Natural foods crop up at Snowmass Wellness Experience
August 14, 2008
SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch followed different paths, in their own separate times. But the two landed in the same place ” on a small patch of farmland on the central coast of Maine. And at the center of the country’s exploding natural-foods movement.
The couple, who have been married since 1991, are also the twin centerpieces of this weekend’s fifth annual Snowmass Wellness Experience in Snowmass Village, giving back-to-back keynote speeches on Saturday, Aug. 16. Damrosch will give a talk, Beauty and Bounty in a Cook’s Garden, at the Roof Garden, on the top floor of the Snowmass Conference Center, at 7:30 p.m. Coleman follows with his talk, Beyond Organic: The Promise of Future, at 8:45 p.m.
A New Jersey native, Coleman had become an adventure rat by the time he was living in New Hampshire in the mid-’60s. He was a kayaker, a ski racer, a mountain climber, and would try virtually anything else that involved thrills and challenges in the outdoors. Stricken by an attack of conscience when he hit his mid-20s, Coleman realized he needed to put his life to some more useful purpose ” as long as the sense of adventure remained intact.
Coleman found everything he needed ” challenges, chills up the spine, an abundance of adrenaline ” in … farming.
“I read a book about small farms, and it sounded like an adventure,” said the 70-year-old Coleman, who had also put in some time teaching at the tiny, now defunct, Franconia College in New Hampshire. “If you think about the fact that everything I’d been doing was trying to get to the top of a mountain ” well, this was a mountain that didn’t have a top.”
Damrosch came at organic farming not through looking for adventure, but to continue the practices she had been raised with. Damrosch was raised on an historically agricultural island of Manhatttan. But the urban upbringing also came with loads of fresh, hand-raised fruits and veggies. Her parents, she says, were “big-time gardeners,” and the family owned a tiny cottage outside of the city. “Those values were really instilled in me: being conservation-minded, wildlife-minded,” she said.
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Coleman beat a hasty path to the farming life. In Maine, he located Helen and Scott Nearing, who were well known in the New England back-to-the-land community from their 1954 book “Living the Good Life.” In 1968, the Nearings sold Coleman 60 acres of land, at $33 an acre.
That plot offered Coleman as big a challenge as, say, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, known as the windiest and one of the most inclement spots on the planet. “It was as unpromising a piece of land as you could imagine,” he said. “It’s very rocky, sandy, gravelly soil, with an initial pH of about 4.3. So only acid-loving crops would grow. It was basically a gravel pit.”
While Coleman was living what he calls the greatest adventure of his life ” turning his newly bought gravel pit into an enormously productive farm ” Damrosch had taken several detours from her calling. She spent time as a college English teacher and a freelance magazine writer. Her main work was as a landscape designer ” not that she wanted so much to alter the natural landscape, but she figured it would afford her some opportunity to garden on other people’s land till she could afford her own. It was a clever career choice; Damrosch learned enough about gardening that she wrote the popular 1988 book, “The Garden Primer,” and appeared as a correspondent on the PBS program, “The Victory Garden.”
In 1991, Damrosch traveled from her home in Connecticut to see her mother, who lived in northern New England. A friend had also arranged for Damrosch to meet Helen Nearing, who lived a half-hour away from Damrosch’s mother. At the Nearing farm, under a lean-to greenhouse, was the unanticipated but familiar face of Eliot Coleman.
“I knew who he was. Our books were in competition with each other,” said Damrosch. “And I would have met him anyway. I planned to look him up.” Damrosch’s inclination toward Coleman was even stronger than she could have imagined; by the end of the year the two were married.
And Damrosch had finally found her farm. Coleman was still living on, and farming, more or less the same piece of land he had bought 23 years earlier. (It is now one third less: They have sold off 20 of the original 60 acres, for the same price of $33 an acre that Coleman bought it for.)
Damrosch was always committed to the organic ethos; she says her “Garden Primer” was 98 percent organic. “I had a belief in a natural way of doing things rather than the way some producer was telling me I should do it so he could sell me his product,” she said. “I avoided the chemical thing as much as possible. It was natural that I’d go down that path. I was pretty alternative. And back then, it was more unusual.”
Coleman, naturally, was in it practically for the sport ” to see if he could win the battle over the elements, with no unfair, not to mention toxic, advantages from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. He says he can boil down his philosophy to a phrase and a word: Nothing is impossible. And compost.
“The idea that one can grow food and raise livestock without pest control ” when I started out, that was the most exciting thing in the world,” said Coleman, whose books include 1989’s “The New Organic Grower.” “Human beings love to have enemies, love to have things you can whack on. But if you’re a non-whacker, and believe in nature’s systems, that there is a rhyme and reason ” when there are nasty little buggies on your lettuce, you think: ‘The mistake is mine.’ It’s not that the system is incorrect.
“It was the mystery of mysteries to solve those problems.”
For 12 years, from 1978-’90, Coleman mostly hired himself out, running farms on other people’s land. At one of these jobs, he tended a flock of sheep that had miserable health issues. Coleman changed the management system. “And the vet never came again,” he said.
Coleman and Damrosch’s own 15-acre farm ” only a third of the land is cleared; Coleman says, “I figure nature should retain two thirds” ” has become a model of sustainable, natural, organic, local farming. They raise some 35 crops on their land, and sell them to local restaurants and at the farm stand they opened in 2005, that operates through the summer months.
Perhaps the farm’s single greatest achievement has been becoming a year-round operation ” without the use of electricity-gulping lights and heaters. A quarter-acre of the land is covered by eight greenhouses that use a translucent material to trap the scant heat of the Maine winter.
“That’s been neat. Talk about the impossible ” growing crops all winter in a greenhouse in a place where it gets down to 20 below,” said Coleman. “We’ve moved the area down to Georgia ” for free.” In honor of the winter harvests that they’ve been bringing in for the past eight years, Coleman and Damrosch dubbed their land, Four Season Farm.
Coleman and Damrosch can rightly boast of their efficient, earth-friendly methods. But get them talking about how good their food tastes, and that’s when they get to downright bragging. Coleman says the carrots they raise are the world’s best-tasting ” as recognized by the local school kids.
“We’ve heard that our carrots are the trading item of choice at lunch time,” said Coleman, who plans over the next year to reintroduce livestock to Four Seasons. “Talk about a victory. That’s a high point. Everything is in there, including all the organic materials and trace elements a carrot needs. There’s no significant science on produced on this ” but I trust children. Kids eat our spinach. That’s not just because it’s fresh and good for them, it’s because it’s been put together correctly.”
Coleman and Damrosch have helped advance the growing awareness of our food and production systems. But they see the results as a mixed blessing.
On one side, Americans now talk about where their meals comes from, and foods exactly are in their foods. Farmers markets have been in a phenomenal growth phase for over a decade. Consumers are beginning to see the connections between small farms and health, landscape, community, economy and good taste.
On the other side, their cause has been co-opted by the large-scale, commercial producers. Organic, a word on which they practically built their lives, now makes them recoil. The meaning has been washed away in a world where mass-scale “industrial organic” companies lobby to have the standards for “organic” products lowered.
“People have learned how to spell organic ” even the people you wouldn’t have expected,” said Coleman. “They ride off with the idea, trying very hard to work it back into what they’re comfortable with. The system is trying to replicate what it set out to oppose.”
“It’s been co-opted by agri-business and government bureaucrats. The word is meaningless,” said Damrosch. “But the groundwork that the organic people have laid has gotten through to people. There’s an enormous parallel universe that’s grown up of CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture, in which groups of citizens buy from local producers], farmers markets, and even the organic departments of big supermarkets. People look differently at how they get their food.”
Maybe they had better. Issues including obesity, diabetes and contamination have all been traced to the foods we eat and the way we grow them.
Damrosch says that small, local farms are the antidote: “An alternative to a destructive and inadequate food system. Our food system is ruining people. The pollution, the reduction in crop diversity, the death of communities ” I hate to pin all of these ills of modern life on our food system. But it is huge.”
Coleman is most cheered by seeing the source of the rise in food-production awareness. “The groundswell has come from the people,” he said. “And it has come so forcefully that the industrial tendencies that usually rule the roost have had to back off. Because people want the kind of product that is grown by little guys like us.”
And few take such joy in providing those products like Coleman and Damrosch.
“It’s the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” said Coleman. “Every day I get to participate in the secrets of the universe.”