33rd Annual Eco-Farm Conference: Worth Knowing About

I was fortunate to be able to attend the thirty-third annual Eco-Farm Conference, January 23-26, at Asilomar Conference grounds in Pacific Grove, CA, entitled “Feed the World You Want to Live In.”

“The EcoFarm Conference is the oldest and largest gathering of ecologically sustainable agriculture advocates in the West. For 33 years, we have convened to create, maintain, and promote healthy and just food/farming systems. The multi-day conference yields myriad opportunities for over 1,500 participants to network with colleagues, discover the newest ecological agricultural research and techniques, and build, both individually and as a community.” http://ecofarm2013.org/

It is always uplifting to be around this crowd, some of the nicest, sweetest people you could know, all of them hard at work doing positive things for the economy, the environment, and human health. Most of the people here were not here just thinking about farming, they were actually doing it, or something closely related. These are real, serious people, gritty people, people who make their living in agriculture and the agricultural food chain, day in and day out, often bucking the trends in their mainstream culture, especially those pioneers who have been with Eco-Farm from the beginning, when organic was considered the far-out “fringe,” or simply an interesting “niche” market with a few good ideas to be expropriated by the mainstream industrial agriculture system. They accentuate the positive—progress in healthy and sustainable farming practices—while exposing and opposing the barriers to achieving this.

Eco-Farm has an organizational sense of history that is palpable at this conference. These have been movers and shakers in the organic and sustainable and just food movement, some of them for more than 30 years; some of them were THERE when the Eco-Farm conference was 40 people under a tree. Almost everyone who is well-known nationally or internationally for their work in the “food movements” has been through this conference, people like Frances Moore Lappe, Vandana Shiva, Robert Rodale, Bill Mollison, Alice Waters, Dolores Huerta, Ken and Diane Whealy [The Seed Savers Exchange], Wes Jackson, John Jeavons and others, as well as people who are well known within the movement like the Lundberg Family [organic rice], the folks from Veritable Vegetable [organic produce wholesalers], The Frey Family [organic wines], Warren Webber [first certified organic farm in California, still going strong], Wendy Johnson, [long time gardener at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center], Mark Mulcahy [organic produce marketer and radio host], The Straus Family [organic dairy], Jesse Cool [organic chef], Miguel Altieri [UC Berkeley professor and proponent of “agroecology”], Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin [Jacobs/Del Cabo], Full Belly Farm [hosts of the “Hoes Down” every year], Amigo Cantisano [organic farmer, consultant, and advocate, one of the founders of Eco-farm] and many, many more. These are some of my heroes, people who are making a real and positive difference in human society.

Every year the conference devotes a plenary session to highlighting three successful organic farmers, who get up on stage in front of several hundred people and tell their stories: how they got into farming, their philosophy, and where they are going with their farming efforts. It has been an uphill battle for many. The occupation of farming in general is risky because there are some important factors, especially the weather, that are out of human control, and others, notably government policy towards farming and broad market trends, that have been largely out of the control of the average farmer. This year two of the three “successful farmers” reported “near-bankruptcy, last-ditch-gamble” events as part of their stories.

We hear a lot these days about how “small businesses” are the backbone of our economy. Part of the “justice” in the “just farming systems” advocated and supported by Eco-Farm is the contention that farming ought to be a respectable occupation in which a good farmer, who is an independent businessperson, a “small” businessperson, a middle class person, potentially the backbone of our economy, can make a decent living. This conference is devoted to helping people do just that. [And make that world-wide!]

Though the cultural shift toward local organic healthy fresh whole food is blossoming, the barriers to starting in as a farmer, organic or not, are still daunting. Eco-Farm encourages young people, farmers and would-be farmers, to come to the conference, and they provide some scholarships. They scholarship a number of immigrant farm workers to the conference every year, hold workshops in Spanish, and have translators for plenary sessions. They go out of their way to be inclusive. This year, through donations, Eco-Farm was able to give scholarships to 150 new and low-income farmers to attend.

These conferences are thorough and intelligent and full of information. They try to present and understand all sides of any issue, e.g. they have had pro-GMO speakers at several conferences for open debates, and treated them respectfully, while arguing vigorously. They try to bring in the latest in organic technology and practices, and the latest info and updates on legislation and regulation, both federal and state. You can catch up and get informed at the Eco-Farm conference.

This year’s presenters included a former CA State Agriculture Commissioner who also served as Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration; the current head of the CA Department of Pesticide Regulation, who used to be head of the California Certified Organic Farmers [CCOF]; a highly placed person in the California Department of Food and Agriculture [CDFA]; a person on the US Organic Standards Board; and a person who is personal advisor to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, all giving updates and their perspectives on what is going on inside the government agencies interacting with farmers. This list highlights the progress that has been made over the years, thanks largely to efforts by healthy food advocates, in influencing government programs and policies, which are huge and often determining factors in the direction of agriculture both in America and world-wide. But their presentations emphasized that the system still heavily favors large, corporate farming systems that continue to degrade our environment, provide less healthy food, and put smaller farmers in perilous positions.

And beyond these agencies is Congress, where policies get determined and funding gets appropriated. Congress recently extended the current Farm Bill till September 2013, but lowered funding for conservation, organic growing, fruit and vegetable farming, and beginning farming and ranching program, and entirely cut funding for other programs including organic research, organic marketing, and farmers market programs. On the other hand, subsidies to growers of corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola were not locked in for the next five years. The issue of subsidies and the Farm Bill are complex and continually developing; renewal of the Farm Bill comes before Congress again this summer. I hope to explore these issues further in future blogs; I think more people ought to be familiar with the provisions and implications of the Farm Bill, because it affects almost every area of our lives: food prices, poverty, public health, the environment, jobs.

Though critical of these various agencies, nonetheless the Eco-Farm people are not afraid to interact and cooperate with these agencies. In fact, they cultivate relationships with these people in positions of power. This year the USDA sponsored the track of twelve workshops “For Beginning Farmers,” with diverse workshops including “Record Keeping Computer Programs for Organic Growers,” “Homesteading Your Way into Economic Self-Sufficiency,” “Organic marketing 101,” “Getting Off to a Good Start with Your CSA,” and other presentations designed to help bring in new farmers, something the USDA considers a high priority, as the number of farmers in the US has been steadily shrinking and their average age increasing for at least two decades.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture [CDFA] sponsored a track of four workshops for “Water Stewards,” recognizing that maintaining a clean water supply for all, especially in an intensely agricultural state like California, is going to be a greater and greater challenge as the years progress.

And United Natural Foods, Inc. [UNFI], the leading distributor of natural and organic foods in the US, sponsored a track of five workshops for “Merchants, Handlers and Distributors,” including one subtitled “Strategies for Natural Food Retailers to Compete with the Big Boys,” despite being one of those “big boys.” Like the federal and state agencies, UNFI and other large food sellers, such as Whole Foods, come under fierce and detailed scrutiny at these conferences, yet they continue to help sponsor the events, and are recognized for the positive contributions they have made, while their perceived shortcomings are noted and opposed. Some of these critiques will be discussed in future blogs related to this conference.

Four film documentaries were featured at the conference. Betting the Farm is the story of a group of dairy farmers in Maine, dropped by their national milk company, who banded together to launch their own milk company, Maine’s Own Organic Milk [MOO Milk]http://www.moomilkco.com/.  Edible City: Grow the Revolution ediblecitythemovie.com features urban farming all around the country, revolutionary in several ways, highlighting a project in Oakland, CA. The Farmer and the Horse http://www.thefarmerandthehorse.com/ follows three farmers out of the suburbs and back to the land. All three of these emphasize the risks and hard work involved, and the rewards of doing it and being successful.

The one I saw was Symphony of the Soil by Deborah Koons Garcia, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference for me. This is a beautiful, intriguing film that makes the case that healthy soil is the source of health for us all, and that degradation of soil is putting our food systems, and our water and air, our very civilization, at risk. Nonetheless there ARE solutions, as the film emphasizes. This documentary manages to convey a college-level course in the latest soil science and connect it to our lives without sounding like a lecture. It is both eye-opening and mind-opening. Find out more at http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/.

One of the most heart-warming aspects of the conference for me was seeing all these vibrant, energetic young people with smiles on their faces, serious about their work, determined to become successful farmers and clean food advocates. They are inspiring in their freshness and idealism, and yet grounded in realism. Many of them are already actively farming. One young woman who just graduated from UC Davis and worked on the Prop 37 campaign is planning to become a “food lawyer” to defend the environment and family farming. Another graduate is working on a project that could change the way the state manages the salmon cycle. Others are helping produce documentary films about farming and the environment like the ones mentioned above.

I sat down at breakfast opposite a group of seven young people and their professor from Williams College in Massachusetts. They had been in California for almost a month on a winter project, staying and working at organic farms, culminating in the Eco-Farm conference. They were excited and enthusiastic about their experiences so far, and sad that this phase was over. Each of them will be required to write a report, which will all be edited and assembled by the group, as a group report. This seems to me to be the cutting edge of education, going outside the classroom to experience what it is like in the “real world,” and then working cooperatively to create a joint product. I told them that even though it was still morning they had already made my day.

Further posts related to this conference to follow.

For more information on Eco-Farm [The Ecological Farming Association] go to http://www.eco-farm.org/

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