Organic Farming in the South

collage of vegetables with people, farmers and farms

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 11 No. 6, "Our Food." Find more from that issue here.

In Front Royal, Virginia, A.P. Thomson operates a 35-acre apple -orchard, called "Golden Acres. At age 73, he’s been growing apples without the use of chemicals since 1947. He’s still planting trees — a younger generation of semi-dwarf trees, including many of the new Liberty variety, highly resistant to the major apple diseases, is growing among his mature standard apple trees, mostly Yorks and Golden Delicious.

I picked apples for A.P. for two seasons and pruned trees at Golden Acres for one spring. The apples were big and handsome, the best-tasting I’ve ever eaten. The tree-ripened Golden Delicious were sweet and crisp, with a light hollow feel and a porous sound in your hand. The orchard was a magical place, full of life, a joy to work in, a vivid contrast to other orchards where dangerous agricultural chemicals are used. In a conventional cherry orchard in Michigan where I had picked cherries one summer, no grass grew in the disked sand between the trees, nothing living moved, no birds sang, and the spray residues were black on your fingers at the end of the day and bitter in your mouth.

A.P. Thomson relies upon his decades of attention to soil building to grow healthy trees in a living landscape. He rebuilt the exhausted soil of his family’s farm by experimenting with legume cover crops and the introduction of earthworms. “The whole thing is based on the soil,” he says. “You have to feed the soil, get humus into the soil, furnish it with what it needs to be alive.”

He uses concentrates of seaweed to provide trace minerals, the bacteria bacilus thuringiensis and a population of parasitic trichogramma wasps to control insects, and a judicious use of sulfur as a fungicide.

In Leesburg, Florida, 76-year old Lee McComb has been raising oranges and grapefruit organically since 1953 (see profile on page 20). He started out originally with a compost business and bought his first orange grove to demonstrate the value of this compost. His grapefruit groves in the heart of Florida’s citrus district have something of a wild, unkempt look— the tall trees loom out of shaggy, unmowed land. Like Thomson, McComb has spent many years building up the soil, spreading hundreds of tons of his blended compost. The surface of his fruit is rough, and lightly mottled with gray from superficial fungus and citrus rust, unlike the brilliantly colored commercial citrus (sprayed, washed, and often dyed). But the taste is superb.

At opposite ends of the South, orchardists A.P. Thomson and Lee McComb are the grand old men of the region’s organic agriculture. They stand out like landmark trees in an agricultural landscape over which the chemical winds sweep with increasing ferocity. Chlordane, Toxaphene, Malathion, Parathion, Guthion, Treflan, Aatrex . . . today’s agricultural supply store is a chemical smorgasbord. It means confusion to farmers, hazard to consumers, profits to agribusiness, and threats to the future of the land itself. By our modern agricultural practices we continue to lose topsoil, soil fertility, and environmental quality; we also waste away energy resources. These often-quoted statistics tell the story: the South loses one inch of topsoil every nine years, we use six calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, we use six times as much pesticide now as we used 30 years ago but have twice as much crop loss.


Southern organic farmers are trying to do it differently. They are fertilizing with natural rock powders, seaweed concentrates, fish emulsion, manure, and compost. They are planting legumes as cover crops and practicing crop rotations. They depend on cultivation, hand weeding, and crop rotations to control weeds, and on biological pest control instead of pesticides. Slowly and with difficulty, organic agriculture is developing a body of practice that combines both old and new with increasing refinement and understanding.

The word “organic” — and what constitutes “organic farming” — trouble both advocates and critics of the more natural farming methods. Thomson prefers to describe his apples as “biologically grown,” a phrase which he feels emphasizes the soilbuilding process and the holistic management of his orchard. “Organic,” however, is in more general use. Formal definitions of the word vary radically, as evidenced by a 1980 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study of organic farming — which devoted a chapter to discussion of various definitions. But the phrase generally describes farming that avoids the use of chemicals and employs natural biological methods.*

The same USDA study found that most organic farms are “productive, efficient, and well-managed.” The researchers reported that organic growers are quite successful in controlling weeds and insect pests and that “many of the current methods of soil and crop management practiced by organic farmers are those which have been cited as the best management practices for controlling soil erosion, minimizing water pollution, and conserving energy.”

There aren’t a lot of organic farmers in the South — probably just a few hundred full-time farmers or serious part-timers. There are many more farming at a subsistence level, doing a bit of market gardening, or in their first few years of getting started and not at full productivity yet.

There are, of course, some farmers who have been untouched by the chemical winds and the technological changes that swept agriculture following World War II. The winds of change die to a whisper by the time they reach some of the South’s nooks and crannies. In Kentucky, according to Hal Hamilton of the New Farm Coalition, “there are a lot of old-time farmers that probably grow everything organically except their tobacco.” Scattered communities of Mennonite and Amish farmers hold to the old ways. And there are small farmers, both black and white, who still make do as their parents did with the manure of their mules, a dusting of lime or ashes, and the labor of their children to eke out a meager crop.

But, due to the ever-present advertisements in the media, the relentless proliferation of products in every grocery and feed store, the messages of the extension service, and the example of neighbors, few such backwaters remain. A couple of years ago, when I held a compost-making demonstration for a community of black small farmers and gardeners, one woman came up to me afterwards saying, “You know, my daddy always did that with the cotton stalks at the end of the season.” “Why did he stop?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “the stuff in the bags was so cheap, then, and it was so easy.”


These days, a more self-conscious organic agriculture is growing throughout the South. Today's organic farmers turn to the old-timers for their advice. More often they adapt a body of experience from other parts of the country or the world, as well as experiment on their own.

“Organic agriculture is harder in the South,” says grower Tim McAller, who raises vegetables near Durham, North Carolina. “The hot weather just cooks the organic matter out of your soil so that it’s hard to build it up and keep it at a good level. And the long growing season and mild winters mean that we have a lot more generations of pests and weeds to contend with.”

The new wave of environmental consciousness and interest in more “natural” life-styles came late to the South; there are fewer homesteaders, fewer food co-ops and natural food stores, fewer organic farmers, and smaller, weaker marketing and information networks to support these farmers. The South’s agricultural past may also have slowed the development of organic agriculture.

Southern farming, especially in the old cotton and tobacco lands, has a history of absentee landlordism, of sharecropping and tenant farming, that has lessened the sense of ownership, stewardship, and responsibility among both owners and tenants.

The South also has a long history of growing cash crops that make heavy demands on soil fertility. The land has been farmed exploitatively and colonially for centuries. Often the beginning organic farmer must invest years of reclamation in a land that has been farmed to exhaustion and then abandoned to scrub. “It takes at least three years to even begin to get the land into shape,” says Tim McAller.

And yet, across the South, organic farmers are raising a full spectrum of crops: vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, livestock. My own obscure specialty is cherry tomatoes. There’s an organic herb farm in Luray, Virginia, a Christmas tree grower in West Jefferson, North Carolina. The huge Arrowhead Mills operation run by Frank Ford in the Texas Panhandle is one of the largest growers, processors, and distributors of organic grains, flours, and beans in the natural food business. These organic farmers are young and old, native to the South and transplants, novice and experienced, on rented land, family land, purchased land - it’s hard to make generalizations.

Though most practitioners operate relatively small farms, organic farming is beginning to attract some larger row-crop farmers — those family farmers with several hundred acres under cultivation, with the John Deere caps, the grain bins, the large tractors, and a mortgage from the Federal Land Bank.


Frank Stancil has farmed all his life. Three years ago he was raising 400 acres of soybeans on his farm in middle Tennessee. Now he’s cut back to a diversified 200 acres of beans, small grains, and hay, plus two-and-a-half acres of vegetables and five acres of sweet potatoes, and is making a transition to organic methods. “In the beginning it was cost,” he says, explaining why he’s changing methods. “I was spending $12,000 to $15,000 a year on chemicals and it was entirely too much. I was just getting broker and broker.”

Stancil is trying to develop a good rotation and has become a dealer for the natural farm supplies he uses. “So far, I’m not better off financially, but I’m confident that this season I’ll have the best year financially we’ve had in five or six years. I’m still dependent on small amounts of herbicides and nitrogen fertilizer. 1 don’t have access to a lot of manure, so I may have to use minimal amounts of milder forms of chemical fertilizers, but I think in three to five years I can be relatively independent, especially of pesticides. It’s been very difficult getting information. I first went up to the Rodale experimental farm in Pennsylvania, and I liked what I saw, but the information I picked up, 1 just couldn’t put it all together. I’m just now to the point when all this muddy water’s starting to clear up for me and I can see to apply what I’ve learned.”

Few of today’s organic farmers turn to their methods for economic reasons alone. They are motivated also by concern over environmental and health hazards, by philosophies of responsibility and stewardship for the land, by humility towards the processes and purposes of nature. “It’s a way of life,” says A.P. Thomson. Bellevue Gardens, a cooperative organic produce farm in north central Florida, writes in its brochure, “ We see organic farming, with its emphasis on nurturing and protecting the Earth, as a spiritual and political act.” When Frank Stancil says, “It’s just a matter of time until we see a lot more farmers converting,” his image of conversion is one that occurs frequently in conversations with organic farmers. Neither indicating an ungrounded act of faith nor a simple change of methods, the word instead describes a necessary change in understanding and attitude from prevailing mentalities.

Cal Huge is another row-crop farmer in transition. He grew up on a farm in Nebraska, then practiced law in Ohio. Six years ago, he and his wife bought an 1,800-acre farm near Columbia, South Carolina, where, after farming strictly by the chemical book for two years, he began a transition to organic methods.

“What I think got me really started thinking about it was two things: first, the more I watched what we did and what we had to handle in the way of chemicals, it seemed like every time we turned around to do something, we had to find a chemical to do it. And then when it rained, the ground was like concrete — we had to rotary hoe every field to get the beans up. Two years after we started this transition program, we don’t have that problem. We haven’t had to rotary hoe a bean or corn crop to get it out of the ground, and the neighbors have.

“Second, I’m convinced that the whole farm belongs to the Lord, it doesn’t belong to me, and he can’t want us to treat it the way the chemicals treat it. I think that we are just very slowly — more rapidly in recent years — poisoning ourselves. We wanted to get away from that.

“The transition has not been expensive for us—in fact, it’s probably been cheaper. Labor costs have gone up, but I’d rather pay another man than the chemical companies. We were running one extra tractor cultivating this year, because we had almost 500 acres of corn and 700 acres of beans that we were cultivating at the same time.”


Figuring out a better way is not easy. As I write this article in June, a fungus called grey leaf spot is beginning to show up in my cherry tomatoes. Last year, it slowly and inexorably killed them, though I still made a profit. I don’t want to spray with fungicides, and I won’t. There is a temptation to spray, with the hope of maximum profits, and pride in a nicelooking tomato patch, but the temptation is muted by the fact that if 1 were going to spray, I should have started weeks ago.

Instead of concentrating on this article, my mind spins, common and frustrating paths of thought for organic growers. Is there an imbalance in my soil that contributes to this? Will the improvements I made over last year—planting on higher, betterdrained ground, more regular seaweed sprays—make a difference? Will the better weather help the plants to grow ahead of the disease? Is there a more resistant variety I could plant? Is there a natural control I could use? I don’t know the answers. Last year the extension service could give no help other than to suggest chemical fungicides and resistant varieties, none of which were cherry tomatoes.

Certainly the agricultural establishment has treated organic farming with indifference, even hostility. Though USDA’s 1980 study was generally sympathetic, last year the administration fired the one employee (of some 85,000) who coordinated organic farming activities. Less than one million dollars of USDA’s $430 million research budget goes to research even closely related. “Organic farming is a dead end,” declared Secretary of Agriculture John Block.

For agribusiness’s corporations, there’s little money to be made in crop rotations and healthy plants that can fight off diseases on their own. Land grant colleges instead do research on tobacco harvesting machines or maximizing soybean yields. Distrust and scepticism of any official efforts to research organic farming run high among alienated growers. “Yes, they tried that a few years ago,” says A.P. Thomson. “They take a piece of land and throw some raw manure on it and don’t pay attention to compost and soil balance and then take pictures of the bugs and the sick plants and show the plot next to it they used all the chemicals on, and use it to show organic doesn’t work.”

But there are some signs of changing attitudes and greater responsiveness. In 1982, Oregon Representative Jim Weaver and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy introduced an Organic Farming Bill in Congress. The act would have set up six pilot research projects at land grant universities, and a system of volunteer organic farmer “experts” to assist other farmers in transition; it would also have ordered the extension service to distribute organic farming information. The bill received strong support within Congress and from the public but was opposed by USDA. It was defeated by a narrow margin in the House and never taken up in the Senate.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms of North Carolina did not actively oppose last year’s bill, but neither did he actively support it. Lobbyists pushing the bill were hopeful that he would come around, but he recently said of a new version introduced in 1983 that it “creates authorities which are duplicative, imposes overly restrictive requirements on the conduct of research, and its costs are excessive.” In fact, the bill calls for expenditures of only $2.2 million annually — measured against an agricultural research budget of close to half a billion dollars.

But there are some positive signs of increasing communication and cooperation between the organic community and the research and extension system. Integrated pest management programs to reduce pesticide use are being developed and introduced by the extension service. Graduate students are doing sympathetic research, and individual extension agents are assisting organic grower associations. North Carolina State University offers a course in alternative agricultural systems, and professors in the Soil Sciences Department, with a grant from USDA, are doing an evaluation of research and literature dealing with alternative farming systems.


Marketing is one of the big problem areas for organic farmers. The long-established growers like A.P. and Lee McComb ship their fruit all over the country to a clientele of individuals and mail-order customers established over many years. But bulk marketing is more important today, as distributors of natural foods report a burgeoning business. Consumer awareness is clearly on the rise even in the South, where Southern Fried still holds the overwhelming edge over a natural foods consciousness.

Who would not prefer an unsprayed apple, a stalk of broccoli or a tomato free of pesticide residues? Some consumers, it seems. Selling at farmers’ markets, I’ve had people enthusiastically patronize my stand for its organic produce while others turned blankly away as if the concept were foreign to their understanding, or they didn’t want to think about choices, or they expected my sweet potatoes and beans to be too expensive or full of bugs. My “organically grown” sign is sometimes an attraction, sometimes a liability.

Lex Alexander, who runs Wellspring Grocery in Durham, North Carolina, carries high-quality produce both organic and conventional. “The organic produce we get from local growers is often prettier and better cared for, and people go for that,” he says. “But if there is a rack of commercial squash at 59 cents a pound and one of organic at 79 cents, customers buy the commercial. I think it will take some time. There’s a small group of people who care, and an even smaller group of people who are willing to pay the price.”

The higher price is often because Wellspring buys much of its organic produce from California, paying up to four dollars a bushel in shipping charges. Says Alexander, “There are not that many growers in this area we can support.-When we first opened, it seemed like we had a lot of people growing for us, but then maybe they weren’t making enough money. But we sell a lot of produce and could easily support two or three growers, and I hope our presence here can help some growers get established.”

Earl Lawrence in Rocky Mount, Virginia, is one organic farmer who found it difficult to make a living at it. For 10 years he operated a fully diversified 400-acre organic farm. Located far from the urban centers of organic demand, he used a combination of marketing methods: produce to local farmers’ markets and a food co-op in Roanoke, grains and beans to Mountain Warehouse, a co-op natural food distributor, beef and vegetables directly to individuals. “It’s not being organic that doesn’t pay — it’s farming. If anything, being organic helped, because it kept my costs down. I don’t really have any trouble growing the stuff organically, but no farmer is getting anything near parity for his crops.”

The specialty market for organic crops offers some premium in price for growers, but it is still an undeveloped, inefficient marketing network. Perhaps most of the organically grown crops are marketed through conventional channels: grains and soybeans to the local elevator, produce at the state farmers’ markets, to supermarket chains, or directly to consumers without special fanfare. Lee McComb will sell most of his grapefruit to the MinuteMaid plant for grapefruit juice. And my own cherry tomatoes will appear on the salad bar of my local Western Sizzling Steakhouse alongside the chemical-laden iceberg lettuce from California.


By far the most positive development for organic farming in the South has been the formation of grower organizations. In almost every state of the South, membership associations have sprouted up during the last five years. Several of these organizations have memberships in the hundreds. All publish newsletters and have conferences or meetings which feature speakers, workshops, and information exchange. The Virginia Association of Biological Farmers, started five years ago by A.P. Thomson and seven other farmers, now has a membership of over 350 farmers, gardeners, and consumers. In Tennessee, there is the Alternative Growers Association; in Kentucky, the New Farm Coalition; in Mississippi and Georgia, there are small Organic Growers Associations. I work as part-time staff-person for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), which includes growers in both North and South Carolina.

From the very beginning of CFSA, it was clear how urgently organic growers needed information and support from each other; they certainly weren’t getting much of either anywhere else. People were desperately eager to find out each other’s methods, to talk about their own, to find that there were other growers as crazy, or as sane, as themselves. Said one North Carolina woman, after attending the first meeting of her local CFSA group, “Now I no longer feel like the only petunia in the onion patch.”

CFSA publishes membership and marketing directories and is working on a program of organic certification to benefit growers who wish to certify and market their crops under a clearly defined standard of organic production. Members can buy natural farm supplies through cooperative bulk orders and can exchange heirloom seeds. CFSA speakers and displays present the organization message at fairs and meetings. We’ve presented testimony in support of the Organic Farming Act and encouraged letter-writing on this, on federal pesticide laws, and various other issues.

At issue for all these groups is the future development of their constituencies. All include gardeners and consumers as well as farmers, but they vary in the “purism” of their approach and in their concentration on organic agriculture. The Kentucky New Farm Coalition is more a political group, focused less on farming methods than on alternative farm policies. “It’s mostly homesteaders and urban people concerned about protecting the land,” says Hal Hamilton. “We’ve always resisted definition as an organic group.” Dennis Gregg, who helped start the Tennessee Alternative Growers Association, says it is made up of “purists with open minds . . . people who believe and are practicing organic growing at various scales as purely as they can.”

The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association began life in 1979 as Carolina Organic Growers, but changed its name after less than a year to reflect the group’s wider concerns and attract a broader base membership. Says the group’s president, Cindy Crossen, “I’m pleased at the efforts we have made to reach out to transitional growers and not just be an elitist group of organic growers - I think we made the right choice.”

CFSA has a diverse membership. Besides the young alternative types, the group includes both Lee McComb and Cal Huge, as well as some completely conventional tobacco, peach, beef, and row-crop farmers. Common concerns tie us together — farm stewardship and sustainable agriculture, the practice of methods that will allow the land to be farmed forever — but sometimes the differences are more apparent.

The conventional farmer exploring alternative methods may feel out of place coming to a CFSA conference for the first time - meeting a lot of young urban gardeners or vegetable growers, and eating the natural foods meals. But he or she is very much what the organization needs. For all these organizations to have any influence on agricultural policy or methods, they must continue to build their membership to include consumers and conventional farmers.

The way Frank Stancil sees it, “There’s three kinds of farmers. You’ve got the chemical farmer at one end, the organic farmer at the other, and the “ecofarmer” in between. If I can be an ecofarmer in three or four years, I’ll be relatively satisfied.”

Says A.P. Thomson, “My God, if a fellow doesn’t use herbicides in his orchard and uses the other chemicals, his apples are already far better than the rest of them. People have financial obligations, they have trouble understanding the vocabulary and the total philosophy ... we need to get these people in, and then show them. We’re so far down the tube in this country with the depletion of our soils, the chemicals that we use, that anything will help.


** The USDA study finally settled on this: “Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock crop rotations. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds, and other pests.” (USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming, 1980; page 9.)