ELIOT & MELISSA COLEMAN

FARM ACTIVIST & WRITER

Four Season Farm in Brooksville, Maine

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To get to Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s Four Season Farm, you wind along narrow country roads, past salt water farms and ocean vistas dotted with little islands. Their rocky peninsula has become an organic farming machine, the product of decades of passionate hard work, trial and error and unwavering commitment. The best calculators of the passage of time are the enormous apple trees dripping with fruit that Eliot and his first wife Sue planted when they moved to the property in 1968. They moved to Brooksville, Maine during the Back-to-the-Land movement to learn from Living the Good Life authors and homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing. Six months later, they gave birth to their daughter Melissa. Melissa and her sister grew up running through the mossy forests barefoot and playing in their treehouse in the summers and snuggling under layers of blankets during the cold Maine winters.

 

In the late sixties and early seventies, the Coleman and Nearing farms were bustling with new Back-to-the-Landers wanting to learn how to homestead and farm. By the mid 80s many people had left to return to city life. The ones that remained were those that found joy in the struggle, hard work and different rhythms of homesteading and farming. Even though the Back-to-the-Land movement had slowed, Eliot threw himself into his work and continued writing and researching the best methods for organic and all-season farming. In 1989, he released the gardening bible The New Organic Grower. Eliot and Barbara met in the Nearing’s greenhouse in July of 1991 and married that December. They shared a passion for horticulture and have both dedicated their lives to educating people on how to farm sustainably and naturally. Barbara writes a weekly column for the Washington Post and has published several organic gardening books of her own, including The Gardening Primer. Barbara and Eliot co-hosted a TV series, Gardening Naturally, and work together as farmers, educators, researchers and writers. Barbara and Eliot have both noticed a new surge of young people interested in homesteading and sustainable farming, they say;  their internship applications have increased exponentially in recent years.

 

The unusual and idyllic nature of her childhood, coupled with the tragedy of losing her sister Heidi to drowning, inspired Melissa to write a New York Times bestselling memoir This Life Is in Your Hands.  Melissa now lives in Freeport, Maine and is working on another book. Although she opted to live with more modern conveniences than she had growing up, Melissa has raised her twin daughters, Emily and Heidi, with a deep respect for the natural world, a knowledge of how to live sustainably and an appreciation of where food comes from. Melissa’s sister Clara has followed closer in their father’s footsteps, working as an organic farming consultant, writer and activist for the organic farming movement. Their brother Ian lives in Los Angeles and Barbara’s son Christopher lives in Maine. 

 

Many first-time farmers and homesteaders feel so bogged down with the endless ‘to do’ list that visualizing what their efforts will look like in the future seems futile. Walking through Four Season Farm is like walking through a living testament to hard work and wise land stewardship. Their story demonstrates what can be achieved with time, passion, patience and absolute dedication. Eliot and Barbara continue to pass down what they have learned to their children, grandchildren, the many apprentices that come to embark on their own farming journey, and the masses of people inspired by their writings. (Click here to jump to Eliot's interview(Click here to jump to Melissa's interview)

 

www.fourseasonfarm.com

www.melissacoleman.com

 

ELIOT COLEMAN

 

Have you seen a surge of new Four Season Farm applicants in recent years? Do you think there is another movement underway of people opting to leave the city and learn to farm and/or pursue a life of self-sufficiency? 

Yes, definitely. It’s the same movement as before, it just happens to be particularly vibrant at this moment. The world out there is not offering us food of the quality that we want to nourish our children and bodies with, and people are saying, “wait a minute.” Organic farming also involves a closer relationship with the natural world, and I’m a natural-world type of guy, as are many of us. My aunt sent me a poem once that reads, “He must be proud who tills the soil and turns the sod, how wonderful it is to be in partnership with God.” I interpret God as the forces of nature that are far wiser than we are.

 

 

Having been a part of the original back-to-land movement, why do you think some people stayed and others eventually went back to the conveniences of city life?

It’s very simple, the ones who got into it as a reaction against the world they disliked didn’t last, while the others who were in pro-action toward the world they wanted to see, did last. The positive action is stronger than the negative reaction. There is an old saying that you should chose your enemies carefully because you become more like them than anyone else. In positive pro-action you have no enemy, rather a goal you want to see realized. 

 

What are some things people living in urban environments can do to help support small pesticide-free farms, other than just buying organic produce?

The best thing anyone can do is buy food from the farmers who are doing it right. This is simply a case of voting with your dinner. Capitalism, for all its faults, has a wonderful way of keeping score. 

 

 

What advice would you give to someone thinking of leaving the city and moving rurally?

Don’t quit your day job, this is a difficult life, you will have to work hard, and no one is looking after you, except you. You have to learn to look after yourself. There is a wonderful community in the country, but all participants in the community must know how to survive on their own first. When you each put in as much as you take, then you have a community that will work.

 

Where do you find inspiration and passion for your work, writing and teaching?

I get up every morning and look out at the farm. The natural world is such a mind-blowingly elegant system that works so seamlessly. Human beings think they are in charge, but the system is in charge, you just have to learn to flow with it.

 

 

What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities? 

In the back of everyone’s soul there is small farm and a little house in the country and all the things you read about in children’s books. It is a wonderful way of life for people who want to participate in their own existence rather than be a spectator. But it requires a lot more work to attain than a job in the city.

 

 

Do you have any advice for first-time farmers trying to build a sustainable farm? 

The natural world is incredibly well designed, and if you work with it, everything is going to flow. We want to have things right now, but that isn’t always the case with the natural world. Don’t be impatient. It will happen.

 

 

What legacy would you like to leave behind for future generations of farmers and farm advocates?

Simply the fact that it was possible to create this farm from three inches of topsoil in a spruce/fir forest with lots of rocks. The legacy is about knowing that my children and grandchildren are able to eat good food.

 

 

What worries you most about our current state of food production in the United States? 

Money has such power, and Monsanto is all about making money. Sometimes I worry that if there aren’t enough tough people who say, “wait a moment, that’s not okay”—because this requires a hell of a lot of energy to do—there is going to be nothing but crap out there. But I have also seen that people are smart enough to say, “we want what’s right.” When the tide of the population rises around the feet of corporations, they have to take notice and make changes.

 

The world designates anyone who disagrees with the establishment as lunatics. Yet if you look at history, you find that the weirdos are usually right.

 

 

What are your plans and goals for the coming year - both personally and for Four Season Farm?

More and better. As an old rock climber, I know that when I’ve climbed something, it’s not done, there will always be other climbs. Nature will throw curves at you and you need to pay attention, but I know the system works. I’ve seen for 50 years now how well it works, so maybe I’ll be puzzled by a curve ball, but I have great faith that it will always come back around.

 

MELISSA COLEMAN

 

 What are your thoughts on the recent wave of young people leaving the city and learning to farm? Do you think it is indicative of a movement? If so, how does this wave compare to the Back to Land movement?  

The urge to reconnect with the land seems to resurge every forty years or so, which would make sense. There was a wave in the 1930s, then the 1970s, and now here we are in the 2010s. The strength of the urge may come and go, but it never dies.

 

When you look back on your childhood, what skills did you learn that you still find useful today?My biggest take away is a deep respect and love for the wonder of the natural world. And this is also about an acceptance of death. Growing up on a farm you see first hand the two-sided coin of life and death. Every year the garden is born and dies and then is reborn again in spring. The chickens are eaten by the fox and new ones hatch, the favorite goat dies and a new one is born. The compost heap is also a great metaphor—all those scraps of dead plants that become the soil that grows new plants. On a farm, in the acceptance of death you find the magic of life. My family lost my little sister Heidi on our farm, and while her death was difficult for all of us, I’ve come to find that her spirit, too, is reborn with every new year.

 

 

What advice would you give to someone thinking about pursuing The Good Life?

Nurture a spiritual practice of some kind—whatever kind it may be—something that reminds you to let go of attachment, see the bigger picture, and develop acceptance for what is. 

 

 

Where do you draw inspiration and passion from for your writing?

The magic of nature, especially in springtime. There’s something about the sound of the bullfrogs coming alive in the wet areas and ponds, the sperm-like pollywogs that soon follow, the mating song of the woodcock, the sudden explosion of birds of all kinds making nests, electric green coils of fiddleheads visibly expanding after rain, and the thrill of spotting the pinkish scrotum-like sack of a ladyslipper flower in the forest. It all sounds very sexual, because spring in the natural world is all about sex, and there’s none of the shame or condemnation that we humans put on it. Sex, like art or farming, is simply the effort to create something that will have a life of its own.

 

 

Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?

I prefer to write in front of a window where I can watch the movement of the wind in the branches of trees. Something about the way the leaves or needles flicker and vibrate in the breeze calms and sets loose my mind.

 

 

How has your unique upbringing influenced who you are today? 

It’s taken a while to get to it, because after being so different as a child, for a while I just wanted to be like everyone else, but more and more I find I’m able to choose my own path with confidence, regardless of what anyone else says.

 

 

What elements of your childhood have you replicated in the rearing of your twin daughters? 

It’s a joy to take my girls (age 11) back to the farm where I grew up, to eat carrots and peas and strawberries from the garden as my sisters and I once did, to swing on the rope swing into the pond, and visit the treehouse that was built by farm apprentices in 1976 (without putting any nails into the tree). The girls like to say that they will only eat their grandfather’s carrots and peas, and though it’s frustrating when I’m trying to get them to eat regular old vegetables, I certainly don’t fault them.

 

 

If you could fix one problem plaguing the farming world, what would it be?

Income. Small farmers should be able to make a better living. 

 

 

How did your family initially react to your memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands

I’m lucky to have an amazingly resilient and loving family, every one of them—father, mother, stepmothers, stepfather, sister, brother, step-brother, grandparents, husband, in-laws, daughters, nephews, and relatives. They all understand and process things in their own unique ways, as is their right.

 

 

What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities? 

Life is life, with all its joys and pain, no matter where you live. And that is what's so beautiful about it. 

 

 

What are your plans and goals for the coming year?

Love more. 

 

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