational structure for community-based food systems.[31] The legitimacy of food security as a public responsibility has been clearly established through allocations of state and federal funds for government food assistance programs. At the request of eligible recipients, their federal and state food assistance funds could be allocated to their local community food utility or CFU. The CFU would then assume the responsibility of ensuring the right of participants to healthy, culturally appropriate food produced by agroecological means.


Food sovereign communities could be organized as cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, or as benefit corporations. However, such organizations might encounter difficulty justifying government funding as well as protecting local food systems from co-option and corruption by defenders of industrial agriculture. CFUs would be expected to secure as much food as possible from local farmers and be selective in sourcing food from outside the local community. CFUs could expand beyond those receiving food assistance to serve the entire community—much like public transportation does today. CFUs could provide a dependable and profitable market for local organic farmers.


Reconnecting with the Roots of Organics


Regardless of whether they produce for home consumption, local communities, or for national or global markets, true organic farmers must be guided by an “organic worldview.” Farms are living organisms or agroecosystems, not inanimate mechanisms or factories, and farmers are part of the living systems they care for or manage. The basic purpose of farming has always been to tip the ecological balance of nature to favor humans relative to other species. Most indigenous peoples understood that if they tipped the balance too far, they would destroy the ecological integrity and productivity of the living system of which they were part. Past civilizations such as the Roman and Mayan Empires made this fatal mistake. The organic pioneers understood that we are making the same mistake today.


At the deepest level, organic farming is rooted in the concept that farmers are members or a part of the living organisms or agroecosystems they manage and their farms are part of larger ecosystems of communities, bioregions, societies, and the earth. And, if farms are to sustain their ability to meet human needs, they must be managed to function in harmony with the organisms of which they are composed and the larger ecosystems of which they are a part.


The human body is perhaps the most practical analogy of the farm as a living agroecosystem. Since we all have a body, we have some idea of how living systems function. Rudolph Steiner used this analogy in his lectures in the 1920s. The conscious or somatic nervous system of the human body controls the movement of muscles and other intentional or voluntary functions of the body. But humans also have autonomic or unconscious nervous systems that control most functions of the brain, heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys and other vital organs. Some of the autonomic or involuntary functions, such as breathing and heart rate, can be influenced by voluntary actions, but most cannot. The farmer manager is the somatic or conscious nervous system of the farm. The autonomic or autonomous functions of the farm are controlled by nature. A farmer’s management decisions must be harmonized with nature’s autonomic functions to sustain the health, integrity, and productivity of the farm’s living organisms and ecosystems. 


It is also important to understand that farms function as component parts of larger local, bioregional, continental, and global ecosystems. We, as individuals, are members of those ecosystems, as are families, communities, societies, nations, and humanity. Farms support and are supported by these larger ecological and social systems—primarily as producers of food, fuel, and fiber. But farms may also pose threats to these larger living systems by creating and excreting poisons, pollutants, and wastes. Farmer managers have control or influence over some of both positive and negative functions of farms, but the autonomous functions of nature must be respected, accepted, and accommodated.  Farmers must accept their responsibilities both as provisioners of society and as caretakers of the larger ecological and social system within which they function. This is what King, Bailey, Howard, Rodale, Carver, and other organic pioneers referred to as a patriotic duty and sacred trust. 


When farms are managed as living systems, they are sustainable. They have the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. They are regenerative, resilient, and resourceful. Healthy living systems are naturally regenerative. They are self-making—they renew, reproduce, and redesign themselves. Thus, farms managed as living systems are regenerative. They rely on solar energy to sequester nutrients from the air, soil, and water in order to continually renew and recreate themselves and to help regenerate the larger ecological and societal systems of which they are part.


Healthy living systems are naturally resilient. They have the ability to resist, endure, and respond to unexpected disruptions and threats. Thus, farms managed as living systems are resilient. Like nature, they rely on a diversity of micro- and macro-organisms, plants, animals, and people for their ability to withstand, survive, and recover from drought, floods, extreme temperatures, volatile markets, and changes in government policies. Resilient farming systems have pest-predator immune systems and built-in redundancies that allow them to survive and recover from injuries.  Resilient farming systems also have the ability to adapt and evolve to accommodate their unique and ever-changing ecological, social, and economic environments.


Healthy living systems are naturally resourceful. They rely on mutually-beneficial relationships among their diverse components to create wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. Wastes of some species become food for others, some species protect others, and diversity among species keeps the system in harmony and balance. Thus, farms that are managed as living systems can rely on mutually beneficial relationships among micro- and macro-organisms, plants, animals, and people to make efficient use of their unique ecological, social, and economic resources. Resourceful farming systems gain their productivity through diversification, individualization, and decentralization of decision making rather than the specialization, standardization, and consolidation of control of industrial agriculture.


All living things eat and excrete, but they are selective in what they allow in and what they let out. They are not independent but interdependent. What they eat and excrete affects the larger ecosystems of which they are a part. Thus, farms managed as living systems produce goods and services that benefit humanity, but in the process, export or lose some of their productive capacity. According the “organic law of returns,”[32] farms must bring at least as many nutrients back to the farm as is contained in the goods and services that leave the farm.  


All living things are conceived, born, grow, mature, reproduce, decline, and die. Each generation produces and nurtures a new generation to carry out its purpose in an ever-changing ecological environment. Thus, farms that are managed as living systems are conceived, established, grow to maturity, and then bring in new management to regenerate and sustain the life of the farm. Each generation of farmers brings on and nurtures a new generation of farmers to carry on their purpose by evolving to accommodate their ever-changing ecological, social, and economic environments.


Nature knows how to manage natural ecosystems sustainably. Farmers just need to learn how to tip the ecological balance of nature in their favor without degrading its resilience, resourcefulness, or regenerative capacity. The farmer’s primary responsibilities are to use the pattern and principles of nature as a guide in managing the social and economic systems that sustain and are sustained by the farm. An ecologically sustainable farm must also be socially and economically resilient, resourceful, and regenerative. The farmers ability to manage the people/social and financial/economic dimensions of the farm is limited, but the principles or laws of nature are inviolate and must be accommodated.


The analogies linking farms to natural ecosystems could go on and on, but the basic concepts have already been integrated into farming systems such as real organic, biodynamic, holistic, and natural and general concepts such as agroecology, permaculture, and food sovereignty. Farmers can choose any one of these or similar approaches as a starting point, and then modify as needed to fit their thinking, their farms, and their communities and ecosystems. Regardless of what they choose, farmers should constantly remind themselves, they are managing a living system.


Perhaps the greatest challenge in farm management is for farmers to accept that they are not in control of their farms. The illusion of control is perhaps the most seductive aspect of industrial agriculture. Farmers can influence their farming systems, just as humans can influence the functioning of their bodies. But most of the things that happen on farms are determined autonomic or self-directed functions of nature—just like most of the functions of our bodies are beyond our control. The industrial farmer attempts to dominate nature, but the sustainable organic farmer must learn to work with nature.


Farmers must also accept that they are part of the life of the farms they manage, just as the mind is a part of the body that it manages. Whatever affects the farm will affect them, and whatever affects them will affect the farm. The farmer is also a part of the soul of the farm. The soul is that part of living beings that connects us, and the rest of nature, with the higher order of things which guides us, the earth, and the universe toward some higher purpose. Some people question whether there is any purpose for life, since its existence can’t be proven. However, without purpose life simply makes no sense. There would be no way of distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, or between what we should and shouldn’t do. 


The soul of a farm is a soul shared by nature and the farmer. Farmers who manage their farms as living organic systems are guided toward a higher purpose–the greater good of humanity and of the whole of life on earth. As Wendell Berry has said in an interview with Bill Moyers, “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”[33] To farm sustainably, farmers must reconnect the soul of their farms which is part of the soul of the earth. This was the message of Steiner, Howard, Carver, and the other pioneers of organic farming. To reconnect with the roots of organics is to reconnect with the soul of the earth.



[1] Prepared for presentation at the 2023 Organic Association of Kentucky Conference, Kentucky State University, Frankfort, KY January 28, 2003.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism-a Matter of Common Sense, Essentials of Economic Sustainability, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle-the Pursuit of Happiness, all books available through John Ikerd’s Books.

Email:; Website: ,  .

[1] Rudolph Steiner, Spiritual foundations for the renewal of agriculture. Gardner, M (1924/1993) (ed). Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association of USA: Junction City, OR, USA.

[2] Sir Albert Howard, An agricultural testament. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 1940. also in Small Farms Library 

[3] J. I. Rodale, The Organiculturist's Creed, Chapter 8. The organic front. Rodale press: Emmaus, PA, USA,1948. .

[4] George Washington Carver, George Washington Carver; In His Own Words. Ed. Gary Kremer, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Mo, 1991.

[5] F. H. King D Sc., Farmers of Forty Centuries or Permanent Agriculture in China Korea and Japan, published by Mrs. F. H. King: Madison, WI, 1911,   p. 48, .

[6] F. H. King, Farmers of Forty Centuries, quote form L. H. Bailey, pp. iii-iv.

[7] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, CA, 1977, .

[8] Wendell Berry, What are People For, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, CA 2010, 206, .

[9] The Land Institute, Wes Jackson, (n.d.) .

[10] “The Land Institute,” Wikipedia, .

[11] Alan Savory, Holistic Management, Island Press, Washington, DC, 2016, .

[12] “History of SARE,” Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. (n.d.) .

[13] Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 1995, .

[14] Gabe Brown, Dirt to Soil, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VI, 2018.

[15] Booker T. Whatley, How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres, Regenerative Agriculture Association , Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA, 1998. .

[16] Eliot Coleman, Four-Season Harvest, Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, 1999.

[17] John Jevons, “Biography and Notes,” (n.d.)

[18] “Alice Waters,” Wikipedia, (n.d.) .

[19] Lady Eve Balfour, “Toward a Sustainable Agriculture--The Living Soil” In Proceedings of IFOAM international organic farming conference. Switzerland, 1977. also, Canbarra Organic Growers Assn. .

[20] Organic Trade Association, “Organic Industry Survey-2022,” .

[21] Fred Wilkinson, “USDA local food sales survey finds direct-to-consumer sales ebb,” The National Provisioner, June 22, 2022, .

[22] Real Organic Project, Mission:

[23] International Panel of Experts on Sustainability-Food, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, June 2016,  3,

[24] International Panes of Experts

[25] Olivier De Schutter, quoted in, “'Overwhelming' Evidence Shows Path is Clear: It's Time to Ditch Industrial Agriculture for Good,” Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams, June 2, 2016. .

[26] John Ikerd, Farm and Food Policies for a Sustainable Future, 6 BUS. ENTREPRENEURSHIP & TAX L. REV. 34 (2022). Available at: .

[27] USDA, Economic Research Service, Food Security in the U.S., Updated Oct 17, 2022 .

[28] CBS News: “Hunger in America,” 1968, 

[29] Mackenzie Feldman et al., “Regenerative Agriculture and the Green New Deal,” Data for Progress, Jan. 17, 2020. .

[30] “Declaration of Nyeleni,” Nyelini Forum on Food Sovereignty, February 27, 2007, .

[31] John Ikerd, The Economic Pamphleteer: Enough Good Food for All: A Proposal. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 7(1), 2016, 3–6.

[32] “Organic’s Law of Returns, n.d., The Real Organic Project, .

[33] “Wendell Berry and His Hope for Humanity,” YouTube, 2014,