Earl Shell’s Eight Acre Plan

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A plan for small, organic farming.

As you’ll probably recall, MOTHER NO. 14 carried a report on The Eight Acre Plan… a dynamic new growing and marketing concept that could well put the small family farm back on the map in the United States. The plan’s central idea is that any farmer (even one going under trying to raise row crops on a section or more of land) can thrive growing limited quantities of strawberries, apples and other truck produce on less than 10 acres.

The Eight Acre Plan–and the co-op marketing operation behind it that really makes the idea work–has already been tried and proven in 60 countries of southeastern Missouri, northeastern Oklahoma and northwestern Arkansas by a self-help corporation called Farm Products Management, Inc.

FPM was founded three years ago in Coffeyville, Kansas largely through the efforts of Earl Shell. Earl is a retired horticulturalist who’s long been impressed by the folly of the whole high-pressure, high capital investment, high-risk and low return agribusiness way of farming that big business, big labor and big government have foisted upon this country. He says–and has now proved–that “A family that plants only as much of certain fruits and vegetables as two people can easily care for will realize a larger return on a much smaller investment than the same family can ever expect to receive playing the agribusiness game.”

As of right now, 130 farmer-growers in the depresses Ozarks have joined FPM and have learned or are learning that Earl’s ideas are sound. A few already credit Shell’s growing and marketing plan with saving their farms.

Almost single-handedly then (compared to the monstrous Department of Agriculture programs that only seem to drive little people off the land), Earl Shell has proven that the small family farm can indeed survive–and prosper–today. But is this the beginning of that “best of all possible worlds” that so many of MOTHER’S readers seem to be looking for: is this the start of a trend to small family farms on which all produce is “organically” grown?

Earl, who was preaching natural farming years before it became stylish, might sometimes like to think so… but he certainly can’t guarantee it at this point. “There are some things we must recognize if we intend to make a living raising horticultural crops”, he says.

“First there are four major kinds of chemical sprays: herbicides, fungicides insecticides, and so-called man-made fertilizers. We have to admit that large horticultural operations are necessarily a good idea in the first place. The smaller the grower, the less he needs such chemicals.

“For many years I’ve been preaching that small operators need no herbicides at all. Such sprays take certain amount of vitality out of growing plants are no substitute for a hoe. Hoes not only destroy the weeds they convert into organic fertilizer… they also pulverize the soil and make it receptive to the rains that feed it. Manure and rotting vegetation worked ino the land still beat any chemical combination ever devised to feed growing plants. That takes care of both herbicides and fertilizer.

“If a veterinarian or an M.D. tells me my dog, my horse or my child needs an antibiotic to cure and ailment… I see that they receive the antibiotic. Similarly, when a pH test shows my soil to be too acid to grow tomatoes, I add lime. If another plot of land has too high a pH factor to satisfy my blueberry crop, I’ll add sulfur to increase the acidity of the soil. When my tomatoes suddenly develop a bad case of bacteria spot (which can ruin the whole crop within ten days), I’m sure gonna spray those vines with fixed copper… the only medicine that will save tomatoes from that particular ailment. In other words, I’m not a Christian Scientist regarding the health of my family or myself or my animals… and I’m not a Christian Scientist regarding the plants I grow.

“As for insecticides… well, our research department are woefully late in finding substitutes for chemical pest controls. I’m sure, however, that the horticultural schools in every one of our 50 states will agree that it is currently impossible to raise wormless peaches or apples and many other fruits without some kind of spray program for insects. That is absolutely no justification, though for indiscriminately applying–on a regular schedule–dangerous amounts of poisonous chemicals that persist in measurable amounts for four to 30 days.

“I suggest that a more reasonable approach might be to spray fruit trees only when necessary, only with the least toxic and volatile insect spray (with a life of no more than 24 hours whenever possible), only after the blossoms have fallen and only late in the evening so that the least possible damage will be done to birds and bees. And as long as we’re forced to use even one chemical control for harmful insects, we should maintain a maximum effort to develop completely natural ways to hold such pests in hand.

“In other words, we are operating–and shall continue to operate–The Eight Acre Plan ‘organically’ just as far as common sense will allow us to be organic farmers.

“At the moment, we are primarily concerned with developing a growing and marketing concept that will allow the small family farm to both survive and thrive. Although our members are largely ‘organic’ farming minded, they are not wealthy. They cannot afford the luxury of taking a strictly purist approach on natural farming at this time… however much many of them might like to.”

Taking the long view, the short view and a squint over our shoulder… we’d say that Earl Shell and the members of his Eight Acre Plan–completely natural or not–owe an apology to no one. they’ve already made a dramatic contribution to both the “back-to-the-land” and the “stay-on-the-land” movements and given us all a solid foundation on which to build the completely natural world that many of us dream about. So let’s start building!