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Smart Farming

The desire for good food in the midst of a warming and drying world has brought an unprecedented amount of attention to agriculture's neglected possibilities. Herewith, our suggestions for further reading.

Theme: Cultivating Craftsmanship

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Visiting Johnson’s Backyard Garden in Austin, Texas. photo by Scott David Gordon


  1. Slowing Global Warming By Using Farmland To Pull Carbon Dioxide From The Atmosphere
  2. The Mysteries In The Dirt Under Our Feet
  3. Studies of Alternatives To Using Tilling Machinery
  4. Literature on Organic Farming & Its Future
  5. Farming Models
  6. Organic Farming Conferences
  7. Agroforestry, Agroecology and Cuba’s Unique Farming Revolution
  8. Permaculture
  9. The Drought, Urban Farming & Gardening
  10. Other Hyper-Organic Techniques
  11. The Dust Bowl Days
  12. Climate Change: Fixable or Inevitable?
  13. Programs For Aspiring Farmers

Slowing global warming by using farmland to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

The Savory Institute, run by the African pastoralist Alan Savory, is one of today’s most promising, and most vigorous, initiatives to reverse climate change through regenerative farming methods. Savory’s approach, called “holistic land management,” uses livestock to mimic the behavior of wild animals, who for centuries enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with both plants and the soil. Savory’s work initially earned quite a bit of scorn and distrust, but independent evaluations have proven that his methods are remarkably effective. Some wonderful videos of his ideas can be seen here. His remarkable 22-minute TED Talk, delivered in 2013, can be seen here.

The Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University conducts research on the best methods for reducing atmospheric CO2 through sustainable land management practices. The research team is led by Distinguished Professor Rattan Lal.

The Marin Carbon Project, in California’s bountiful Marin County, seeks to enhance carbon “sequestration” in rangeland, agricultural, and forest soils through the use of compost.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, part of the national laboratory system supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and managed by the University of California, performed research that validated the methods used by the Marin Carbon Project to restore carbon to the soil.

The American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit enterprise of Winrock International, was founded in 1996. Winrock uses ACR to create confidence in the environmental and scientific integrity of carbon offsets.

Judith Schwartz’s book, Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, looks at how disregard for the soil leads to a range of problems—climate change, desertification, and biodiversity loss, to name just a few—and how some people are working to reverse the damage. (One of the heroes in this book is Alan Savory. See first item above.)

New Mexico activist Courtney White gives a hopeful account of his work bringing farmers, ranchers and environmentalists together in his book, Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.

The mysteries in the dirt under our feet

Science writer Jim Robbins writes for the The New York Times about the little-appreciated biodiversity of soil.

University of Washington professor David R. Montgomery’s book entitled Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations draws on history, archaeology and geology to give a broad view of the importance of organic and no-till farming.

For an even deeper dive — scientifically, historically, philosophically, and politically — told in beautifully lyrical prose, see William Bryant Logan’s 2007 book by a similar title: “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.”

Studies of alternatives to using tilling machinery

The Rodale Institute, founded in 1947, is the nation’s oldest and largest think tank and field study center on organic farming. The institute publishes a number of influential reports on its research findings.

Our contributor Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us, marshalls a wealth of evidence arguing for “a great green hope”— a way to turn atmospheric carbon into beneficial soil carbon and potentially reverse global warming.

An article on the “40 Chances” website about fifth-generation farmer Clay Mitchell explores the idea that farmers get about 40 growing seasons in a lifetime, or about 40 years to make a difference.

A report on soil health in Africa from Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa argues that the soil needs particularly good care in sub-Saharan Africa, where farmers are struggling to keep up with the food needs of a fast-growing population.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service is one of the more effective branches of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency publishes a variety of probing, authoritative reports about innovations and progress in reversing decades of bad farming habits.

One of the leaders of the no-till movement is Dwayne Beck, who runs the Dakota Lakes Research Institute in South Dakota. The institute operates an extensive test farm and publishes numerous in-depth reports.

Getting away from heavy tillage machinery is particularly difficult on big farms, especially in California. Danny Ramos is one of the few who have succeeded. He farms cotton and tomatoes for Lucero Farms in Firebaugh, Calif. Others include Dino Giacomazzi, a 4th-generation dairyman in Hanford, Calif., and Jesse Sanchez and Alan Sano of Sano Farm, another tomato operation in Firebaugh.

Jeff Mitchell, of the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, continually compiles videos and reports on large-scale California farmers who are making progress by using less invasive tilling machinery, or none at all.

The primary gathering ground for no-till innovations for big agriculture is the annual World Congress on Conservation Agriculture. The event celebrated its sixth year last summer, with panels and videos on a range of topics.

Ken Hargesheimer, a farming consultant in Lubbock, Texas, offers workshops about no-till cultivation on small plots–a practice he calls “mini-farming.” He has produced a DVD on this approach, which he will mail out free of charge. Write to:

Literature on organic farming & its future

In May, 2015, Simon & Schuster published a book that could (if read widely) rock the food and farming world. The book is entitled The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, and it’s by Mark Schatzker, a journalist who has published widely on food issues. Drawing on a range of scientific studies, Schatzker argues that many of today’s public health problems–obesity foremost among them–have been caused by the the rising nutritional emptiness in most commercial food. As an example, he writes, when tomatoes and chicken taste bland, we eat more of them–or, worse, smother them with fattening sauces and seasonings to create the flavor these foods once had on their own. Schatzker’s news isn’t all bad, however. He will also introduce you to farmers and scientists who are beginning to put real flavor–which he proves is linked to nutrition–back into our food supply.

Tom Bawden, environment editor of The Independent, a major British newspaper, argues in this article that organic agriculture can feed the world—if done right.

David Biello in Scientific American makes a more cautious argument here.

Farming models

Many farmers believe they are farming sustainably but aren’t–and some with relatively small plots try to make a good living but don’t. The exceptions to those rules are therefore worth listing. Here are just a few, based on recommendations from various leaders in the sustainable farming community. (Further suggestions welcome, via our Contact page):

  • River Hill Farm, run by Alan Haight and Jo McProud in Nevada City, Calif.
  • Blue House Farm, run by Ryan Casey in Pescadero, Calif.
  • Four Season Farm, run by Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch in Harborside, Maine
  • Seven Seeds Farm, run by Don Tipping in Williams, Oregon
  • True Grass Farms, run by Guido Frosini in Valley Ford, Calif.
  • Sandy Arrow Ranch, a 22,500-acre ranch in central Montana that is striving to transform itself into a large-scale model for raising organic, grass-fed beef; cleaning the water supply and stopping erosion; and building up carbon in the soil.

And, for what it’s worth, here is a feature story by Whole Foods Market on some of its favorite organic farmers.

Organic farming conferences

Three organic farming organizations hold conferences every year, which gather hundreds and sometimes thousands of experts and enthusiasts. The oldest is put on by Acres USA, which has been holding conferences and publishing stories about commercial organic farming since 1971. For many people in the central part of the U.S., it has been the go-to source for tips on large-scale organic and sustainable practices. (The February, 2015, issue of the organization’s magazine features an in-depth interview with Texas farmer Jonathan Cobb, who in recent years moved from conventional to biological practices, primarily to withstand droughts.)

The largest organic farming conference is also the newest–Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, or MOSES. Started in 1990, in Wisconsin, it now gathers more than 3,000 attendees to its annual conferences.

The oldest and largest organic farming gathering in the western part of the U.S. is put on by the Ecological Farming Association, or Eco-Farm. It was founded in 1981 and is held each year near Monterey, Calif.

Further resources are available at Organic Guide.

Agroforestry, Agroecology and Cuba’s unique farming revolution

A few enterprising farmers are finding lucrative opportunities in the connections between climate change, forest conservation, and rising consumer demand for speciaty crops like mushrooms, ginseng and even walnute syrup. Read more
The Agroecology website contains a rich informational pantry of agroecology research, case studies from around the world, bibliographies for further study, and links to agroecology-related groups.

The Oakland-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, best known as Food First, is a “think and do tank” providing policy expertise and advocacy on a wide range of food system issues. Launched by famed Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins in 1975, Food First produces reports, books, and educational forums on everything from sustainable farming techniques and urban agriculture, to trade and food policy.

The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, run by the University of California at Santa Cruz, provides excellent field study research, training, and community resources to advance agroecological farming systems “that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.” To this end, the Center operates an agroecology demonstration garden and 30-acre farm.

La Via Campesina, a global peasant farmer movement (more than 1 million strong, with 164 member organizations from 73 countries) has become a significant international force for sustainable small-scale farming and “food sovereignty,” advocating for policies that enable farmers and peasant communities to define their own agricultural future.

The British newspaper The Guardian profiled a particularly enterprising Cuban farmer named Fernando Funes Monzote, who has been bucking steep odds to promote agroecology principles in Cuba even more widely.


At least two farmers have used permaculture principles on relatively large farms with surprising financial success. Mark Shephard of New Forest Farm, 106 acres planted with mostly nut trees in southwestern Wisconsin, chronicles his efforts to mimic the productivity and recycling abilities of natural systems in his book Restoration Agriculture.

Joel Salatin’s PolyFace farm cultivates 500 acres of mostly chickens and livestock in Virginia. In his most recent article for Mother Earth News he suggests ways to scale sustainable farming.

Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, now in its second edition, is widely respected as the premiere manual for permaculture, and includes both theoretical and practical information for starting a small-scale permaculture design.

The Drought, urban farming & gardening

Jocelyn Zuckerman, who specializes in writing about health and the world’s food security, offers an ambitious account of Africa’s efforts to stimulate urban gardens in an article about “The Constant Gardeners” published by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s OnEarth magazine.

Here is a 2009 list of America’s top 10 urban farms, according to Mother Earth Living. Two other operations could easily be added to this list. One is the Side Yard Farm & Kitchen in Portland, Oregon, a combination organic farm, catering company, and supper club — all operated out of a kitchen truck. Another is JE Perry Farm, located inside a regional park in Fremont, Calif.

Anyone interested interested in farming on a small scale will find a wealth of tips and models in the collection of magazines published by Urban Farm. One issue, called Urban Farming, is specifically about raising food and animals in the city.

For gardeners looking for ways to withstand the drought, a relatively new website, called, has put together a fairly comprehensive list of the basic principles of water saving. Its compendium of ideas, which includes links to primary sources in its footnotes, can be found here.

If you’re lucky enough to have a small plot of land — maybe a large back yard in the suburbs? — “Suburban Grandma” offers a wealth of suggestions, from herb and flower gardens to community gardens, and even butterfly gardens.

Other hyper-organic techniques

The U.S. Agriculture Department’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center has compiled a comprehensive list of agriculture-related resources that is objective and clearly defined on its website.

The Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment Journal publishes new academic research into the relationship between agroecosystems and the natural environment, as well as how agriculture impacts the environment.

Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening is an online, downloadable instructional manual on the “practical aspects of organic farming and gardening, applied soil science, and social and environmental issues in agriculture” published by the University of California at Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. It contains lecture outlines, field demonstrations, progress assessments and resource lists.

Ecology Action advocates small-scale farming, arguing yields are always higher on garden-size plots.

This special issue of Farming Matters, published by the AgriCultures Network, is devoted to the global impact of a rice farming method, which uses very little water (but a lot of labor) called the System of Rice Intensification.

As drought spreads beyond the American West, farmers everywhere might be interested in the water-saving efforts of a few farms in California, where droughts have been so persistent. Some organic farmers who have had the most success with this challenge include Lindencroft Farm, (fruit and vegetables), Molino Creek Collective (tomatoes), Reiter Berry Farms (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blackberries), Harley Farms (a goat dairy), Markegard Family Grass-Fed (beef, lamb, pork, and dairy), and the legendary Straus Family Creamery, the first completely organic dairy in the U.S.

The Dust Bowl days

In this 1992 story published in The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press writer explains how the Okies gathered along the ditch banks and eucalyptus groves around Bakersfield, California, before heading north.

This 1987 profile by Times reporter Ann Japenga explains how deep the prejudice ran against the Okies. Their children were forced to sit at the back of their classrooms, and locals who helped them were ostracized.

For one of the best books about the Okies, see James N. Gregory’s American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California.

In The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, Timothy Egan provides a mesmerizing account of the perfect dust storm, whereby ravaging sodbusters collided with drought to produce massive dust storms that blew all the way to the East Coast.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the great American novel on this sorry phase of our history.

Climate Change: Fixable or Inevitable?

This article in Think Progress offers some nuanced explanations of how climate change is linked to the drought, and the reasons why droughts are likely to continue unless climate change is halted or at least slowed.

Then again, maybe there is no way out. This opinion piece in The New York Times, by an astrophysics professor, argues that entropy is an inevitable result of life on the universe’s planets.

Programs for aspiring farmers

Many states have well developed programs to guide aspiring farmers, and even lend support. In Texas, for example, there is the Texas Agricultural Lifetime Leadership program, or TALL, which offers mentoring and classes, even overseas. Vermont offers the Northeast Organic Farming Association, or NOFA. Nationally, the National Young Farmers Coalition offers a range of information to help young farmers get started.

More stories from this issue:

The Drought Fighter

The Carbon Gatherer

Your Salad’s Difficulty with Sustainable Farming

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