Spanish Lit Scholar, Extreme Adventurer Turns Thin Layer of Topsoil into Thriving Four Season Farm
February 28, 2013 | Helen Weatherall
Nothing is impossible – so says a rock climber with his head pitched back staring up an ugly face of granite, a kayaker caught in a squall, a skier pointing tips down a sheet of black ice – or a man who has done all of this and then taken up farming Down East where topsoil is barely deeper than the pine pollen on windowsills in May. After chasing adventure in the guise of a Spanish literature scholar with a taste for Chilean deep powder, cliffs and white water, Eliot Coleman got himself some acreage.
Of course a lot happened in between, but the story of Four Season Farm and how it came to be began with Coleman turning his quest for adventure away from situational adrenaline surges to another sort of challenge: to extract sugar carrots from a fir wood rooted on ledge.
It was late 1960’s when Coleman came back down to earth. A decade earlier the back-to-the-land how-to book, ‘Living the Good Life’, by Helen and Scott Nearing had emerged and became something of a bible among the younger set.
Like a fair number of others of his age and interests, Coleman made his way to the Nearings at their ‘Forest Farm’ in Harborside, Maine and was welcomed in for a visit. In the course of conversation a discussion of Coleman’s interest in farming led the Nearings to offer up a piece of their holdings for sale. On the one hand it was a remarkable gift at $33.00 an acre and on the other it represented a sobering test.
“It was three inches in topsoil and being a spruce and fir forest it was very acid soil,” said Coleman looking back twenty years from a now comfortable vantage point.
“Now we’ve got 14 acres of cleared orchard and pasture and 1.5 acres of the best vegetable land you can imagine.”
Needless to say the transformation took a fair bit of work. For this Coleman claims only partial credit. The rest belongs to his wife Barbara Damrosch and the small tribe of young workers who rotate through each summer.
“We keep young people from having responsible jobs,” Coleman said cheerily.
“We don’t take in any apprentices. We believe in paying people, it keeps us from getting lazy.”
Coleman and Damrosch, who met and fell in love in a greenhouse at Forest Farm continue to take cues from the Nearings even though Helen and Scott have both passed away. When synthetic fertilizer and pesticides came along in the 1930’s and 40’s the Nearings steered clear and adhered to what have since become known as organic, sustainable farming practices. The philosophy the Nearings lived by espoused active participation in the advancement of social justice, creative integration of the life of the mind, body and spirit, and deliberate choice in living responsibly and harmoniously. In their farming practices they sought to work with nature not wrestle it to submission.
Like the Nearings, Coleman and Damrosch believe equally in scholarship and experimentation.
“We need to understand how much we owe all the minds that came before us,” said Coleman quoting Benjamin Franklin.
“They lead us to (our discoveries).”
So while Coleman and Damrosch do not seek to reinvent the wheel at Four Season Farm, their ‘experimental market garden’, they do tinker and test. This is particularly apparent with their use of tools.
“I never met a hoe I liked,” said Coleman who saw fit to redesign this common tool.
“Most people chop with the hoe,” he added going on to explain that with the conventional hoe the blade is at the wrong angle. Through studying all the variations he could find, lighting up the welding torch and collecting input from others, Coleman came up with what he describes as a collinear hoe, one in which the edge of the blade is in line with the handle.
“You use it like a rake or a broom,” explained Coleman.
This hoe is just one of the many refashioned tools that has helped boost efficiency at Four Season Farm. In keeping with his belief in the sharing of knowledge Coleman has kept his designs patent-free. The tools however are available for purchase through Johnny’s Selected Seeds, an employee owned gardening company based in Albion, Maine.
While devotees of the teachings of the Nearings, Coleman and Damrosch are irrefutably enterprising. Damrosch will be traveling much of the spring promoting her latest book ‘The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook’ at garden shows across the country.
In addition to using unheated greenhouses, Coleman and Damrosch bring warmth to their Maine farm by covering their crops with one and sometimes two layers of polyester sheeting. These row covers made of sophisticated, but readily available fabric allow light, air and moisture to pass through but keep heat in.
“Each layer moves us 500 miles to the south. The first gets us to New Jersey, the second takes us to Georgia,” said Coleman.
With this system the couple is able to harvest six crops over four seasons. Last year this amounted to $140,000 in gross income for the farm.
At present, with eight pairs of hands Four Season Farm produces forty-five different crops including all of the basics and some surprises such as artichokes which they grow as annuals. Their livestock currently includes pigs and chicken flocks of laying hens and meat birds. In the near future Coleman looks forward to adding beef cows and both ducks and geese. Asked which of their crops they are most noted for Coleman quickly responds, “carrots, potatoes and spinach.”
“Our spinach has plenty of calcium and as a consequence it doesn’t have that oxalic acid bite that people don’t like.”
Coleman and Damrosch sell their harvest out of a handwrought ‘veggie-mobile’ at three farmer’s markets and onsite at their farmstand from June through September.
Addressing the question of whether the farm is profitable Coleman answers with a firm yes.
“We work on figuring out how to keep more money here on the farm.”
“Currently we have six employees working all the time, we would like to cut down to four,” he elaborated.
Prompted to offer advice to others keen on farming Coleman begins with a splash of cold water and follows up with hope.
“Don’t quit your day job. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. Partnering with the natural world is wonderful.”