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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

The First "Organic School" in the US? Ralph Borsodi's School of Living

Updated: Mar 22

Ralph Borsodi
Ralph Borsodi may have been one of the first people in the US to offer training in organic farming

One of the most difficult aspects of researching the early history of organic farming in the United States is the lack of documentary evidence from the 1940s. Most historians have focused predominately on J.I. Rodale and Organic Gardening magazine. There’s good reason for that—by 1970, Organic Gardening and Farming was unquestionably the leading source of organic information in the United States.


But that wasn’t true in the 1940s. Rodale printed the first issues of his magazine in 1942, but circulation didn’t take off until after journalist Russell Lord reviewed Rodale’s 1945 book Pay Dirt for a national publication. Before that, Rodale’s publications weren’t the main source of information for people interested in farming organically.


One of the earliest places that people could go to learn organic farming was the School of Living in Suffern, New York, established by Ralph Borsodi in 1934. Mildred Loomis records in her 1992 book Ralph Borsodi: Reshaping Modern Culture that the School of Living had three main goals: to demonstrate “the contribution which decentralized, self-sufficient living in the country may make to reduce the economic and psychological insecurities of our industrialized civilization,” “to study and develop the possibilities of the home and homestead as a productive and creative institution,” and to offer short courses in homesteading.


Beyond a general interest in health, Borsodi doesn’t seem to have thought much about agricultural methods when he first established the School of Living. His book Flight from the City devoted only a few pages to gardening methods and said nothing about soil health or fertility. But sometime in the mid- to late 1930s, Ralph Borsodi heard about biodynamic farming.


In his chapter in the 1939 book Agriculture in Modern Life, Borsodi cited Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s 1938 book Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening. “Members of the School of Living who have visited some of the hundreds of farms in all the countries of Europe using the Pfeiffer methods, have been enormously impressed by the results produced,” he wrote.


Unfortunately, Borsodi didn’t give any further details about those trips to visit biodynamic farms in Europe. What year were they? Which Americans from the School of Living went? All we know is that Borsodi knew about Pfeiffer’s work even before Pfeiffer moved to the United States in 1940. When Margaret Loomis first came to the School of Living in 1939, she reported that the library had a whole section of books on “humus, soil, or natural processes”—eventually including all the organic classics by Sir Albert Howard, Weston Price, D.T. Wrench, and Ehrenfried Pfeiffer.


Loomis also said that it was in “early 1940” that J.I. and Robert Rodale stopped by the School of Living to see the compost piles and peruse the library. Frustratingly, Rodale never mentioned this visit in his own memoirs, and so it’s hard to say whether this visit was before or after Rodale bought his own farm in Pennsylvania.


Hopefully I will eventually be able to fill in a few more pieces in this puzzle. But there’s already one thing I can say for sure—Rodale was just one of a number of people who were practicing and teaching about organic farming in the early 1940s, and he wasn’t the first.

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