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Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference 2005 Staff Reflections
Brainstorming a Better Local Food System
The yearly convergence of organic farmers on the town of LaCrosse, Wisconsin may be one of the first signs of spring for locals. The Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference (UMOFC) boasts over 100 classes, meetings and seminars. The conference is like the Disney World of organic farming—impossible to see everything in one weekend. Local farmers from Dane County were well represented as many of them served as facilitators or presenters and shared their knowledge with new farmers eager to learn more about sustainable farming.
One of the more controversial elements of the weekend involved the formal confrontation of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) to eliminate confinement dairy practices by certified organic dairy farms. Pointing directly at Horizon/Dean farms, the Cornucopia Institute was busy urging attendees to sign petitions for submission to the NOP to stop the controversial practice of housing up to 5,000 head of cattle in one closed facility with access to only a small outdoor area. The majority of organic farmers use rotational grazing and seldom confine the animals for extended periods.
The conference produced a spectacular venue for the documentary The Future of Food. Filmmaker Deborah Garcia held several showings and personal appearances to answer questions about her work. The film begins with a mind-boggling amount of information about the early use of army surplus nerve gas as an insecticide after WWII. While I was pleased with the clarity in which she presented the information, I was equally as disturbed by the subject matter. The eventual turn she takes in exposing the grim realities of the future of our foods was sobering, to say the least.
Willy Street Co-op has purchased copies of the movie in VHS and DVD. Four copies will be available at the customer service desk for members to check out overnight. We will also be hosting a screening of the film in its entirety in the Community Room on Friday, April 22nd from 6:30pm –8:30pm. The importance of this tool is paramount in educating ourselves and others about the facts surrounding Monsanto’s capitalization of our foods.
Global consolidation and the future of organic seed
Much of my focus was on seeds and ownership of genetic materials during this year’s conference. In another workshop with Michael Sligh and John Navazio, the many facets of seed genetic modification were presented. The scope of this presentation was based on the eventual likelihood that nature will take her course, and we will be left with nothing but genetically modified seeds. The presenters gave compelling evidence that the open-field growing of bio-seeds has inalterably changed the evolutionary course of our foods.
If I didn’t mention the excellence of the food served at the conference I’d be doing a great disservice to the conference’s organizers. Organic producers like Organic Valley, Peace Coffee, and others provided an enormous amount of incredible foods. Pork chops, curry tofu with jasmine rice, cookies and cakes, among others, were always plenty and fabulous.
This year’s award went to a A-Line Farm in Minnesota. The third family farm to win the award, A-Line supplies fresh seasonal produce to many of the Minneapolis and St. Paul cooperative grocery stores and have been doing so for over 30 years.
It becomes more visible year after year that one of the reasons this conference has been growing exponentially for 16 years is that it does provide community for the farmers, families and familiars. Each yearly opportunity to connect, catch up or share a new story from the farm in a relaxed and social environment is clearly appreciated.
Perched on the edge of the Mississippi River in La Crosse, it is hard for me not to reflect on where life has taken me thus far. I feel a strong connection with the earth and my family, both of which have defined what I hold near to my heart. When I found myself at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in February, these feelings rang true. Although I have been in the organic business for seven years, my first time at the UMOFC made me feel quite virgin amongst the elite in the field.
After deciphering the map of the premises and the deciding on sessions to attend, I realized that everyone at the conference looked familiar to me. If we really are what we eat, this observation makes total sense, since all of us eat organic foods and thus hold a sense of familiarity in my eyes! During my learning sessions a lot of other things just plain made sense to me too. I found myself so engrossed I did not take comprehensive, legible notes, but I did carry home highlights and renewed gusto.
Bringing the culture back into agriculture
The first keynote speaker, Dana Jackson, spoke passionately about “bringing the culture back into agriculture.” She recounted times in her gardens and the deep connection of all living things great and small. Biodiversity on and around organic farms is an important part of the sustainability of the soil, plants, and creature species. This web of life is so delicate that just by putting buffers of land between fields and rivers may mean the difference of a pest infestation and a stellar harvest. She told stories of involving her children in seasonal responsibilities. Today Dana and her daughter write books together on a variety of subjects having to do with land conservation and the importance of wild nature. This family alliance proves to me the influence of spending quality time relating with life.
“Compost Basics for Organic Farmers,” led by John Biernbuam, professor of horticulture and compost master was an informative, fun approach to this valuable part of living things. The process of breaking down organic materials to create a nutritive composition has been occurring in nature for many years. Having to do with the carbon to nitrogen ratio and even more to do with the friendly microbes working their matter magic, this scientific progression ensures fertile soil and healthy plants. John gave excellent examples and helpful pictures for small time gardeners and large-scale farms. “Nature has no waste; the output becomes input elsewhere.”
Gardens of Eagan is a 120-acre organic farm located in Minnesota owned by Martin and Atina Diffley. They have an educational and wholehearted approach to farming. Their combined years in this weather-permitting profession have taught them the nature of their soil and what crops flourish in what part of the farm. “In crisis there is opportunity.” Each season they review notes and make changes based on not only the farm’s prosperity but also their personal family life. They sell directly to Roots and Fruits, area co-ops and have a roadside produce stand in the summer. Their experiences in wholesale dealings confirmed what excellent relations we at the Willy Street Co-op have built with our local farmers.
Snug Haven, operated by Bill Warner and Judy Hageman, hold the market on early crops grown in their nine hoop-houses. This heat-controlled environment has proven valuable in the production of nutritious, deep-green spinach. They had entertaining stories of gleaning knowledge from mistakes and starting over again. They sell to Chicago restaurants that call Wisconsin-grown local! They believe in educating children so they hold the power of choice. It is truly extraordinary to have fresh, vibrant flowers and produce weeks before outdoor farmers. “Why take winters off when you can work?”
In Wisconsin we have over 400 organic farms. The Farm to School lunch program is trying to integrate these fresh local vegetables to our growing young ones. Doug Wubben, along with some folks from Iowa school districts, have attested to the fact that with less sugar, more information is retained. Children need to make the connection between their food and their feelings. I believe we are headed in the right direction. Madison has the power and the fresh organic produce. Let’s do it!
I also watched the film The Future of Food, and I highly recommend this as an educational tool. It infuriated me how many ex-Monsanto employees are now in the administration. Please check out the website www.thefutureoffood.com.
I am thankful of this organic experience and proud of Wisconsin and the Willy Street Co-op.
On February 25, 2005 I set out with Lynn Olson and members of the beloved produce team to La Crosse, WI: Destination...The Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference. There were over 1,600 people in attendance this year, over 130 exhibits to look at, organic meals and snacks, and of course quality keynote speakers and breakout sessions. Like my friend and co-worker Crystel, I, too, was at times caught up in the copious amounts of new information I was gathering. That in mind, I hope you enjoy my highlights from this educational weekend.
The first session I attended was in full swing with its Questions and Answer segment. Points addressed provoked a lot of talk amongst attendees. Point 1: Organic farming in the US vs. organic farming in our countries. The organic consolidation lobbyists are looking for ways to use the industry to support corporations’ capital gain. European countries look at the philosophy and sustainability of organic agriculture; money or profit is NOT the priority.
Point 2: Where do we begin in order to get the word out to consumers about the importance of organics? The clinician responded emphatically “Medical professionals; they need to start influencing their patients’ diets. For example, a pregnant woman should be eating organic strawberries vs. conventional because of pesticides. Choosing conventional causes pesticides to build in the placenta therefore poisoning the fetus. There also needs to be scientific education for consumers to inform them about the importance of organic foods. Generally, consumers are told it tastes better then conventional produce. There needs to be substantiated data available.”
Point 3: “Why won’t organic prices come down, or when will organic prices be comparable to conventional so it can be accessible to everybody?” I, personally, have had this question posed by new customers to the Co-op and I appreciated the response. “Organics should NOT decrease. Premiums should be paid for a superior product. Decreasing the premiums undercuts the economy of the provider/grower. Besides, consumers can reevaluate their current food budgets to cater to the organic lifestyle.”
This discussion didn’t register until I saw the movie The Future of Food the following morning. What did register right away is how lucky I am to be a member-owner of a grocery cooperative that takes pride in supporting its local agriculture. The session began with a world map that highlighted specific geographic locations of seed origins. The next projection was a startling tidbit of history about seed preservation in the US. In 1903, the United States recorded the various types of seeds produced for each agricultural crop. That data was then compared to the variety of seeds produced in 1993. The example that caught my eye was the bean seeds that were preserved and recorded in 1903 were 578. The number of bean seeds preserved and recorded in 1993 was 32. How did this happen? In recent history, chemical corporations, such as Monsanto, Dupont, Dow and Aventis, have purchased independent seed companies. They have been controlling a bulwark of the seed industry, manipulating the genetic make-up of the seed, and then contracting farmers to produce/harvest that seed. When these crops fail to produce, all liability is given to the farmer (as stated in the contract). Monsanto has even found a way to patent species of plants, meaning that if seeds were to accidentally fall onto a non-contracted farmer’s land and the seeds germinated, that farmer could be sued for copyright infringement. An organization called Seed Alliance is striving to maintain the quality of seed by educating the farmers. It also tries to aid farmers in legal matters of liability lawsuits. The industry of Biotechnics has to be accountable for its actions and leave the farmers alone. (For more information on the Seed Alliance organization check out www.seedalliance.org.)
This was, to put it mildly, a thought provoking documentary on the globalization of seeds. The movie spotlighted the Monsanto Corporation (well-known for the insecticide “Round-up”). They have created seeds that are “Round-up Ready,” which means if you spray your fields with Round Up it will kill the weeds and the pests but NOT the seed. Monsanto is also the corporation that has patented many plant species. (Their goal is to patent 11,000; to basically own the marketplace.) There was the story of a farmer named Percy who tried to fight Monsanto in a lawsuit. (Because some patented Monsanto seeds were skirted around Percy’s fields, Monsanto sued Percy for copyright infringement.) The philosophical question that is posed throughout the film is “Should life be patented at all?” Nations around the world are aware of the biotechnology the United States is using on the seeds they produce, and those nations have boycotted those seed shipments. Should this science continue without sanctions, the results could prove to be catastrophic. You can order this movie for DVD or VHS by going to The Future of Food website. www.thefutureoffood.com. The Co-op has also purchased copies of this film to lend to members. See Lynn Olson’s UMOFC wrap-up for information.
The instructor gave an entertaining, fast paced overview of what various fruits and ORGANIC vegetables can do to aid your body in fighting disease, cancer, and infections. The number one vegetables in preventing cancer are the cruciferous vegetables. They are: radishes, rutabagas, horseradish, watercress, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, turnip, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. (According to his research, those vegetables can cut bladder and breast cancers by 50%.) Cilantro is an amazing produce ingredient that is effective in killing salmonella and is a powerful anti-oxidant of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and aluminum, in the bloodstream. Cilantro extract can aid in flushing the metals from the body and bloodstream. Some of the fruits he highlighted were bananas that contain tryptophan to fight depression and can also serve as a natural antacid. Cranberries fight tooth decay and stomach ulcers. Blueberries can help lower the LDL cholesterol, increase night vision, and decrease the chance of macular degeneration. There needed to be more time for this class. The importance of organic agriculture was emphasized, but the importance of organic meats and meat products (diary, eggs, cheese etc.) in everyday diets needed more discussion.
Doug Wubben, Program Coordinator for Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a farm-to-school project in Madison, now in its third year, led this panel discussion. Other panelists included former Food Service Director for the Decorah Community School System in Iowa and two farmers that own and operate sunflower fields in northeast Iowa. The work that is done from the growers, food service workers, and members of the respective school boards to launch such an endeavor deserves kudos for their efforts. I remember as a kid in the Madison school system receiving their hot lunch program. It usually consisted of a greasy hot dish and a less-than-appetizing fruit and dessert in the cold portion. Upon receiving the lunch, I would eat maybe 40% (and that’s a generous estimate). The other 60% would go in the trash. The meals that were prepared for the farm-to-school projects in Madison and Decorah school districts were fresh, healthy, aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and delicious! Both districts testified to minimal waste of food, and the energy the kids gained from the food sustained them for the rest of the day. Willy Street Co-op’s new off-site kitchen is going to aid food production for the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Program.
To conclude our pilgrimage to La Crosse we went to the newly remodeled People’s Food Co-op. The store is beautiful. Right as you enter the store there is a mouthwatering dessert display. The deli counter was full and was sporting Willy Street Co-op’s own Jeff’s Cheesy Bowties on sale. I visited the restaurant Hackberry’s on the store’s second floor, and it had an impressive menu (and another impressive dessert case). It was the perfect end to a perfect weekend.