It’s the time of year when mosquitos are hatching in preparation to swarm us, bite us, and make us itch. Mosquitos are and always have been not only an annoyance, but also a major health risk. Mosquitos spread diseases such as Yellow Fever, Malaria, and West Nile Virus that can result in death. Many natural products have been used to repel mosquitos with modest results such as citronella candles, smoke, and various plant extracts like eucalyptus oil. The real breakthrough in repellent, however, came from the invention of DEET.
DEET is a synthetic repellent invented by the U.S. Army for use by military personnel in insect-infected areas. Inventor Samuel Gertler of the U.S. Department of Agriculture received a patent in 1946 for using DEET as an insect repellent in the form of a cream, lotion, or powder. DEET was not registered for use by the general public until 1957.
Researchers at University of California Davis discovered that mosquitoes find the smell of DEET unappealing and consequently avoid areas that smell like DEET. Many companies have created an array of insect repellent products, including sprays, sunscreen, wipes, and sticks, containing varying concentrations of DEET. It is estimated that each year 78 million people in the US and 200 million people globally use DEET[i].
Although DEET is generally considered the best mosquito repellent on the market, it is not without concerns. Even though the EPA has determined that it is only “slightly toxic,” products containing DEET have been reported to cause rashes and there have been some cases of children becoming ill from its use[ii]. In extremely strong doses, it is capable of melting plastic and nylon.[iii] Additionally, DEET is expensive for people in places that need it most—such as Africa. The results of a 2010 study by researchers who identified some DEET-insensitive mosquitos are also of concern. They found that the gene adaptation that makes mosquitos insensitive can be passed on to the next mosquito generation.
But have hope! Inventing a more effective synthetic mosquito repellent may be on the horizon. Researchers at the University of California Riverside have identified the olfactory receptors mosquitos use to detect and dislike DEET. They have also identified three compounds in natural products that mimic DEET. The research team’s leader, Anandasankar Ray, said that the compounds they identified “are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for consumption as flavors or fragrances, and are already being used as flavoring agents in some foods. But now they can be applied to bed-nets, clothes, curtains—making them ward off insects.”[iv] “One of them is present in plum,” he says. “The other is present in orange and jasmine oil. Some of them are present in grapes. And, as you can imagine, they smell really nice.[v]”
Unfortunately, the commercial development and production of such DEET-mimicking repellents are still several years away. So it seems that the only comfort from mosquitoes I’ll receive this summer will come from the belief that the invention of an inexpensive, natural, and fully effective mosquito repellant will exist during my lifetime.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries trade cards were commonly used to announce and advertise a company’s product or service. The cards, typically 2” x 4” or 3” x 5” in size were printed with images and other useful information about a specific item or service. Trade cards with enticing images lured in potential customers. Information about the product or service was printed on the back of the card. Many of the cards were chromolithographed, a popular printing process which used multiple lithographic stones. In this example from the Skandia Plow Company of Rockford, Illinois, an anthropomorphic apple wearing slippers was printed in bright yellow, orange, and blue tones. The eye-catching colorful image was intended to promote their iron lever harrow, patented in 1889, to would be plow buyers. An important piece of farm equipment, a harrow leveled the soil and prepared it for seeding. The apple, looking as tough as an iron plow in her rose colored ruffled skirt has her fist raised and is angry. Perhaps she thinks a Skandia harrow will level her apple orchard leaving no trees or worse, she’ll be made into apple sauce. Buy a Skandia plow or else! As the apple shuffles along you can hear her shout the refrain :
The plowman homeward plods his weary way.
Surprising all at tea, with what he has to say
About his troubles with his old inferior plow;
And wondering where he’ll get a better now.
He goes to town and sees across the street,
A sign that dazzles every eye it meets.
He staggers in, and buys himself a Skandia plow,
That somehow tells him, “He’ll be happy now.”
As I sliced into a perfectly ripe, farm-fresh, red tomato, thoughts of a hot summer day flashed in my head. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than a juicy, salty, sweet tomato when the August sun is high in a cloudless sky. But it was late May, the temperature was a cool 45 degrees, and this wasn’t a typical tomato. It was grown during the coldest months of winter on a windswept peninsula off the coast of Maine, and it wasn’t grown using pesticides or chemical fertilizers. And guess what? It tasted absolutely divine.
Tomatoes just like these German Johnsons can be grown year-round in an unheated greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the word ‘impossible,’” says Eliot Coleman, the pioneer farmer behind this tomato. It’s a fascination that has lead Coleman to invent, create, and innovate tools and techniques that have taken on the “impossible” in organic farming. His innovations have been instrumental in changing the way people grow food through the coldest winter months. Indeed, without Coleman, the White House probably wouldn’t be growing greens in December.
American consumers’ eating habits are changing, and the latest iteration of the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill reflects that. It’s considered to be one of the most progressive farm bills to come out of Washington in decades. With significant growth in spending on local and regional food systems (from $10 million annually to $30 million), and a new emphasis on organic foods, the 2014 Farm Bill—signed by President Obama in February—goes a long way to supporting the small farmer. Many of the ideas proposed in the bill find their roots in the early organic revolution of the 1960s, which was lead, in part, by Eliot Coleman.
As the son of a Manhattan stockbroker, Coleman came to farming by happenstance. After graduate school in Vermont, he found himself teaching Spanish at a college in New Hampshire, where he met his first wife, Sue. One day while shopping in a general store, Eliot came across the book, “Living the Good Life,” by Helen and Scott Nearing. Struck by the Nearing’s experience living “off the grid” in mid-coast Maine, Coleman was inspired to seek out a similar adventure of his own. He and Sue left New Hampshire in 1968 with $5000 in savings and bought a piece of property from the Nearings in Harborside, Maine. There, with not a structure in sight, some of the least ideal soil for growing crops you could want, and nothing but a few hand tools and boundless energy, the Colemans began what would eventually become Four Seasons Farm, and a new organic year-round farming philosophy emerged.
But Eliot Coleman wouldn’t say that there was anything innovative about the way he approached organic farming. He’d say that it was simply an extension and adaptation of farming techniques that were practiced throughout Europe and the Americas prior to the advent of industrial farming. The old ways of doing things emphasized ecosystem management to be successful: compost, crop rotation, and naturally occurring soil nutrients.
“Using compost and natural systems to grow food was so simple,” he says. “The world’s best fertilizer, compost…is made for free in your backyard from waste products. The soil, the natural world was giving me everything I needed as inputs for this system. This place really is well designed, isn’t it? And it’s only because an awful lot of people haven’t been paying attention to [the fact that the natural world is well designed] is why we have difficulties.”
But what makes Eliot Coleman innovative is that he views with disdain and skepticism many cutting-edge trends in farming, such as relying on chemical fertilizers, monocrops, and industrial-scale tools. Central to his (innovative) philosophy is that there is much more value in diversity and sustainability.
Coleman began his farm by clearing the land by hand and working to make the rocky, acidic soil more balanced and fertile. It was a slow process, one acre giving way to two acres and so on—a process that continues to this day. Along the way there have been countless challenges, giving Coleman many opportunities to be creative in finding solutions.
For example, how do you weed between 30-foot rows of lettuce quickly and without breaking your back? This was a problem Eliot took on headfirst, and he devised the Collinear Hoe:
The Collinear Hoe, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a garden and farm supply company that Eliot Coleman works closely with to develop his ideas into production models. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Watch Eliot Coleman demonstrating how to use the Collinear Hoe here:
Or, how about a quick way to incorporate the right amount of compost within your soil so your compost isn’t too deep or too clumpy? Well, hook up a cordless drill to a tiller with small tines and you get Coleman’s “tilther.” What used to take 25 minutes now takes five.
Eliot Coleman prepares a bed in the garden using his invention, the Tilther, to mix compost into the soil. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Mr. Coleman shares Benjamin Franklin’s belief that “As we benefit from the inventions of others, we should be glad to share our own…freely and gladly.” So, he was never interested in obtaining patents for his inventions. He just wanted a tool that would make farm work a little easier. Any ideas he had, he gave to an engineer or manufacturing company so that they could perfect the tool or product. That way, Eliot and his farmer friends could all benefit from it.
Perhaps his most significant contribution to commercial organic small-scale farming is the moveable hoophouse. The latest iteration is the New Cathedral Modular Tunnel, a structure that allows users to grow crops in progression with the seasons. When one area of the garden needs to be covered, the tunnel or greenhouse is lifted by 4 people and moved, or pushed along tracks that run the length of the fields. This invention is what allows Eliot to grow juicy red tomatoes all year long.
Eliot Coleman poses with his daughter Clara Coleman at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. The two have just completed framing part of the 14’ Gothic Modular Moveable Tunnel, based on Mr. Coleman’s designs. September, 2013 Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds
The latest innovation Mr. Coleman has helped usher is a tool called the Quick Cut Greens Harvester, which, like the tilther, uses a cordless drill as its motor. Most exciting about this invention, which makes harvesting fresh salad greens much easier than the old method of cutting by hand, was that it was invented by a 16-year-old named Jonathan Dysinger, who visited Four Season’s Farm and was encouraged and inspired by Mr. Coleman to pursue the idea.
Watch Eliot Coleman demonstrate the harvester here:
Eliot Coleman’s contributions to small-scale and organic farming are numerous. From his philosophy to the methods and tools used to make it a viable business option, rejecting the conventional and daring to try the impossible are hallmarks of his work and legacy.