February 16, 2011 — More than 200 people attended a talk by organic farming expert and visionary Eliot Coleman at the University of Virginia's Hereford Residential College on Sunday.
Coleman, a pioneer in season-extending measures for vegetable farming in cold climates. gave a detailed account of how he and his wife, food and garden writer Barbara Damrosch, farm vegetables year-round in Maine using hoop houses, portable greenhouses and cold frames. Using them in combination allows Coleman to shift seasons.
"Each layer of protection moved us one and half planting zones south," he said. "Outside it was Maine in the winter, but inside the hoop house it was New Jersey and inside the cold frames, we'd moved to Georgia."
Coleman, 72, started his talk in the Green Room of the Runk Dining Hall, where he showed slides of his different mobile greenhouses and other experiments, and ended it in the student gardens at Hereford, where he demonstrated some hand tools he had found or designed.
Nancy Takahashi, a landscape architecture lecturer and Hereford College resident faculty member, and Elaine Durand, who teaches a course in winter gardening at Hereford, invited Coleman to U.Va. when they heard he would be in Virginia. Coleman, who has written several books about organic farming, was eager to share his knowledge with his Charlottesville audience.
"Ideas are like compost," Coleman said. "They're not worth anything unless you spread them around."
Coleman led the group through the evolution of his greenhouses (portable and permanent), cold frames and hoop tunnels, citing successes and disappointments and how various changes made the process more economical, such as putting the wheels from one greenhouse on another so less money is tied up in equipment.
"The more you play with technology, the more you learn how to do it less expensively." Coleman said.
And while Coleman has used structures to extend his seasons, he cited the work of Brett Grohsgal, a Maryland farmer who has extended his season by breeding hardier varieties of crops that can survive outdoors in the colder weather.
Coleman said that he has focused on quality over quantity in his operations. He said he will have three crops in a year from some beds, and by growing within his portable greenhouses, he can produce fresh herbs and salad mixtures for restaurants during the winter months, harvesting many of the leaf crops before they reach maturity, selling them when they are succulent and tender. He has renamed a young Swiss chard "Butter Chard."
"Restaurants like to have fancy names on their menus," he said.
He enjoys the challenge of planting seeds on Jan. 1, when most of nature is dormant, and chefs in his region will challenge him to have certain produce by specific dates.
Many in his audience asked about organic solutions to pests, and Coleman said the quality of the soil is important and that healthy plants will resist pests. He said once a farmer has the soil in shape, there will be few problems from pests.
"When plants are stressed, they undergo changes in their internal compositions that makes them more susceptible to insects," he said. "I impress upon people that you need to do proper work with the soil. Poor soil is a great teacher."
A strong advocate of compost, Coleman said it does not get promoted because there is a lot of money to be made from selling chemical fertilizers.
"Using compost is a system that only makes money for the farmer," he said. "Compost is dangerous for an industrial society. It is made for free from waste products. The natural world has all the inputs you need for free."
He said compost, crop rotation and many other natural ways of farming have been practiced for centuries.
"The Romans knew about this and used it because it worked," he said.
Coleman also stressed economy of labor, explaining that planting beds should be about 30 inches wide, so they can be harvested easily from either side or they can be straddled. Tools should be designed to use hand labor more efficiently. During his session at the student garden, he demonstrated a lightweight, wooden-handled tiller powered by a cordless drill and a hoe with a narrow blade for weeding.
Coleman's audience on Sunday was a mixture of students, faculty and community members.
"He offers a perspective of how many ways there are to approach working with the land," said Ben Cohen, an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society in the School of Engineering, who teaches about agriculture. "He knows there is no one way of doing it."
"It was exciting to see so many students here," Takahashi said. "And there were so many from disciplines across the University."
Coleman spent time after the talk answering questions from local farmers, gardeners and food enthusiasts. He was impressed by the students' interest and accomplishments with the Hereford gardens, which act as a classroom for the students as they learn to grow their own food. Students experiment with planting techniques, using cover crops to prevent erosion and "trap" plants, such as eggplant, to draw bugs away from other plants.
"I can tell it took a lot of effort to get this accomplished," Coleman said.
He saw the student gardens as an extension of Thomas Jefferson's vision of the University.
"This is the most beautiful university I've ever seen," said Coleman. "It is amazing how Jefferson had this vision to design the whole thing. I have great appreciation for his architecture skills."