A.P. Thomson has successfully operated his organic apple orchard for 30 years.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
You don't find many pioneers like A. P. Thomson
anymore: He's a man who—more than 30 years
ago—had the courage and foresight to buck the trend
and put his maverick beliefs into practice despite the suspicion and skepticism of folks who just
couldn't understand his vision for organic food production in general and an organic apples in particular.
A.P., you see, is an apple grower (just as his
grandfather was) ... but unlike most modern
commercial orchardists, this Virginian has never used
a single "agribiz" chemical on his 35-acre farm in the
rolling countryside of the Shenandoah Valley. Every year,
Thomson's Golden Acres Orchard produces seven different
varieties of organically grown apples... in addition to
unfiltered apple juice and apple cider vinegar.
The pure products are sold—mostly by mail
order—to customers all over the United States,
including doctors, health food stores, co-ops, people who
are allergic to common agricultural chemicals, and hundreds
of individuals who simply prefer the fresh, untainted taste
of A.P.'s fruit.
After years of research and experimentation, Thomson
has developed a system—consisting of a number of
environmentally safe treatments and methods—to maintain
his orchard's soil fertility, grow hardy trees, repel
insects and disease, and produce delicious apples
(a fruit which is traditionally among the most difficult
crops to grow without pesticide sprays).
Furthermore, A.P. is eager to pass on his
vision, and to spread the word about wholistic farming to
anyone who'll listen. He founded—in December of
1979—an organization called Friends of the Farm.
Headed by Thomson and Illinois agriculturist Robert Rowe,
FOF has already opened several demonstration sites across
the country, giving people opportunities to learn the
techniques of organic food production from actual working
operations (such as A.P.'s orchard).
Last autumn, MOTHER EARTH NEWS sent horticulturist Larry Hollar
and writer Jeanne Malmgren to the Old Dominion state to
visit A.P. at his Front Royal home. There, the amiable
Virginian took our staffers on an extensive tour of his
orchard, cold storage warehouse, apple packing facility,
and experimental intensive garden. Afterward, Larry and
Jeanne spent several hours talking with Thomson in his
gracious, turn-of-the-century house, where they learned
more about the orchard-keeper's past and present work and about his hopes for the future. The following
transcript—which was edited from that
conversation—presents a portrait of the man as
an agricultural researcher, a humanist, and a lifelong
"natural" farmer. We h ope you'll enjoy meeting A.
PLOWBOY: Mr. Thomson, evidence of your
devotion to the cause of organic growing is everywhere on
this farm: in the acres of healthy, unsprayed trees ...
in the storage warehouse full of fragrant, wholesome fruit
... even in the 100-square-foot intensive vegetable plot
in the back yard. Can you tell us a little about the events
that led to your establishing an organic apple orchard?
THOMSON: It was a long road that brought me here. Believe
it or not, when I was young I wanted to be a doctor. In
fact, I majored in chemistry at Washington and Lee
University, and even won an academic scholarship to Harvard
Medical School. But—since we were right in the middle
of the Depression then—my daddy, who was a farmer,
couldn't get up the money for my room and board. So I went
to Washington instead and found a job at the Bureau of the
Mint, where I worked as a chemist until World War II
During that conflict, I joined the Navy and spent a couple
of years at Pearl Harbor. While I was there, I often spent
my free time leafing through books in the PX ... and
that's how I stumbled onto Louis Bromfield's farming
classic, Pleasant Valley.
Well sir, that little book really lit a spark in me. After
reading it, I understood why my father's fields
had eroded so badly and why our family's farm had
suffered from low productivity for years. Since I already
had an interest in nature and a strong desire to go back to
the farm, I began to study agriculture in earnest ... and
I followed up all the references in Bromfield's book.
First, I wrote to Sir Albert Howard—who, as you know,
is considered the founder of organic gardening—in
England, and that initial contact led to a long
correspondence. I also got in touch with Lady Eve Balfour,
the first president of Great Britain's Soil Association,
and met her when she came to this country. Then I went to
Pennsylvania to visit J. I. Rodale—the founder of
Organic Gardening and Farming magazine—and
see his experiments.
Remember, at that time the concept of organic or natural
horticulture was still "new," so I was very fortunate
to meet and learn from the real pioneers in the field. And,
as I became more knowledgeable, my interest grew and grew until I finally decided, "Well, by George, I'm going to
go back home and help my family make a living out of the
old place." The idea of starting an apple orchard had long
been on my mind ... I guess because my granddaddy was an
orchardist. But when I returned to the family farmstead, I
found that it wasn't exactly an ideal place to
raise fruit trees. The soil was so poor my father couldn't
even grow enough corn to feed our one old cow, and
there were washed-out gullies you could hide a house in!
So I had a real challenge facing me. I knew, first of all,
that I'd have to revive that soil somehow. The top priority
was to level the land enough so that I could at least get a
tractor across it. With that accomplished, the
next step was to work organic matter and nitrogen back into
the earth. The most logical way to do that, I
figured, was to plant a legume crop. After doing a little
research, I decided on sweet clover, for several reasons:
The seed was inexpensive, I knew the plants would grow in
our terrible soil, and I felt sure their root systems would
help prevent erosion. I sowed some bromegrass, too, and
that turned out to be a real mistake. It spread so fast
that it actually became a pest. In fact, that brome is only
now—after all these years—being choked out by
our area's native bluegrass!
During the first year of work in the orchard, we simply
mowed the sweet clover when it came up. Then, the following
summer, we worked it back into the soil at about the time
it bloomed, when its nitrogen content was highest. Next, we
planted cowpeas, and disked them under in the
fall. And, during the third autumn, we set out our first
apple trees. They were then interplanted with soybeans for
another three years, in order to insure a good ground
cover. Each fall, we would disk the leguminous crops into
the soil, giving the earth abundant organic matter and a
good supply of nitrogen.
Once the trees were well established, we let the brome and
the bluegrass grow up again and planted all
sorts of legumes as well, including alsike, sweet
clover, lespedeza, and alfalfa. The goal of such
interplanting—a method that I learned from Sir Albert
Howard—is to create the diversity that nature loves.
Instead of setting up an artificial monoculture, we let
many different kinds of grasses and clovers grow right in
among the trees ... and we've never had to replace those
Another task that was necessary, early in the game, was to
"sweeten" the earth a little, since the soil of this region
has a low pH. To reduce the acidity, we spread a lot of
ground limestone ... but we overdid it at first. We
applied almost ten tons per acre over the course of one
year, and the young York apple trees—which were just
beginning to fruit—responded by producing a lot of
"corking" ... that's a tough, corklike texture in the
apples. I soon realized that the condition was the result
of a boron deficiency, which we'd unintentionally created
by adding too much limestone to the soil.
Well, we tried to compensate for our error by working borax
into the earth, but it took the orchard years to fully
overcome the paralyzing effect of the single overdose of
limestone. That fact, I think, serves to emphasize the
importance of going into any farming venture with at least
some knowledge of soil chemistry. Of course, you're bound
to make mistakes when you start out—I did, in spite
of my master's degree in chemistry—simply because
learning a subject from a textbook is quite a different
thing from actually doing it. Still, you ought to have at
least a little understanding of what you're about before
you start messing with the earth.
PLOWBOY: Can you tell us about the
specific biological techniques you've worked out for your
orchard? What do you use instead of the conventional sprays
THOMSON: We first treated the land with a
biodynamic field spray developed by Dr. Ehrenfried
Pfeiffer, the renowned biochemist and biodynamic pioneer.
That preparation was applied when we were mowing the heavy
mass of grass that used to cover the area, in order to
provide bacteria to break down the greenery. Later, I
became interested in trace elements and their effects on
the soil, so I bought a fish emulsion to "beef up" the
soil's content of those important nutrients.
From such early experiments, we went on to use a
concentrated seaweed extract. We started with "Sea-born"
brand and then switched to "Maxicrop," a
Norwegian-made concentrate that we've been quite satisfied
with. The seaweed is harvested in Scandinavia and sent to
Great Britain, where it's processed by sun-drying. I
believe that such natural dehydration is best, because the
enzymes aren't lost as they can be in the high-heat drying
procedures so often used in this country. I also avoid the
American-made kelp concentrates, simply because there's too
much water pollution along our shores. To my mind, Maxicrop
is the best.
PLOWBOY: What are the benefits of a
concentrated seaweed spray?
THOMSON: As I see it, there are several
good reasons a grower would want to use seaweed on his or
her orchard or other crops. For one thing, the marine
fertilizer generally makes a plant healthier and better
able to resist insect attack. A seaweed spray, you see,
helps a tree—or any plant—absorb trace elements
from the soil ... and those elements, in turn, assist in
the development of biotoxins, which are substances in the
leaf that act as natural insect repellents. We've never had
a problem with mites or aphids on our trees, and such pests
often cause major problems in other orchards. Seaweed also
causes a change in the configuration of leaf cells, which
helps the plant withstand temperatures as much as three
degrees lower than it normally could.
On the other hand, it's important not to overdo
the application of concentrated seaweed, because the
substance has a growth regulator in it ... and too heavy
a dose will stunt your trees' fruit. One year we had a lot
of smog here, and—since seaweed is said to be a
biological antidote for air pollution—I doubled our
usual application of Maxicrop ... only to end up with a
lot of healthy, but marble-sized, apples on the
PLOWBOY: What do you consider the optimum
dosage, then, of seaweed spray?
THOMSON: We use a mixture of two ounces of
the powdered concentrate to 100 gallons of water. There is
a liquid form of the substance available, but it contains
formaldehyde to prevent fermentation, so I prefer to use
the powder. We try to get the mixture on the trees once
every ten days—and no less than once every 15
days—from spring right up to harvest time. It's
especially important to apply it early in the growing
season—when the green first shows in the
buds—since the plant's absorption rate is highest at
that point in its development. The average gardener would
need to use only one tablespoon of the powder in one gallon
of water, and could spray it on his or her crops with
one of the little knapsack-type misters available in garden
stores and through catalogs.
We also apply a combination of the seaweed and the
biodynamic field spray in the fall, just before the leaves
drop. To make the preparation, we first mix five gallons of
water with six to eight ounces—about a level
teacup—of seaweed extract and a one-acre unit of
biodynamic field spray. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Pfeiffer's
product, which is sold under the brand name "B.D. Field
Spray", can be ordered from the Pfeiffer Foundation. New York state
residents should add their local sales tax.]
This liquid is left alone for two or three days ...
during that time it should be stored in an area where the
temperature won't drop below 65°F, so that the
foliage-decomposing organisms can grow. At the end of this
inoculation period—which shouldn't be longer than
three days, or you'll get too much fermentation—the
five-gallon batch of concentrate is diluted with 400
gallons of water, producing enough liquid for my whole
orchard. By the way, I prefer applying the spray with a
blower that can reach the underside of the leaf,
where all the liquid-absorbing stomata are concentrated.
This autumn spraying causes the foliage to begin bacterial
decomposition as soon as it falls to the ground. By
Christmas, the brittle leaves have crumbled, and are then
more readily devoured by earthworms and other organisms in
PLOWBOY: What role do worms play in your
organic orchard management program?
THOMSON: I first learned about the wonderful qualities of
these creatures in Thomas J. Barrett's book Harnessing
the Earthworm. From what I read there, and from my own
experience, I've concluded that the worm is one of the most
important components of an organic apple orchard ecosystem.
Burrowing vertically through the ground, the little
scavengers aerate the soil and bring trace elements up to
the surface. They eat organic material such as grass,
rotten apples, and decomposing leaves, run it through
their alimentary canals, and then excrete a highly
homogenized manure. All in all, I think the earthworm is
one of the three most important factors in any
natural garden. The others are the nutrient-supplying rock
substances in the soil, and the organic matter that's added
to make such nutrients more available.
The intensive propagation and use of earthworms is also a
tremendous tool in ridding the orchard of such diseases as
scab, which can be "carried"—from one season to
another—by fallen leaves. The worms completely ingest
the decomposing foliage and remove the danger of
reinfection. In addition, they open up the soil and help
assure proper circulation of water and air, thus allowing
for proper moisture runoff and the oxidation
necessary for organic decomposition.
At any rate, we propagated our initial supply of breeder
worms in a 24-inch compost bed. At regular two-week
intervals we "harvested" the top six inches of
soil—which contained the worms' egg cases—from
the bed. Then we spread that earth around the trees until
we'd covered the whole orchard, "assigning" approximately
8,000 worms to every individual tree. The crawlers hatched
out of the egg cases, began their beneficial work, and have
been at it ever since. And what work they do! One million
earthworms weigh one thousand pounds, and since the little
organisms eat and excrete about twice their weight daily in
order to survive, you can figure that a million earthworms
will translocate and enrich one ton of earth a day!
PLOWBOY: Is there any one species of worm
that's best to use in an orchard or garden?
THOMSON: Dr. Barrett's book says that
there are some two thousand species, I think, but he
developed one strain that's more adaptable to
varying environmental conditions than are "wild" worms.
That variety is called the red wiggler, and it's really the
best. Wigglers reproduce faster and are less susceptible to
drying out than most species. You can find the "new" worms
advertised in most farm and gardening magazines.
PLOWBOY: Without using pesticides, how do
you keep rodents and insects out of your orchard?
THOMSON: We actually use a combination of
several techniques to control rodents ...
creatures which—by the way—represent our
biggest pest problem. Now here in Virginia we have two
kinds of mice: the pine mouse and the common meadow mouse.
The pine mouse is particularly dangerous to apple trees
because it does all its damage underground, so the
orchard keeper can't know anything's wrong until a couple
of years after the harm's been done ... when the
tree suddenly dies! This mouse—which looks like a
mole—has a very short tail, is almost blind, and
lives in underground burrows. By instinct, it builds its
nest right beneath the taproot of the tree and then
tunnels along the main support roots during the winter.
The common field mouse, on the other hand, lives primarily
aboveground, in little nests it builds under
clumps of grass. This particular animal likes to munch on
the nutrient-containing cambium layer under the tree's
To deal with both pests, we first mow all around the base
of each tree to expose the field mouse nests ... which
the mice will then abandon. The suction of the mower blade
also picks up the grass and blows it out to the dripline of
the tree, leaving an open area that's unsuitable for
creating new nests. Mowing around the trees helps
to chop up any apples that may have fallen to the ground,
too ... thus making them decompose more rapidly.
Next, carefully, we put a teaspoonful of bait
containing a biodegradable poison—which we get from
the Fish and Wildlife Service of Amherst College—into
the opening of each of the little breather holes, also
uncovered by the mowing, that the pine mice dig. This toxin
is a zinc phosphide preparation that will kill the rodents
quickly. Now some people have criticized me for using the
poison, but it breaks down very speedily into its elemental
metals of zinc and phosphorus, both of which are beneficial
plant foods. Until we find another control method, it's
just something we have to do if we're going to
produce any fruit ... and I'm extremely careful to use it
in such a way that it doesn't harm any other wildlife.
The mowing and poisoning usually need to be done only once
a year—right after the apples are
harvested—but it may be necessary to go back
over the orchard a second time, in February, if new rodents
have invaded the area.
To discourage other burrowing mammals—such
as groundhogs and rabbits—we simply use a heavy
gravel mulch. At the time we plant each tree, we spread
about one bushel—between 50 and 100 pounds—of
crushed rock around its base. I like to use a gravel called
Virginia Highway No. 5, a variety that isn't overly
expensive and is easy to shovel. We layer the stone mulch
about three or four inches deep, and extend the covering 12
to 18 inches out from the trunk of the tree. The gravel not
only discourages animals, but helps anchor the sapling and
keeps down weeds and other grasses. We also protect the
young tree trunks by wrapping them with flexible metal
guards. The zinc-coated "sleeves"—which are actually
cut from the radiator grills of Mack trucks—are left
in place until the tree reaches a height of five feet or
As for insects, our basic means of
defense is simply to grow hardy trees—using such
methods as the seaweed spray mentioned before—that
are highly pest-resistant. However, I've been experimenting
with a fascinating device I read about in Dr. Phillip
Callahan's book Tuning In to Nature. The entomologist found that insect antennae contain extremely
sensitive cells that are attracted by light waves across
the entire spectrum. Following Dr. Callahan's model, I
positioned a small galvanized tub—with oil in
it—under two 15-watt bulbs ... one incandescent and
one fluorescent, for maximum attraction. The bugs follow
their genetic impulses right to the lights, and then drown
in the oil. I set up my first insect-catcher at the edge of
our vegetable plot, and it caught codling moths by the
hundreds last summer! So I plan to put several of the
devices in the orchard next year.
PLOWBOY: How do all your organic
techniques affect the production capacity of the trees?
Does your farm's yield compare well to that of a chemically
THOMSON: Our production has averaged, over
the years, about 500 bushels per acre, and that figure
takes some normal frost damage into consideration. We have
grown—when the orchard was a bit younger and at its
peak of productivity—up to 26,000 bushels, or almost
750 bushels an acre! Last year we came out with 14,000
bushels ... and the year before that, we had 15,000. But
this year we lost a lot of the crop to a severe hailstorm
in June, and produced only 4,000 bushels.
That natural disaster, of course, would have hurt a
commercial grower just as much as it affected us, but
the "chemical" orchards can stay ahead of us by using
acidulated fertilizers and hydrogenous compounds. Such
chemicals enable an orchardist almost to double the size of
the fruit and the yield of his or her acreage if the land has sufficient water to support the
"unnatural" growth. At present, I harvest an average of
15—and a peak of 23—bushels per tree ... while the commercial growers produce an average of 20
bushels per tree. I think that our type of operation is
more efficient in the long run, though, since it's less
energy-intensive and not dependent upon expensive
Our 35 acres are planted at a spacing of 38 X 40 feet,
which gives us 33 full-sized trees per acre. Some apple
growers are now going to dwarf varieties, which can be
planted 120 to 125 per acre. Such intensive planting, along
with good climatic conditions, has the potential to allow
an orchardist to raise two—maybe even
three——times as many apples as is possible with
PLOWBOY : Do you have any plans to convert
your orchard to dwarf trees?
THOMSON: Yes, we're gradually going over
to semidwarfs. They're about half the size of our present
stock, so we'll eventually have twice as many trees as
we do now. We're starting the process by replacing the
Yorks with new semistandard Winesaps, which are planted
between the existing trees. This makes a rather
tight arrangement right now. However, we'll achieve correct
semidwarf spacing—which will allow the trees to
gather sufficient sunlight—as the old stock is
removed and replaced ... at a rate of about 100 trees a
year, according to our master plan. The new varieties are
on rootstocks that were developed in England ... mostly
MM 111, MM 106, and EM 26. [EDITOR'S NOTE: These
designations refer to grafted rootstock developed at the
British research stations of Malling Merton and East
PLOWBOY: Why do the old trees need to be
removed? Do they stop producing fruit altogether?
THOMSON: Well, an apple tree does have a
finite productive life span, beyond which its fruits just
keep getting smaller and scarcer. My theory is that the
tree has a sort of self-destruct mechanism in it, set to go
off after about 30 years. Once it reaches its peak of
productivity—and the older trees in my orchard have
long since done so—it starts going downhill. You can
give it a shot of adrenalin, in effect, by removing some
branches ... and the tree might produce better for a
while. But it's really on its way out.
PLOWBOY: Mr. Thomson, have any tests been
performed on your apples to verify their purity and
THOMSON: When we first started raising
organically grown fruit, some people just couldn't believe
that the apples hadn't been sprayed with chemical poisons ... and there were individuals who claimed that
any fruit so well-formed and good-tasting must have
been treated with the regular pesticides. So, to counteract
the rumors, we had the state's Department of Agriculture do
a test on our apples ... and we came out totally in the
clear on the seven different chemicals that the examination
was geared to find.
Our apples also underwent a laboratory analysis by Dr.
Pfeiffer. That particular test involved the use of a
chromatograph, which separates a compound into its
individual elements. Well, Dr. Pfeiffer couldn't believe
the results of his own test. He said, "There must be
something wrong with my equipment. The apples just
couldn't be that high in biological purity. Let's try them
again next year, and see what happens." But the second
year's results corroborated those of the first year! And
Dr. Pfeiffer concluded, "Your apples have the highest
rating of any I've ever tested."
Later, Dr. T.L. Senn of Clemson University conducted an
analysis of our apples' trace element
content—measuring such beneficial minerals as
phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper,
manganese, iron, and sodium—and he recorded that our
fruit had almost three times the amounts usually
found in commercially grown apples.
PLOWBOY: What about your not
-so-perfect apples, the culls that don't quite live up to
Golden Acres' high standards? What do you do with them?
THOMSON: There are always certain portions
of the harvest that—for one reason or
another—don't pass our inspection, although they
would qualify as USDA "commercial" grade. We use the
seconds to make juice and vinegar. By processing our
cull-grade apples into other salable products of high
quality, we're able to keep down the price of our
first rate fruit!
Golden Acres unfiltered apple juice is turned out by a
stainless steel German press I bought 15 years ago. In one
30-minute run, that machine can produce 80 gallons of juice
from 1,000 pounds of groundup apples. We've reached the
point now where we can easily run 3,000 gallons a day,
but we usually stop at about 1,000 gallons daily. The
leftover pulp, of course, is turned into garden compost.
Our apple cider vinegar is made by a unique process that
allows the liquid to ferment slowly over a long period of
time. Unlike most commercial operations—which use
40-foot towers, large blowers, and heat exchangers to
compress the entire fermentation/oxidation process into one
week—we let our juice ferment for at least a year,
during which time it's never exposed to any significant
changes in temperature. In fact, the temperature difference
between the liquid in the barrel and the outside air is
rarely more than three degrees, which means that none
of the aromatic substances that give vinegar its quality
and bouquet are lost in the process of fermentation. After
the oxidation is complete, we bottle the unpasteurized
elixir and ship it out to our customers.
PLOWBOY: How do you market your products?
THOMSON: We cater mostly to folks who are
truly interested in natural and organically grown foods.
Instead of trying to sell to large supermarkets, we
concentrate on the smaller concerns, such as independently
owned health food stores and buyers' coops. Such markets
are proliferating all over the country, too ... and the
wholistic farmer has got to take advantage of them. There's
a co-op in Norfolk, Virginia, for instance, that takes
three or four thousand gallons of our juice a year
... it's just a group of about 100 people who get
together and buy in bulk.
We sell 95% of our produce by mail order, to some 1,000
customers. Now they don't all order every year, it's true,
but most of them are very loyal. I'd estimate that about
100 of those men and women seek us out because they're so
allergic to pesticides they can't eat ordinary
apples. We ship our products to just about every state except California, and that's only because the local
government there won't let us send in apples unless they're
fumigated. Beginning immediately after harvest, the fruit
is shipped out weekly to people with prepaid orders. The
surplus is stored at 40°F in our controlled atmosphere
storage warehouse, and is used to fill any new orders until
December 1st. Our final shipping date is December 15th. We
sell apples by the bushel or the peck, juice in gallon
jugs, and vinegar in quarts and gallons.
PLOWBOY: Are you aware of many other
growers who are producing organically raised food for
THOMSON: Oh, sure. We have eight or nine
people in this area alone who are raising "untreated"
vegetables and fruits. There's a lady nearby who has three
acres of organic strawberries ... and a young man down in
Lexington, Virginia is just starting up a 35-acre wholistic
apple orchard, like this one. These people—and a
number of other like-minded folks—got together four
years ago to form the Virginia Association of Biological
Farmers, of which I'm a member. The group consists of men
and women who grow natural crops on a large scale, other
people who have small organic gardens, and representatives
of co-ops. We even have a committee that contacts markets,
and then lets the members know where there might be a
demand for their particular products. It's really a
wonderful working organization, because we all try to help
each other in every way that we can.
PLOWBOY: Is there anything comparable to
this on the national level?
THOMSON: Well, the situation is in a state
of flux right now, but I can see tremendous growth ahead
for similar national organizations. I'm currently involved
in the development of Friends of the Farm, which is an
offshoot of an earlier group called Natural Foods
Associates. For many years, the NFA—through
conventions and lectures—worked to show the link
between human metabolic diseases and the inferior quality
of the chemically produced foods people eat.
Eventually, the group became rather top-heavy with doctors.
Of the 33 people on the board of directors, only two were
practicing farmers, and the emphasis came to be more and
more on the medical aspects of nutrition. We were telling
folks they ought to eat fruits and vegetables grown without
poisons, but we weren't teaching them how to
produce that sort of food!
So some of us in the organization proposed setting up
demonstration gardens at the NFA headquarters in Atlanta,
Texas where we could instruct people in the basics of
Unfortunately, the other members of the 'board wouldn't
hear of it, as they felt that the plan would cost too much
money. Not only did they veto our suggestion, they
even closed down the single small demonstration farm they
did have! So Bob Rowe and I "broke ranks" and started our
own organization. Friends of the Farm was chartered in
Dalton City, Illinois in December 1979 for the
purpose of spreading knowledge and instructing people in
the techniques of growing food without chemicals. We now
have about 25 practicing organic farms in the United
States—mostly in the Midwest—which are all open
to the public. We plan to form chapters in every state
eventually, so that people can get together and exchange
ideas and know-how.
Friends of the Farm would also like to set up some
sort of information bank, using a computer to store
agricultural information. Any organic grower who had a
question could call the computer on a special WATS line and
get an answer. Let's say, for example, that you live down
in Hendersonville, North Carolina and have a problem with
peach leaf curl, but all the agricultural "experts" in
your area recommend only various chemical pesticides.
Instead of following their advice, you could call Friends
of the Farm and say, "I'm having trouble with peach leaf
curl. How should I treat it?" And the computer would tell
you, "Well, you do this and this, and here are your
references." What a wonderful tool it could be!
PLOWBOY: Besides drawing on the collective
experience of local and national organizations such as FOF,
what else can a beginning farmer do to learn the basics of
growing foods naturally? Do you have any words of wisdom
for—specifically—the organic fruit grower who's
just getting started?
THOMSON: I would recommend that the
aspiring farmer first contact an available expert in the
field ... someone like Dr. Peter Escher, who studied with
Dr. Pfeiffer at the Threefold Farm in New York. This
"authority" should be brought in to evaluate the
orchardist's whole setup—the location, the soil type, the
drainage, and the climate—and make some
recommendations for soil preparation, tree spacing, and so
Next, the fledgling orchard-keeper should attend
conferences and meetings of groups like Friends of the Farm
and the National Health Federation ... not only to pick
up practical tips, but to make him- or herself known in
Beyond mastering the technical details of growing
organic produce, the orchardist has got to make every
effort to become familiar with the market ...
which, as I mentioned, today consists mainly of health food
stores and co-op groups. But you have to make yourself and
your product known , because only when you inspire
people's confidence will your business thrive. It's
necessary to get out and talk to folks, to explain
the dangers of chemically treated produce, and to tell them
how you grow things. We need the sort of personal rapport
between food producers and consumers that we used
to have and that now exists in China, where the person
in the city knows who grew the food he or she is eating,
and considers their relationship to be an important one.
After you've gotten started, you also have to find a market
for as much of your produce as possible, whether
it's of top quality in appearance or not. If you're going
to keep the price of your first-grade fruits or vegetables
at a realistic level, you have to find a use for
the culls. A young business, you see, simply can't afford
the cost of throwing out a large part of the harvest every
PLOWBOY: Why is it so important to you to
get other people involved in chemical-free farming?
THOMSON: Well, I think that we're now
living in a period when North American agricultural
technology has gone wild and has no central direction.
We're traveling on a collision course with catastrophe,
thanks to our heavy use of herbicides and other toxic
chemicals. I've heard it said that there are only three
years of production left in the Great Plains—that
once fertile breadbasket—simply because chemicals
have burned away the topsoil.
We've been, in effect, drawing on our bank
account—taking out of the soil without putting
anything of value back in—for years, and it's
beginning to catch up with us now. Agribusiness has become
a real problem ... so the sooner we can teach people the
techniques involved in wholistic agriculture, the better.
Such methods could help prevent severe shortages and
starvation in the future, and might even allow us
to repair some of the damage that's been done to our
On a more personal scale, I think organic farming is
important because it gives us good nutritious food. It's
really true that we are what we eat ... and it's vital to
our survival that we consume pure, unpolluted nourishment.
I don't think the human body was intended to get sick and
break down all the time. I think it's supposed to live out
its genetic potential. And it can , if we
just take care of it and give it the right foods.
However, I don't want to be seen as a prophet of doom and
gloom. I can really envision a bright future. I
foresee small communities, with gardens on the periphery
where people can grow their own food. I see photovoltaic
cells charging the batteries for tractors and other
machinery that would be needed to cultivate those plots.
It's all possible if we can just convince enough
people of the importance of developing renewable
sources of energy and applying the principles of organic
PLOWBOY: What role do you hope to play in
bringing about the social transformation that you've
THOMSON: I want to devote the rest of my
life to furthering the cause of wholistic agriculture. I'm
71 years old now, and I've learned a lot of things in my
time. I just want to teach people what I know, and inspire
them to try new ideas themselves.
I also want to be able to tell people that, if they plan to
go into this business, they shouldn't do so just to make
money: They should also have a desire to help other folks
and to purify the environment.
The specific thing that motivates me, I guess, is a
still-growing aversion to the poisons that are commonly
used on large farms. I remember that many years ago, when I
had just come back from the service and moved out to this
farm, I bought 25 little chicks to raise. They were out on
the back porch one afternoon, and because the flies seemed
particularly bad, I sprayed the area with a can of DDT.
Folks had no idea—in those days—of the dangers
of that potent poison. Well, within 15 minutes after I had
sprayed, every one of those little chickens was on its back
with its legs quivering in a final spasm!
I simply feel that all concerned people
have to work to present the case for organic
growing to the public, because the government often
recommends agricultural chemicals for use without thoroughly assessing the
long-range effects of the substances on the human body! For
example, the USDA claimed, for along time, that Captan was
one of the safest fungicides available, and that
it had a very low L.D.—that's lethal
dosage—rating. Well, I recently read that Captan is
being taken off the market because it's been found to
belong to the thalidomide family and could be a possible
cause of birth defects!
You know, not long ago a gentleman from one of the big
chemical companies came knocking at my door and said, "I'm
Dr. So-and-so, and I'd just like to know why in the world
you go to all the trouble necessary to raise your apples
naturally when it would be so much simpler to follow
our recommendations and get just as good yields
and make just as much money." And I told him,
"Well, I want to have the comfort of knowing that if some
little child picks up one of my apples and eats it without
washing it first, he or she won't be in danger of being
We should try, though, not to be too harsh in our
dealings with those who practice chemical farming. Instead,
we ought to attempt to understand the problems that many
commercial growers have, and show them—by
example—that it is possible to be successful,
and to grow delicious and wholesome food,
without using poisons. I guess I've mellowed in my
old age. I can't condone the things that many
agribusiness farms do, but I can applaud when they
use even one less chemical. At least that's a step
in the right direction.
PLOWBOY: Do you think that enough farmers
will take enough such steps?
THOMSON: Yes, I firmly believe that our
civilization will make the necessary decisions: It has to.
I have a little theory I call Thomson's Law of Concentric
Circles, which is modeled after the wave rings a rock makes
when it's thrown into a still pond. If other stones are
thrown into the pool, more circles will develop ... and the expanding rings will begin to overlap, until
they completely cover the surface in interlocking patterns.
That's what will happen, I think, with organic farming.
More and more groups of concerned people are already
sending out circles of influence, and those initial rings
will connect with other circles, other groups ... until someday the message will cover the whole pond!
But it all begins with those first few circles reaching out
across the surface of the water ... the concerned
individual farmer working on his or her land. And that
should be everyone's first priority: to use a piece of
ground—even if it's no more than a tiny backyard
garden or an apartment window box—to grow at least
some of his or her food without using
poisonous chemicals. It isn't difficult to do so. All it requires is commitment. In fact, I think the
essence of wholistic agriculture was well-summarized by old
Confucius, who said that the best fertilizer on any farm is
the footsteps of the farmer.