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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Back to the Land - Organically

School of Living
Ralph Borsodi's School of Living promoted organic homesteading in the 1940s

As I’ve learned more about the earliest organic farmers in the United States, I’ve tried to figure out what they had in common. What made them interested in organic farming? What caused them to reject the scientific consensus that synthetic chemicals were better than natural processes?


It wasn’t because they shared a common set of religious beliefs or were all part of the same political movement. Far from it. Take four of the leading organic farmers of the 1940s and 1950s, for example. Ralph Borsodi was an atheist, anarchist, and decentralist. Scott Nearing was a pacifist and socialist who briefly joined the Communist Party. Paul and Betty Keene were Christian missionaries in India. J.I. Rodale was Jewish and avoided talking about religion or politics in Organic Gardening magazine—it would have been way too controversial.


Despite these disparate backgrounds, most organic farmers of the 1940s had two main things in common. They passionately promoted organic farming, and they went back to the land.

Ralph Borsodi went back to the land first, in the 1920s. His motivation was health: it was impossible to get good, fresh, healthy food in the city. He was also a decentralist, promoting self-sufficiency and appropriate technology. His books This Ugly Civilization and Flight from the City inspired thousands of other Americans to leave the polluted industrial cities of the early 20th century and start growing their own food on small homesteads.


Helen and Scott Nearing bought their Vermont homestead in the early 1930s mainly for the purpose of self-sufficiency, after Scott’s political activism cost him his job as a university professor. The money they earned selling maple syrup and maple sugar enabled him to continue giving socialist lectures while living a frugal, minimalist lifestyle. Their 1955 book Living the Good Life would become the guidebook for the much larger wave of back-to-the-landers in the 1970s.


J.I. Rodale went back to the land for health reasons in the early 1940s and started farming organically from the very beginning, after reading Sir Albert Howard’s 1940 book An Agricultural Testament. After a few years of trial and error, Rodale made his farm into a demonstration of organic farming practices to visitors from all over the country. His Organic Gardening magazine soon became the key forum connecting American organic farmers.


After the British authorities asked them to leave India because of their support for Indian nationalism, Paul and Betty Keene attended Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s Kimberton Farms School and eventually acquired a homestead of their own in Penns Creek, Pennsylvania. In 1946 they started selling homemade organic apple butter and launched Walnut Acres, the first-ever mail order organic food company. Walnut Acres provided a steady market for local organic growers for many years and played a crucial role in the growth of the organic and natural foods industry.


Ever since the farm crisis of the 1980s and the rise of organic certification, a growing number of family farmers have transitioned to organic. But for the first thirty or forty years, the majority of organic farmers in the United States were back-to-the-landers. It was that desire to get out of the city, make a better life in the country, and grow their own food organically that drew them together. Organic farming has always been closely tied to going back to the land.

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