May 2005

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Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference 2005 Staff Reflections, Part II


Community Calendar

Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference 2005

Prespectives by Brendan Gorman and Jay Robinson


I had certain expectations for the conference formed from my attendance the previous year. I wanted to sit in on workshops ranging from CSA logistics to hoop-house production to biodynamic farming methods. I also wanted to tour the exhibit hall to see if any organization caught my eye. Additionally, I wanted to catch up with some friends I figured would be there. Those were the things I was looking forward to, and they did meet my expectations. In the end, however, it was the keynote speeches that made the trip great for me.

Reconnecting food systems with ecosystems
Dana Jackson gave the keynote on Friday. She co-edited and contributed to a collection of essays called The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems. She is also the associate director of an organization called The Land Stewardship Project and the director of the Farm and City Food Connections Program. In The Farm as Natural Habitat, she writes that farmland has been considered an ecological sacrifice zone for too long. There are models of farming that encourage wild diversity above and within the soil while providing economic benefits to those that choose to make farming their livelihood. Various authors cite examples set by farmers wishing to work the land while preserving the natural resources that allow life to flourish. The book endorses a mindset that is aware of fundamental ecological processes and the incredible impact they have in our lives. Furthermore, the book honors the land ethic teachings of Aldo Leopold and his view that we need “spiritual relationships to things of the land.”

A higher standard of wildlife restoration and conservation
Dana Jackson expanded on these ideas in her keynote address. She stated that organic farming can and should be a model of agriculture that sets a higher standard for wildlife restoration and conservation. She also stated that small, sustainable family farms should be the vehicle to counteract the “corn, bean, feedlot machine” many of us associate with Midwestern agriculture and habitat depletion. While applauding the growth in sales of organic food, she asked everyone to proceed with caution by saying, “organic food is now an industry, but organic farming cannot become industrial. Our values and standards cannot be weakened.”
She became interested in environmental issues and food after reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. She lived in Kansas, and organic food was a long-haired hippie thing at the time. So she began to grow food for her family, learning to grow enough to preserve what they would need for the winter. While there was no such thing as certification at the time, she did many of the same things as a certified organic farm—no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, composting, crop rotations, etc.

The value of wild nature
Listening to Dana Jackson, it was abundantly clear how passionate she was about wild nature playing a role in agriculture. She alluded to not only the intrinsic value of wild nature—it has value on its own unrelated to the value humankind assigns it, but also to the idea that restoration and preservation work is simply good farming. Encouraging native flora and fauna to populate the farm is ultimately a move that improves soil quality, water quality, air quality, genetic diversity, and in the long term, farm viability and profitability.

I think I got more out of Dana Jackson’s talk than some others because I had read much of The Farm as Natural Habitat. Though the book was written primarily for conservation biologists, its message reaches beyond any one particular career. The chapter entitled “Food and Biodiversity,” written by Dana Jackson, is a piece I think many Co-op shoppers would value and benefit from. I highly recommend the book.

Values at the core of the organic movement
The second keynote speaker we saw was Jim Riddle. Over the past 25 years, Jim Riddle has served the organic growing community as a gardener, inspector educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer. His address concentrated on the ecological, economic, and societal values that have been at the core of the organic movement. He described a list of 17 items that reflect organic farming’s commitment to those values. They included soil quality, water quality, farm safety, flavor of food, food safety, food security, biodiversity, genetic diversity, humane treatment of livestock, maintaining or improving carbon levels in the soil, erosion control, family values, no GMOs, farm income that reflects the commitment of farmers, the ability of sustainable agriculture to fulfill spiritual needs, a drive to understand life around us, and, finally, to ensure the survival of our species.

It was very reassuring to see a list of thing that organic farming endorses as opposed to simply emphasizing what organic farming doesn’t utilize, namely synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farming is so much more than what many people realize. It truly is a value-driven way to grow food.

Preserving the integrity of organic farming
Jim Riddle also spoke of preserving the integrity of organic farming. He serves on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a group whose main mission is to assist the Secretary of Agriculture in developing standards for substances to be used in organic production. They also issue recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture on other aspects of implementing the National Organic Program. The NOSB, and Jim Riddle in particular, serve as watchdogs for the sustainable agriculture community. A wide array of current agricultural issues were brought up during his speech with an emphasis placed on involvement. After all, the estimated crowd at the conference represented five to ten percent of the entire organic farming population in the country. Furthermore, increasing demand for organically-grown food is bringing large numbers of farmers into the movement. Grassroots organizing with such a group has the ability to preserve organic integrity and help “expand the organic vision as a foundation of Agriculture,” as Jim Riddle said.

The customer is the real certifier
Another interesting point in the speech came when Jim Riddle asked how many people in attendance were currently certified. A large number raised their hands. Next, he asked how may were planning on being certified in the next year. The hands raised indicated there was indeed a large number of farmers either transitioning or seeking the advantages of USDA certification. While they were much fewer in number, there were hands that did not go up, perhaps from consumers, advocates, inspectors, and other farmers that simply didn’t believe certification warranted the expenditure of money. Jim Riddle mentioned that the customer is the real certifier. The statement alluded to the idea of a relationship between farmer and consumer, one that reaches beyond the exchange of goods for currency. Many farmers start out without the resources to become certified and must rely on forming a connection with consumers that replaces or exceeds the value of certification. Certification is an extremely lucrative means of attracting consumers to the farm/farmstand and demonstrating a commitment to sustainable agriculture, but it does not and should not replace a relationship with a farmer whenever possible. These relationships are often what gives someone a chance to understand where their food comes from, how it is grown or raised, and what that means for our environment, individual and community well-being. What could be more rewarding to people that believe in a values-based agriculture?

Both Dana Jackson and Jim Riddle emphasized the values inherent in organic farming while honoring the self-reliance of farmers and recognizing the interdependence of all living things in the world. Leaving La Crosse, I couldn’t help but feel proud, hopeful, and rejuvenated.












One of the highlights of the 16th annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference was the presentation of Deborah Garcia’s new DVD, The Future of Food. A striking scene early in the documentary is footage from World War I of rows of early tanks rolling across battlefields, closely segueing into rows of harvesting machines rolling across prairies of wheat. The message clearly is that both are forms of warfare, and what’s more, we are “winning.”
In fact, the history of modern agriculture parallels, and is often driven by, the history of modern warfare. WWI was the first heavily mechanized and mechanically mobile war, fought, among other things, with the new inventions of tanks and planes. Manufacturers of this machinery had a stake in bringing new weapons home transformed into machines of mass attack on the land, as portrayed in the film.

World War II saw the advent of new forms of chemistry applied on the battlefield, including the first use of what would be known as napalm by the time of the Vietnam War. Chemical manufacturers had a stake in bringing this technology into profitable employ (for them) on the battlefields of American agriculture. Hence the rise of farm chemicals, used in what became known by the ‘60s as “conventional” farming.

Perhaps instead of attacking the land to do the necessary work of producing food for a growing human population, we could work with the land to increase both its immediate production as well as to build-in methods of sustainability that will ensure production for the long-haul. Why is it that some fields in Europe, Asia, and South America have been fertile and producing food for a thousand years?

Nature within agriculture
We need to declare peace with the land by applying earth-friendly techniques and technologies to food production. Dana Jackson’s keynote talk touched upon one approach of developing the wild within the cultivated, nature within agriculture. Other examples include Doug Wubben’s project here in Madison to bring food from fields to school lunch tables. Just imagine kids enjoying good food grown locally. Visualize consumers being aware of where their food comes from and the politics and economics behind how it comes to us, via such educational efforts as Ms. Garcia’s video. They are then free to “vote with their dollars” for more peaceful means of receiving foods, such as buying wisely at Willy Street Co-op. See yourself and your neighbor swapping seeds that you have saved from previous seasons, to share the “culture” of “agriculture” and to preserve the best of what already exists in genetic biodiversity of food-producing organisms.

Yes, it is possible to declare peace with the land by using the people/systems/intelligence/harmony of organic agri-culture. We do not have to choose to continue to wage war on the earth using the machines/chemicals/fractured-genes of agri-business as usual.

We are free and encouraged to follow keynoter Jim Riddle’s sage advice, “Eat organic food, drink organic wine, and be happy.” Indeed.