review by Jack Kittredge
This is pretty much the book Eliot wrote 30 years ago. There are some updates and new passages, but not a lot. You could say the lack of major changes by him is proof that he did a great job the first time, and you would be right.
But I was particularly interested in reviewing this anniversary edition to see if Eliot included any of the new thinking on tillage, information on the role of soil microbiology in plant nutrition or excitement about regenerating land while mitigating climate change via soil carbon sequestration.
The New Organic Grower has been a go-to manual for serious organic farmers for 30 years. Virtually every aspect of what you need to know about small organic vegetable farming in the Northeast is given thoughtful treatment – scale, land, labor, capital, marketing, harvest, crop rotation, cover crops, tillage, fertility, seeding and transplanting, weeds, pests, season extension and greenhouse design, winter production, the importance of tools, incorporating livestock. Some only get 3 or 4 pages, some get many more, and diagrams to boot. But every page bears the imprint of his philosophy – plan thoughtfully, innovate if you don’t like your options, take care with details, focus on quality instead of quantity, be watchful, always learn.
In 2018, given what we now know about climate change and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a lot of thoughtful farmers are reassessing their practices to be more protective of soil carbon and the microbial biodiversity it sustains. They recognize that regular tillage can be destructive to beneficial fungi (creatures that are crucial to the crop quality Coleman seeks) while it and bare soil are major contributors to the carbon oxidation that fuels global warming.
I was hoping to see recognition of the impact of these practices in this volume by someone so committed to innovation and learning. Instead I saw repeated descriptions of various tillage devices and illustrations of them and orderly crops, surrounded by bare soil. The republication of a book of this reach, written by a wise elder, seemed like an opportunity to explore this topic for new readers. I was disappointed that it was not taken.