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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Bigger Than Conventional: Organic Yields from the 1950s to 1970s

Giant banana squash
Earl Miller with the "man-sized" organic banana squash he grew in Oregon in 1962

Agronomists in the mid-20th century who claimed that organic farming had lower yields never read Organic Gardening magazine. Beginning in the late 1940s, Organic Gardening frequently printed stories, letters, and photos from readers documenting the exceptionally large and healthy produce they grew in their organic gardens.


One of the first people to be featured (in the July 1948 issue) for growing big vegetables was Fred Engle, an organic vegetable grower near Muskegon, Michigan. Engle bought his worn-out, sandy 39-acre farm in 1919 and slowly started restoring it by plowing in food waste from a chain of grocery stores that he owned. He applied some commercial fertilizers between 1936 and 1941, but in 1941 decided to only use organic fertilizers.


By 1948, Engle was growing his own soil fertility by planting a third of his acreage in “shoulder high” cover crops each year and growing vegetables on the other two-thirds of the farm. He also made and spread 250 cubic yards of compost every year. The results were phenomenal. In the 1947 season, many of his potatoes weighed two pounds apiece, his Hubbard squash weighed in at 33 pounds, and his biggest pumpkin was 46 pounds.


“What further PROOF do we need to confirm the rightness of these heaven-born principles of maintaining soil fertility?” the author, Herbert Clarence White, asked. “When the neighbors’ corn fields are drying up or riddled with the corn borer and other pests, and yours are standing up and free from all types of infestation; when other soils are parched and dry, while yours is mellow and full of life-sustaining moisture; when your potato plants in rows four feet apart fill up the row completely with foliage, and bear crops of gigantic proportions, while the neighbors are seared and spindly—what argument can the proponents of artificial, shot-in-the-arm methods bring to destroy your faith in Nature’s own way of maintaining absolute soil fertility?”


Engle’s story wasn’t unique. In July 1952, Organic Gardening highlighted A. E. Fortner, who grew enormous tomatoes weighing two to three pounds apiece on compost. The February 1953 issue featured a farmer in Washington who grew an organic squash weighing 129 pounds. For the July 1962 issue, Earl Miller sent in a photo of the “man-sized” banana squash he grew in Oregon. It weighed 114 pounds and was 60 5/8 inches long! And every year, the magazine sponsored a contest to see who could grow the largest sunflower head. The 1966 winner, at 27 3/8 inches in diameter, was one of the largest.


While the magazine focused mainly on enormous vegetables, there were some stories of farmers with fabulous crop yields as well. In November 1973, Organic Gardening and Farming featured Iowa organic farmer Ralph Englekens, who was getting yields of 185 bushels of corn per acre on his best land and 125 acres on his poorest land. The average corn yield for his county that year was 112 bushels per acre.


“These figures may come as quite a shock to the chemical farmer in Iowa, who probably believes the agribusiness myth that organic yields fall far short of chemical yields and so cut deeply into profits,” Organic Gardening  reporter Jeff Cox noted. Conventional farmers and agronomists continued to repeat that “myth” that organic yields were far lower, but the best organic farmers always had yields at least comparable and often higher than the averages for their region.

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1 Comment

Jan 05

I visit other farms and am seeing more cover crops and some even brag about how little glyphosate or pesticides they use. To me it is all good as we are moving towards sustainable agriculture.


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