2015 Leadership Award Honoree Eliot Coleman

Farmer, Author, Agricultural Researcher, and Educator

In 1973, when homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing published their seminal book, Living the Good Life, it sparked a quiet but influential revolt against American consumerism. Eliot Coleman was a member of that revolution, trading the clamor of Wall Street for a tranquil vegetable farm in coastal Maine. He was ready to get better acquainted with the land and ready for a self-reliant life.

“Organic farming meant discovery,” says Coleman. “Before I did the farming, I was an adventurer, and trekking into fields unknown in agriculture was no different than climbing an unknown mountain,” he explains. “The world was telling me that I couldn’t go without pesticides and chemicals,” he continues. “And here I was doing it every day.”

Coleman, whose résumé includes stints as a commercial market gardener, the executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, and an author and lecturer on gardening, is now an authority on innovative farming techniques, especially the ability to grow affordable, local produce year-round. A proud Maine resident, he and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, operate Four Season Farm, an experimental market garden that’s become a national benchmark for sustainable small-scale agriculture. He’s also an active member of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

“The natural world is elegantly designed and doesn’t need to be replaced by human arrogance,” Coleman insists. “Green manures, cover crops, compost-making— these are all free management techniques that just happen to fit into where that world wants to go anyway.”

“Eliot fights for the concepts he believes in, and we don’t have enough of that in a world where the policy around food and farming lags tremendously behind what the public is interested in, what the consumer is demanding, and what we require environmentally,” says Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st Congressional District. A former student of Coleman’s at the College of the Atlantic, Pingree owns a 200-acre farm on the island of North Haven and consults her former professor when she’s considering potential reforms and laws that seek to promote and protect organic farmers.

It’s tempting to view Coleman’s move to Maine 40 years ago as a harbinger for a recent, dramatic shift in the state’s agriculture industry: Maine boasts the fastest-growing community of under-35 farmers in the country. Earlier this year, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension reported a 40 percent increase within that demographic, compared with a 1.5 percent rise at the national level. “Eliot projects a lifestyle that many young people can envision for themselves,” Pingree says.

There’s no doubt that Coleman is keeping an eye on the next generation. He recently secured a Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture grant for two University of Maine engineering students, who spent the summer designing equipment for small-scale farmers. Their results will be presented at the Center’s Young Farmers Conference this December. “They have skills that I don’t have,” Coleman says. “But I can provide the inspiration.”

—Aarti Virani