Organic farming guru sows hope, insight at meeting
URBANA – Eliot Coleman's midwinter sugar carrots are a huge hit with local schoolchildren.
Chefs sign up early to purchase his "butter" chard, more commonly known as Swiss chard, and his golden frisee, AKA endive, and customers pay $3 a pound for the potatoes he sprouts in winter, plants in March and sells in May.
"It takes a little marketing," said Coleman, who has even grown artichokes, a climatic feat since his farm at Harborside, Maine, is in a short-season zone where there's plenty of snow in the winter.
But the organic farming guru says anyone can grow almost anything anywhere.
"You have to pay attention to details," he told about 160 growers who came to hear him speak recently at the University of Illinois' third annual Organic Gardening Day.
"In organic farming circles, his name comes up," said conference planner Chuck Voigt, a UI horticulture specialist. "He's down to earth, to the point and he's been on my wish list since we started this conference three years ago."
The November organic conference is a spin-off from Voigt's popular Herb Day, scheduled for Jan. 19.
"I think interest in organics and herbs starts with the baby boomers and with aging issues and the alternative mindset of the '60s," he said. "That translates into looking for alternative ways to live. We're concerned about what we hear about chemicals and toxins, but have no control over it. This is a way to take control."
Coleman said his interest in organic gardening started in the 1960s.
"I was an adventurer – rock climbing, kayaking, you name it," he said. "When I read about small farming, it sounded like an adventure. I saw it as a challenge and it was more fun to do it without chemicals. Finally, I realized the way it works is the way nature designed."
Coleman grows 35 different vegetable crops year-round on one and a half acres of land a mile from the Atlantic Ocean. He said the summertime best seller at his farmstand is tomatoes.
Coleman's wife, Barbara Damrosch, who writes a garden column for the Washington Post, plants flowers and to his surprise, they're the second best seller.
He said a cornerstone to his success is good compost, including shells and seaweed.
"I have no pests," he told growers. "My plants aren't under stress. When there's a problem, it's not Mother Nature's fault. It's my fault. How do we deal with root maggots on brassicas? Give them extra nitrogen, and they're not a problem. That's why we use crab fertilizer from New Brunswick. Pests can't live when the plant's put together properly."
He said the shell fertilizer contains lots of calcium and that makes spinach taste sweet. He covers his asparagus beds with seaweed every winter.
He's learned a lot by trial and error, like the fact that onions don't grow well if planted after cabbage in the same plot. Cabbage, on the other hand, does just fine following onions.
To maximize growing conditions, Coleman uses moveable greenhouses, growing heat-loving crops like cucumbers and eggplant in them in the summer and cold-tolerant crops in them in the winter under two layers of protection.
Ida Thurman said her family grows corn, okra, greens, squash, beans, poultry and goats on five acres at Hopkins Park in Kankakee County. She brought her helpers, daughters Myah and Ida, along to hear Coleman and learn new ways to improve their farm.
"He's inspiring," said Julia Flaherty of Nashville, Ind.
"I'm an organic gardener who's hoping to branch out into farming," said Flaherty, who grows herbs, tomatoes, strawberries and other crops on a quarter acre of her 5-acre plot. "I'm interested in extending my growing season with greenhouses like his. I'm interested in the tools he uses and his crop rotations. I'm interested in everything."