Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture
By Anneliese Abbott
Kent State University Press
The Malabar Farm was the Polyface Farm of its day, and Louis Bromfield was its Joel Salatin. Current University of Wisconsin graduate student Anneliese Abbott, whose fascinating articles about sustainable agriculture have graced the pages of Wise Traditions on multiple occasions, compellingly resurrects the forgotten Malabar Farm story for the modern reader. She notes that she wrote the book “so that people can learn from what worked and what didn’t.”
A famous writer and engaging personality, Louis Bromfield purchased the Ohio farm in the 1930s, a time of crisis in American agriculture. Poor farming practices had washed away soil and depressed yields. Photographs of huge erosion gullies seared the national consciousness. Out of the belief that the nation itself was in jeopardy arose the soil conservation movement, and Louis Bromfield found himself at the cutting edge of the crusade.
The farm that Bromfield purchased was weedy, depleted and eroded; through a combination of contour tillage, new types of plows, manuring, grass farming and managed grazing, Bromfield was able to restore fertility, build topsoil and renew the land. The farm was profitable, too, especially the dairy side of the operation. Each year, thousands of visitors came to Malabar Farm from around the world to observe and learn about conservation agriculture, earning Malabar the title of “the most famous farm in the world.” Bromfield’s books on regenerative farming were best sellers.
Why don’t we hear about Malabar Farm today?
Although the soil conservation movement led to the creation of the Soil Conservation Service—as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—in 1935, agricultural history books published during the Cold War neglected to mention the movement. From the 1960s on, the USDA emphasis was on maximizing production through chemical agriculture, while the environmental movement of the 1970s focused on forests and wildlife rather than farming.
Unfortunately, the Malabar Farm story does not have a happy ending. The price of milk cratered after the Second World War, so Bromfield discontinued the dairy. He continued to raise beef, grains and produce, with a big emphasis on the fact that the produce was grown without pesticides. However, none of Bromfield’s three daughters wanted to continue his work after he died. The farm was sold to a non-profit and eventually ended up as a state park and tourist destination administered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Today, the pesticide-free produce production, the restaurant’s emphasis on farm-to-table vegetables and beef, and even the managed grazing have all been discontinued; instead, the ODNR leases the farm out for conventional corn and soy production.
In 1994, the Soil Conservation Service was renamed the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which serves as the interface between farmers and the USDA. Farmers who work with the NRCS are called “cooperators.” Although they still do good work installing dams and barriers to prevent soil erosion, the agency sniffs at the practice of managed grazing or using pigs to create silvopastures, and they never met a chemical they didn’t like.
To me, the lesson from Malabar Farm is the importance of succession planning, as Joel Salatin has emphasized so well. It’s important for a farmer to instill a love for nontoxic regenerative farming in his children from an early age and to pass on the farm to one or more offspring as an economically sustainable enterprise. In my case, since none of my children is interested in taking up the farming life, I have stipulated that the farm be sold—hopefully to someone with the same vision—and not be put into a trust or foundation. Foundation boards are notoriously conservative and usually not willing to “take the risk” of selling raw dairy products, or do the hard work of managed grazing or raising pesticide-free vegetables.
Worst of all is a situation where the state agriculture department ends up in control, for then your farm will be administered by bureaucrats who use non-dairy creamer and who have no idea why you went to such trouble to move your animals every day.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2022🖨️ Print post