Organic farming pioneer Eliot Coleman receives national honor

Eliot Coleman at Four Season Farm in Harborside. FILE PHOTO
Eliot Coleman at Four Season Farm in Harborside.

BROOKSVILLE — The James Beard Foundation has chosen Eliot Coleman, owner of Four Season Farm in the village of Harborside and a grandfather of the organic farming movement, to receive one of its five Leadership Awards this year.

Coleman has pioneered cold-weather growing techniques that enable farmers to stay productive through the harshest of winters. He lives on Four Season Farm with his wife, food writer Barbara Damrosch, and has written several books himself, including the “The New Organic Grower” and “The Winter Harvest Handbook.”

Also receiving awards in 2015 are farmer Don Bustos, food systems researcher Saru Jayaraman, former advisor on nutrition to the White House Sam Kass and chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry.

They will be honored at an Oct. 19 ceremony and dinner co-hosted by Good Housekeeping magazine during the sixth annual James Beard Foundation Food Conference in New York City, according to a press release from the group.

“We are honored to recognize these five innovators for the work they do to better our food system,” said President Susan Ungaro. “This year’s group sheds light on a complex array of issues — support of farmers’ rights and education, organic agriculture, just workplace environments for restaurant employees, childhood obesity and hunger and the empowerment of youth on food justice issues. Thanks to these honorees’ profound impact, our food world is healthier, safer and more sustainable.”

Past recipients of the James Beard Foundation’s annual Leadership Awards include the high-profile food writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama. The award doesn’t confer any funding or responsibilities.

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Coleman said he was “flattered” to receive the “pat on the back.”

Coleman first started farming on Cape Rosier in the late 1960s, when he bought 60 acres of wild land from Helen and Scott Nearing, the influential back-to-the-landers.

The organic farming community in Maine and elsewhere has mushroomed since then, and Coleman’s award comes just one year after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census found more Maine farmers identified as under-35 than in any other state.

“I’ve been fascinated by how rapidly the interest in local, quality food has grown,” Coleman marveled. “Back when I started this, I was talking another language. All of a sudden now, not only are there more producers, but there are more appreciators… Every time I’m out in the world, I’m just overwhelmed by how many young people there are [in organic farming].”

A rotating set of apprentices help Coleman at Four Season Farm.

But it’s not idealism for organic farming that has Coleman excited these days; it’s that the benefits of sustainable produce — on taste buds, nutrition and bottom lines — are becoming better-researched, documented and publicized.

When restaurants include the names of farms on their menu, he said, it’s often because people are sincerely curious where their food is coming from.

And that demand is showing: U.S. organic food sales grew 11 percent from 2013 to 2014 and now account for almost 5 percent of national food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Now, Washington State University researchers have found that, across 14 countries on five continents, profit margins for organic agriculture were significantly greater than for conventional agriculture that relies on pesticides and other chemicals.

None of those indicators surprise Coleman, whose gardens are seasonally rotated, fertilized with seaweed — among other materials — and produce everything from beets to artichokes to corn.

“Organic farming works,” he said. “If I’m not buying any inputs and the conventional farmer is, I’ll sure as hell be making more money.”

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]

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