March 15, 2005

'Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works' SIUC faculty member's book chronicles new movement

by Paula Davenport

organic book

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Captions follow story

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Farmers: Bone-tired of the agricultural grind? Buried in debt? Stressed over skyrocketing fuel and fertilizer costs— and unsure of other ways in which to make a living?

You're far from alone.

In countless conversations with American family farmers, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale researcher found "…they all had a very depressing view of conventional agriculture. And they're wonderful people — but they felt their lives were going nowhere."

"They all told me: ‘Oh, I hope my daughter doesn't stay on the farm; or I don't want my son to stay in ag, he's got to move to the city and get a real job,' " reports Leslie A. Duram, chair and associate professor of SIUC's geography and environmental resources department, in the College of Liberal Arts.

Having grown up in Kansas where farm issues regularly crept into conversations, Duram found herself agonizing over farmers' dashed hopes and despair.

"Literally, every one of them had very depressing views of conventional agriculture and they wanted out," remembers Duram. "I just kept thinking, there's got to be a better way,"

She spooled up her academic research skills in search of solutions — and uncovered the roots of contemporary organic farming movement.

Not the granola-munchin'-hippie-kinda- gotta-get-back-to-the-land farms.

"I tried to focus on medium scale organic farms representative of conventional farms in the region. I was really interested in looking at a true transition in agriculture. How can we really take a step from conventional to organic farming on the larger scale so we could stop this bloodletting of farmers having to leave the land and stop rural communities from going under," says Duram, whose findings are the fodder of the new book "Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works."

The book, which Duram admits takes an "advocacy" tone, is volume 17 in the University of Nebraska Press' "Our Sustainable Future Series," available at

In addition to a wealth of background information, the book chronicles five successful medium-scale family farms in different and distinct regions of the country where relatively natural farming techniques have earned the U.S. government's stamp of approval to call themselves "certified organic" growers and producers.

Farms whose:

    • Fields have been free of synthetic chemicals for three years running;
    • Plants are not grown from genetically modified seeds;
    • Operations pass certification inspections;
    • Soil's nutrient loads are improving as a result of crop rotations and companion plantings and the like;
    • Detailed paperwork substantiates organic farming practices for the past three years in a row.

"These are larger organic farms and they're making it. They're doing very well," she says.

Readers will meet: Upstate New York's Steve Porter and family, who've shifted their conventional livestock operation to a wholesale organic vegetables operation; Florida's Rob and Mary Mitchell, who produce high-quality organic citrus fruits and are developers of a successful packing house; Illinois' Joel Rissman, whose generations-old family farm near DeKalb yields a mix of organic crops and livestock; Colorado's Cliff and Naioma Benson and their grown son

Allen, veteran grain farmers who now grow organic crops; and California's Phil Foster, who runs a busy organic vegetable production ranch.

"These organic farmers have a completely positive view of agriculture. They want to be in it, they see a future for themselves and they want their families to run the farms, too."

Such stories, Duram hopes, may inspire traditional farmers eager to hop off the never-ending "treadmill of production" — where it constantly takes more of everything to make it — yet still yearn to work the land.

Opportunity abounds, she says. The sales of organically grown foods and meats have risen 20 percent annually since the 1980s.

Cultivated along with the organic edibles are healthier families, cleaner streams and aquifers, naturally enhanced soils and revitalized rural communities.

Duram wants consumers to understand they possess the buying power to make or break the movement.

"I want people to know that when they're zipping through the aisles of the grocery store, what they buy matters to the farmer. And by making the right choices, they're helping farmers stay on the land, and to treat the environment in a better way.

"Know where your food comes from," she says. "Know the value of locally grown organic food that supports a fair wage for a farmer and his or her family."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activity is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Photo 1: book cover
Family friendly farming — A new book, “Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works,” offers advice for traditional family farmers who wish to give up conventional agriculture but still want to continue working the land while supporting themselves, their families and rural communities.
Photo 2: author hoeing in garden
Easier row to hoe — Leslie A. Duram, author of the new book “Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works,” says medium to small-scale farms run by families may enjoy a better quality of life and still make a decent living by switching from conventional agricultural practices — which rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides — to organic growing methods.