Broadly speaking agriculture is about the production of food, fiber, and energy for our survival. In the United States today, less than 2 percent of the work force is employed in agriculture, the climax a long-term decline from over 60 percent in the 1850s. Given that we have been practicing agriculture since the dawn of civilization, it is interesting that we still cannot agree on how it should be done. Civilizations have risen and fallen on the basis of the health of their soils, yet few people today, if asked, would be able to give you a consistent definition of what soil is. Leaving aside the 98 percent of us who are not farming, even the people doing it every day can’t agree on some of the most fundamental aspects of agriculture.

Soil got a lot of attention in the United States when vast quantities of degraded topsoil from the Dust Bowl made its airborne voyage to Washington in the Dirty Thirties. Agro-biodiversity would have been on everyone’s lips during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, if there were such a word then. The dominant trends in agriculture today would suggest that we have ignored history. Soil health has been steadily declining for over half a century, and the proportion of what we consume for our sustenance represented by GMO corn, soy, and the antibiotic-laden CAFO animals that eat them has reached remarkable levels. The chain of soil health to plant health to human health to societal health is established, and the rising incidence of chronic disease in the U.S. speaks volumes about how and what we grow.

The organic movement began over a hundred years ago to address the risks posed by the increasing industrialization of agriculture. Fifty years ago rising awareness of the impacts of pesticides sparked more interest in the movement. In recent years agriculture’s role in climate change has bolstered the organic movement yet again. Today organic agriculture represents the most rapidly growing segment of the agricultural market, but the encroachment of commercial interests has factionalized the movement. The real heart of the organic movement remains true to its roots, and its emphasis is the same as it has always been: the care of the soil and natural systems.

While estimates vary with local conditions, some leading scientists have estimated that Earth has maybe 60 years of productive topsoil left for agricultural production. Conventional agriculture is dependent upon the use of non-renewable inputs and is inherently extractive, akin to industries like mining. Enormous amounts of soil are lost to unsustainable farming techniques every minute, and it takes an impossibly long time for topsoil to form on its own. The leaders of the organic movement are not Luddites who wish to revert to the methods that pre-dated chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as even then tillage practices, overgrazing, and otherwise extractive methods were commonplace. True organic farmers today work with nature to harness the maximum amount of sunlight energy, to accelerate soil building using a modern understanding of soil microbiology, and to do both while also maximizing ecological services.

Hyde is the executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey.

NOFA Conference

Nationwide there are truly sustainable, working farms that have adopted practices that go by several names, like “regenerative agriculture” or “restoration agriculture,” and some of them are right here in New Jersey. To learn more about soils, agriculture, and food systems, and their role in environmental sustainability and renewal, attend the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference Saturday and Sunday, January 27 and 28, at the Rutgers Douglass Student Center in New Brunswick. Details are at There will be more than 50 workshops, many of them taught by nationally-recognized experts.

The sessions run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on January 27 and 28 and will include five tracks: Crops, Livestock, Gardening, Policy, and Urban Farming. Anyone interested in learning about local, organic, and sustainable food, permaculture, and related policy issues is invited to attend.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Regenerating Our Communities, Restoring Our Land.” This year’s keynote, Mark Shepard, is the author of Restoration Agriculture, which explains his approach to permaculture, as practiced at his New Forest Farm in Wisconsin. Shepard addresses the “whys and hows” of permaculture, including its ability to sequester large amounts of atmospheric carbon. Shepard also explains the tradeoffs between annual and perennial crops.

Don Huber, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, will speak in a double-session about his research on the harms of glyphosate, the world’s most ubiquitous pesticide. Huber provides copious references to scholarly and scientific work on the subject.

Dan Kittredge, lifelong farmer and founder of the Massachusetts-based Bionutrient Food Association, will reveal his organization’s efforts to democratize testing for food quality in a completely open-source framework. Kittredge has been a leader in efforts to produce more nutrient-dense, high-quality foods. In addition to Shepard, other nationally-recognized, expert permaculturists will be speaking, both individually and on the “PermaPanel.”

The winter conference is open to everyone, not just farmers and gardeners. For more details, please visit or contact NOFA-NJ at 908-371-1111.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-NJ) is dedicated to supporting organic and sustainable food, farming, and gardening in New Jersey. NOFA-NJ is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

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