Pushing Farming Beyond Organic

A closer look at revolutionary ideas that will shape the future of farming.

| Spring 2015

  • A no-tilled field near Brookings, South Dakota.
    Photo by Flickr/USDA NRCS South Dakota
  • Healthy soil looks dark, crumbly, and porous, smells sweet and earthy, and feels soft, moist, and friable.
    Photo by Flickr/Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Health Campaign
  • Farmer Dorn Cox plants sunflowers on his family's farm to produce biodiesel fuel for his equipment.
    Photo by Flickr/Anthony Quintano
  • Cover crop seedlings coming up in healthy soil with a wheat stubble residue cover on a farm in South Dakota.
    Photo by Flickr/USDA NRCS South Dakota

On a fine August day, I flew to New England in search of abundance, but all I saw initially was devastation.

I arrived 24 hours after the region had been pummeled by Hurricane Irene, and the land looked like it had been stomped on by giants—entire cornfields had been flattened, trees were broken at crazy angles, and ominous-looking debris gathered along roadsides and at stream crossings. Adding to the unsettling imagery was a bright blue sky overhead and heavy traffic on the highway as I drove north, suggesting that all was well and normal—except for the mysterious roving band of giants out there someplace.

I was on the road to visit Dorn Cox, a young farmer who lives and works on his family’s 250-acre organic farm, called Tuckaway, near Lee, New Hampshire. Dorn calls himself a “carbon farmer,” meaning he thinks about carbon in everything he does. Confronting agriculture’s addiction to hydrocarbons, for example, Tuckaway produces a significant amount of the energy it needs on-farm. Dorn does it with biodiesel—canola, specifically—which he and his family grow on only 10 percent of the farm’s land. This was big news, so I thought a visit would be worthwhile.

I had learned about Dorn from the Greenhorns, the nontraditional grassroots organization dedicated to recruiting and supporting a new generation of farmers. They do this via social media, videos, podcasts, art projects, and activism, of course, but they also engage in old-fashioned networking—including mixers, barn dances, and an on-farm singles event called “weed dating.”

The young farmers in the Greenhorns are nontraditional practitioners as well, in the sense that while their tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, dairy products, and meat look the same as the produce from farms run by their parents’ generation, the methods by which they achieve their harvests and the goals that motivate their work are very different. It’s called “beyond organic,” and it includes new ideas about no-till seeding, cover cropping, animal power, bioenergy production, carbon sequestration, open-source networking, and entrepreneurial business models aimed at creating local food systems. If that weren’t enough, these young people are also defined by the substantial challenges they face, including the difficulty in finding affordable farmland, making a living in a world dominated by corporate agriculture, navigating a dense labyrinth of regulations, and adapting to the intensifying effects of climate change.

Such as roving bands of giants spawned by hurricanes.

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