Organic Farming’s Political History

This past summer, controversy erupted over white supremacist vendors at the farmers’ market in Bloomington, Indiana—a college town tucked in the hilly southern portion of a conservative state. The couple who owns Schooner Creek Farm are members of Identity Evropa, which has recently rebranded itself the American Identity Movement. Anti-fascists protested the stand, a right-wing militia group counterprotested, a protestor was arrested, and the city cancelled the market for two weeks. 

For many who care about local, sustainably grown food, white supremacists at the farmers’ market might seem surprising. In the US, the organic farming movement has been associated predominantly with left politics since the counterculture began championing it in the 1960s. But, in fact, such links to the far right are nothing new: the organic farming movement was entangled with fascist and quasi-fascist politics at its origins in Britain and Germany in the 1930s and 40s, as historians have shown

Politics in the History of Organic Farming

These entanglements derived, in part, from some ideological overlap. In his recent book The Global History of Organic Farming, Gregory Barton gives a useful account of how organic farming first emerged in the context of a broader agrarianism and a proliferation of romantic farm literature in the UK. All three trends shared a reverence for rural areas, as against ever-growing industrialized cities, and a conviction, going back to classical Roman writers, that small independent farmers are the political and agricultural foundation of a country’s stability. Such defenses of the rural could easily shade into a belief in “blood and soil,” as the Nazi slogan put it—that is, an inherent connection between people and land with nationalist, nativist, and fascist tones

However, the three central leaders of the early organic farming movement, who were not fascists, instead saw soil from a nascent ecological perspective. Soil scientist Sir Albert Howard, his second wife, Louise Howard, and Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association (still the main organic certification and advocacy organization in the UK), emphasized The Living Soil, as the title of Balfour’s 1943 bestseller had it. Albert Howard argued that the farm should imitate a forest, which “manures itself” as fungi, bacteria, microorganisms, and earthworms break down fallen leaves and other dead matter on the forest floor. During this time, advocates of “humus farming” took issue not primarily with pesticides, but with chemical fertilizers, which they criticized for compromising the health of soil—and, as a result, the health of crops, livestock, and people. 

Rows of green herbs and vegetables growing on an organic farm at the University of Georgia.
An organic farm at the University of Georgia. Photo by the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. 2012.

Like the Howards and Balfour, far-right organic farming advocates connected soil health with human health—but then they took that link in the direction of racial health, evoking eugenics. While fascist organizations did not embrace organic farming wholesale, there was overlap in personnel between the early organic farming movement and far-right groups. For example, the eccentric Rolf Gardiner and Gerald Wallop, the ninth earl of Portsmouth, were active in both quasi-fascist groups and in the Kinship in Husbandry. Jorian Jenks was a member of the British Union of Fascists before the Second World War, was interned during it, and afterward edited the Soil Association’s journal for seventeen years. 

Of course, origins don’t determine ends—or even middles. There’s no bright line connecting Bloomington’s white supremacist vendor with Wallop and Jenks; the politics of organic farming are historically specific and have varied widely. Nor are its advocates united, as some critics imply, by a longing for the natural that is itself somehow inherently or secretly fascist—a charge that doesn’t give people credit for being conscious of their own politics. That’s not to say that the organic farming movement is apolitical: agriculture is a core element of both political economy and political ecology, and has long been a matter of contestation. 

But neither is the “organic” itself an empty metaphor. It’s not a container that you can put just anything in. The organic farm is a form with certain capacities—or as literary critic Caroline Levine puts it, particular “affordances.” It combines the forms that Levine terms “whole” and “network” in a particular way: the farm is a whole composed of a network of connections among its elements—soil, manure, crops, animals, water, trees, and people. The organic farm instantiates an ideal agroecology and socioeconomy in miniature: it is a microcosm of the world that advocates—no matter their politics—want to create. That microcosmic form, as it turns out, entails a theory of social change that has had some unexpected consequences. 

Cultivating Social Change

Historically, the form of the organic farm was shaped by a merger of the social ideals of British yeomanry with the ecological concerns of the early movement’s central leaders. Lord Northbourne, who was politically to the right of the Howards and Balfour, coined the term “organic farm” in 1940. Capturing some of its emerging formal features, Northbourne wrote that “the farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity.” 

Organic farmers and organic farming advocates have sought to change the world primarily by proliferating miniature versions of the world they want to see. Farmers have sought to demonstrate in little the big changes they advocate. 

The ideal organic farm is a closed system that is not supposed to require off-farm inputs of any kind. Though avoiding pesticides became increasingly important to growers and eaters in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the aim remained to build fertile soil by composting the diversified farm’s own waste products. As farmer-poet Wendell Berry puts it, “an organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.” 

Though the organic farm’s microcosmic form can be put to use by those on the right or the left, as we will see, it does entail a particular theory of social change, which political scientist Hahrie Han defines simply as the way we think we can get the change we need. Organic farmers and organic farming advocates have sought to change the world primarily by proliferating miniature versions of the world they want to see—rather than, for example, pursuing governmental regulations of agriculture through social movements or lobbying. Sociologist Brian Obach calls this the organic farming movement’s “prefigurative social change strategy”—in other words, farmers have sought to demonstrate in little the big changes they advocate. 

Organic farming took a leftward turn in the postwar US. In the 1940s, J. I. Rodale—a Jewish entrepreneur from New York City who had been persuaded by Howard’s work—bought a farm, started publishing Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, and began building the Rodale empire. Rodale was derided as a quack by agricultural scientists, and organic farming remained a fringe movement from the 1940s to the 1960s. But then the counterculture came along, and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog dubbed Organic Gardening “the most subversive publication in the country” in 1971. 

A pile of red peppers for sale at a farmers' market vending stand.
“A Prodigious Pile of Peppers” at the Bloomington, Indiana farmers’ market. Photo by Adam Schweigert, 2009.

Hippies began setting up small organic farms across the country, building on the formal features that had been written into them from the beginning—especially small scale, holism, and aspirations toward self-sufficiency. But the organic farming movement’s unexamined theory of social change set it up to be the victim of its own success. These new small farmers didn’t wait for the state to reform agriculture, but started where they were. From the 1960s through the 90s, organic farming spread through decentralized, market-based growth—a proliferation of microcosms that eventually sprouted regional certification systems. 

Eventually, a few counterculture back-to-the-landers found themselves running big businesses, like Earthbound Farm and Cascadian Farm. By the 1980s and 1990s, organic food processors and consumers, frustrated with the patchwork of differing systems, began pushing for federal organic standards. In the process of developing USDA certification, organic farmers themselves ended up being the weakest, least represented stakeholders at the table, as Obach shows. They didn’t have national organizations or coordination; as one farmer put it, leading organic farmers “had literally never met each other . . . I was milking goats. I couldn’t go anywhere for many years . . . And everybody was like that.”

The resulting federal standards consisted basically of a list of prohibited substances: materials that cannot be used in organic farming. Even positive agroecological techniques, like the ideal of a farm that requires no inputs and sustains or even increases the fertility of its soil through practices such as diversified farming, cover crops, and composting, are not represented in the standards—let alone social and economic justice. Many contend that federal certification turned organic food into a niche market ripe for co-optation. Indeed, conventional agribusiness players got into it in a big way once USDA certification started in 2001. 

A metal divider separates dark, moist soil from grainy, dry soil.
Healthy moist soil (above) is seen with dry compacted soil (below) on the grounds of the USDA headquarters, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Lance Cheung, 2014.

But some defend big organic, and it arguably represents the movement succeeding on its own terms. It’s just that what those terms implied seems to have taken many organic farming proponents by surprise. A market-based theory of social change was implicit in the microcosmic form of their enterprises, and “organic” became just another option in the marketplace. One lesson from organic farming’s tortuous political history is that we must examine our implicit theories of social change. 

Another lesson is that the politics of local, organic food are not necessarily left and not automatically committed to social and economic justice—so we must pay attention to them. As a microcosm, the organic farm enacts not only environmentally-sound agricultural practices, but also sought-after social and economic structures. What is fascinating is that these desired socioeconomic forms involve such divergent politics. 

The organic farm’s microcosmic form seems a perfect fit for the traditional family farm that was key to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision of the US as a nation of small farmers and that grounds Berry’s work. But the politics of organic family farmers have long ranged from fascist to socialist, and while the family farm is usually heteronormative, it need not always be. Organic farming has also given rise to progressive social and economic forms, like Community Supported Agriculture

In the context of the climate crisis, how we farm will only become more important. Soil is an essential carbon sink: fears of soil erosion are still with us for good reason. Monocultures, or fields of only one crop, are not kind to soils or ecosystems. Agroforestry (farming with trees), silvopastoralism, and perennial grain polycultures are more necessary than ever.  

A hand holding a sticker with a cartoon image of a smiling onion and a caption reading Protest Onion
The protest onion became a meme at the Bloomington market. Photo by No Space for Hate Bloomington, used with permission.

After the protests about white supremacists at the market in Bloomington, some set up an alternative farmers’ market in the parking lot of the co-op, Bloomingfoods, so that those who felt unsafe going to the city’s market would have somewhere to buy and sell food. Others continued to protest the white supremacist vendor’s stand directly.

But most quixotic—and perhaps eloquent—was the protest onion. One vendor, Greg Deemer, went to the market, but instead of setting up a stand, lay a single onion, marked $1, on the ground. 

Onion: stinky, eye-watering, too sharp when raw, but chop it up and throw it in a bit of oil in a pan and it mellows into the essential, ubiquitous aromatic, a rich base for your soup, stew, or braise. The ordinary paradox of the onion seems to remind us that food politics isn’t just about tasty heirloom tomatoes. It’s about sniffing out what reeks in our own pantries and gently, insistently breaking it down. 

Featured image: a food flag at the Washington State Fair highlights the connection between farming and national identity. Photo by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, 2017.

Michelle Niemann is an independent writing consultant and editor who earned her Ph.D. in English from University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2014. As a postdoc at UCLA, she co-edited The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2017). Her scholarly articles have appeared in Modernism/modernity, Victorian Poetry, and the Journal of Modern Literature. Most recently, she co-edited the digital textbook Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions (2019). Website. Twitter. Contact.