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the transition document

Posted: December 15 2009

here is a review of an important book, by a friend of ours, Harry MacCormack of Sunbow Farm

The Transition Document:Toward a Biologically Resilient Agriculture
A Book Review by Dan Armstrong
"One of these fine days the public is going to wakeup and will pay for
eggs, meat, vegetables, etc., according to how they were produced."
-J.I. Rodale., 1942.

The recently published and expanded fourth edition of The  Transition Document: Toward a Biologically Resilient Agriculture (200 pages) by Harry MacCormack is arguably his most important work in a long and winding career of  poetry, politics, farming, writing, and spiritual discovery. Originally published in  1988, this edition of the book is the result of a major rewriting by MacCormack and includes a  considerable amount of new material and insights gathered in the 15 years since  the third edition. Along with fundamental discussions of soil biology, farming  practices, nutrition, and much of what he teaches in his workshops at Sunbow Farm, MacCormack  narrates The Transition Document like a progressive journal, commenting as he goes  along about how various ideas expressed in earlier editions of the book have changed,  developed, or proven out -- making this work absolutely critical to understanding the  steady evolution of organic practices. Sixty-seven years after J.I. Rodale wrote the  quote above, it is safe to say the awakening is upon us.
Harry MacCormack came to Oregon in the late 1960's. In 1972, he bought Sunbow Farm outside Corvallis and entered into the adventure of  raising a family on a homestead farm. As a back-to-the-land farmer and natural-born activist, he immediately focused his efforts on getting the chemicals out of farming, and in  1984 became a central player in the creation of Oregon Tilth, one of the nation's first  organic farming advocacy organizations. MacCormack became Tilth's executive director in 1989  and later was the director of research during a time when the Willamette Valley was the proving ground for leading edge organic practices. And this, in a sense, is the tale  within the tale that is new to the fourth edition of The Transition Document. While primarily a  handbook on organic farming, MacCormack's narrative provides an intimate view of the  organic movement at ground level -- in the soil labs, brewing compost tea, helping put together the guidelines for the Federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, and doing the  fundamental work of transitioning farming practices from conventional to organic.
This is where book's title The Transition Document comes from. As MacCormack writes in the introduction, "When we first conceived of transition  the direction was clear. We were speaking of a move from conventional or chemically-based  agriculture to organic or biologically-based agriculture. We were challenging the  slogan that guided post WWII society throughout the 50s and 60s: Better living through chemistry. What was termed conventional agriculture was understood to be an  aberration, a deviation from customary, prescribed, or natural condition.” This book is about the  long and difficult process of reversing sixty years of chemical farming and  transitioning not only tainted land, but also long imbued ideas and practices as basic to farming as  the moldboard plow.
The Transition Document begins by detailing the motivation for the transition. What does it really mean to have a chemically-based agricultural  system? What is the long-term impact of two generations of Americans being raised on  products tainted with DDT or chlordane? Chapter two describes the process of transitioning  the land. This includes chemistry lessons and anecdotal stories about how long the  chemical residues are in the soil and how they can be absorbed and concentrated into  the things grown in it. Chapter three talks about the agricultural practices that can  facilitate the transition. Chapter by chapter, piece by piece, MacCormack thoroughly discusses  tilling techniques, crop rotations, green manures, weed management, and the soil itself— focusing on the biology of the soil, the "herd,” as he refers to it, of microscopic living things— microorganisms, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes—that form  the soil foodweb and are so critical to mineral absorption by the plant, the health of  the plant, and nutritional value of what it produces.
This last piece is an important new theme in the book. Increased awareness for microbial populations and the soil foodweb represents a key advance  in the philosophy of organic farming during the last fifteen years and is emphasized by  MacCormack, not only throughout the book, but also by his change in the book's subtitle.  In the three previous editions of The Transition Document, the subtitle was "toward an  environmentally sound agriculture.” The new subtitle, "toward a biologically resilient agriculture,” reflects this elemental philosophy change, and as MacCormack puts it, encapsulates  "where we were” twenty years ago, and "where we are” now.
The book includes a chapter on genetics, genetic engineering, and  what it means to be patenting living systems. There is a view of organic farming  through the lens of modern physics, quantum mechanics, quantum waves, the biodynamic  resonance of all living things, and the deeper meaning of life itself. No clump of  clay is left unturned. This is as much a spiritual discourse as it is a handbook of  practical applications. One chapter is devoted to the value of using compost and compost tea. Another delves our diet, the minerals and amino acids that are critical to optimizing  nutrition and our health.
The book's final chapter, "Toward a Local Agricultural at the End  of the Petroleum Age,” appraises the impact of peaking oil production on agriculture and outlines a vision for our future—what will the rebuilt food system  look like once the transition has been completed and how it will contribute to food  security and healthier living in an age beyond cheap petroleum fuels and inputs.
In many ways, the expanded fourth edition of The Transition  Document is a compendium of modern organic practices. With an assortment of tables and charts, articles and drawings compiled over twenty years, MacCormack describes the work of soil scientists like Alan Kapuler, Elaine Ingam, Diana Tracy, Arden  Anderson and many others who have influenced his ideas and fueled the evolution of  organic agricultural science through the last twenty-one years.
No matter what one's level of understanding, MacCormack's "The Transition Document" is a must read for anyone involved in or interested in  organic farming or anyone who simply wants to know what they are eating. This is an  important book by a long-time contributor to what might be the most crucial work of our  time -- the transition from better living through chemistry to better living through natural  processes.

To look at the table of contents and/or to purchase go to This book is available as an encrypted pdf for $19.95 or hard copy for $29.95.

Cheri Clark and Harry MacCormack
Sunbow Farm- Certified Organic since 1984
Institute of BioWisdom-Workshops/Consulting