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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

The Early Organic Canon: Books That Shaped Organic Farming

Early organic farming books
Some of the early organic books in my personal collection

When organic farming came to the United States, it came in books.

As far as I am aware, none of the early British organic leaders made it across the Atlantic before their books did. Sir Albert Howard—arguably the most important influence on American organic farming—seems to have never visited the United States. If others eventually made the journey, it was only after they were invited by the organic community their books had started.

Books and other publications—especially Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine—were what made organic farming into a coherent movement. This was another key distinction between organic farming and traditional farming practices, which were passed down through oral tradition and experiential learning. Organic methods, too, were transmitted by farmer-to-farmer networking. But especially in the 1940s and 1950s, that networking was almost always through a print medium, not usually face-to-face. And these books were largely printed by just two publishing houses—Faber and Faber in England and Rodale Press in the United States.

While the number of books about organic farming would increase exponentially starting in the 1970s, the early organic canon was fairly small. In the “Bibliographies” section of this website, I have included a list of the most important organic farming books published before 1970. In a few cases, where an author published most of their books before 1970, I’ve also included later titles. This list is not exhaustive, and if you know of any other books from that time period that should be on it, please let me know!

Which of these books were most influential? On the top of list would be Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament and Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease (Soil and Health in the American edition). Coming in as a close second was Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening. J. I. Rodale’s Pay Dirt and the first few years of Organic Gardening magazine relied almost exclusively on the composting methods outlined by Howard and Pfeiffer. Lady Eve Balfour’s The Living Soil was a compendium of information that relied heavily on Howard’s work.

On the shelf next to these composting books were several titles that linked soil fertility to human health. G. T. Wrench’s The Wheel of Health was most frequently mentioned, followed closely by Sir Robert McCarrison’s Nutrition and Health, Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, and similar works.

Both Faber and Faber and Rodale Press published reprints, too. F. H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries and Charles Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits were both reprinted by the mid-1940s. M. C. Rayner’s Problems in Tree Nutrition educated organic farmers about mycorrhizae.

Of course, these books were only the beginning. Many of the other authors I’ve listed in this bibliography—including Ralph Borsodi, Helen and Scott Nearing, Louis Bromfield, and Friend Sykes—influenced people who had never read the early books by Howard and Pfeiffer. But all of them drew from and cited Howard as the founder of organic farming.

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