My involvement in organic farming began in earnest when I moved to Madison in 2011. From the beginning, fellow farm workers and interns were abuzz about “the MOSES conference,” apparently some mid-winter mecca for sustainable agriculture aficionados. Intrigued, I made plans to attend each year and each year my plans fell through. This February, I finally had the distinct pleasure of attending the 26th annual (my first) Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Even better, I was given the opportunity to write this article and share my experience with you!
MOSES promotes organic and sustainable agriculture by providing education, resources and expertise farmers need. Central to that mission is this once a year conference. In the world of organic farming, the MOSES conference is kind of a big deal. In fact, with over 3500 attendees, dozens of workshops, and 170 vendor exhibits, it is the largest organic farming conference in the entire country.
Thursday afternoon I carpooled to LaCrosse with Anne Drehfal of Regenerative Roots and Willy Street Co-op’s own Dan Marten, also co-owner of Butterbean Community Farm. Both are multi-year MOSES veterans and I eagerly digested their stories of conferences past. The fact that they kept going back had me excited for a really positive experience. Once we settled into our rooms Dan and I scooted over to the conference center just in time to catch supper. I was immediately impressed by the scale of the event. The registration fee included breakfast and lunch each day (suppers optional) and foodservice for that manypeople is a logistical challenge to say the least. Thanks to some generous sponsors and a small army of staff and volunteers the meals were healthy and satisfying, featuring organic produce and dairy (it’s Wisconsin after all!), vegan and gluten-free options, and even compost collection throughout the center. We were joined at the table by Peter Longhurst, Director of Primal Foods Group out of Kiama, Australia. Yep, Australia! While most of those 3500+ attendees hail from Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, our conversation with Peter was a reminder of the increasingly global appeal of organic ag and of the shared challenges facedby its proponents across the world. Anticipating a very full day on Friday, I retreated to my room after supper to plan my conference schedule and get a good night’s rest.
Each day presented opportunities for two morning workshops and one in the afternoon. With each time slot offering 5-10 options, picking which ones to attend was sometimes difficult and I often wondered what I might be missing out on in the workshop just down the hall. To open Friday, I listened to a presentation by Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko of Inn Serendipity in Browntown, Wisconsin. Dynamic and engaging, Lisa and John quickly allayed my worries about missing out as they discussed how to generate more income by diversifying farm operations. Having escaped from corporate life in Chicago, the two now make a living farming, running a B&B, selling value-added products, writing and speaking, and as Lisa said, “being more entrepreneurial than we knew we could be.” While juggling that many enterprises and income streams might not be for everyone, the ideas presented might help make farmers a little less dependent on off-farm income. To me at least, the flexibility, independence, and challenge of farm-based entrepreneurship was very appealing.
Unfortunately my choice for the second morning workshop didn’t hit the mark, so I left a little early and explored the conference bookstore before lunch. I quickly recognized that my eyes were bigger than my wallet, but even the bookstore was a reminder of how much the organic movement has grown and changed since the first MOSES conference back in the ’80s. Printed resources on every subject from growing your own herbal medicines to fencing solutions for goats provide comprehensive guidance for today’s farmers that just wasn’t accessible a couple decades ago.
After lunch we filed into the main hall for the conference’s keynote speaker. Following introductions by the MOSES Executive Director and the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, John Jeavons launched his “Farming for the Future Now: Optimizing Organic Farming” keynote address. Jeavons is a pioneer in the Grow Biointensive method of gardening which aims to maximize yield while minimizing water and space required. I had read some of his work and was excited to hear from him. Jeavons spoke passionately about the risks of climate change, peak water, and peak soil. He pointed out that while organic farming typically creates less soil erosion than conventional, it still results in several pounds of soil lost for every pound of food produced. Combining that with population growth, his research suggests that using current technologies and methods, there are only 30-60 years of farmable soil remaining around the globe. After that impactful intro, though, the presentation wandered and at its conclusion I felt no nearer the solution to the problems Jeavons had raised than I did at the beginning.
I was feeling like a change of pace was in order so instead of the afternoon workshop, I opted for a film screening and was treated to a humbling and profound 90 minutes. Terra Firma shared the stories of three women veterans who had been deployed in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. They returned from their service with PTSD and struggled to reintegrate into “normal” life. Introduced to the filmmakers through the Farmer Veteran Coalition, each woman revealed how farming and gardening have provided some degree of healing and purpose. The film itself provided many goosebump-inspiring moments, and I highly recommend seeing it. Adding even more gravitas to the occasion, Sonia Kendrick, one of the women profiled in the film, was on hand to answer questions after the screening. Despite her obvious preference for not being in the spotlight, she spoke movingly about her post-service struggles and how her urban plots in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—all the produce is donated to Meals on Wheels— have given her an opportunity to keep serving her country and community.
It wasa sobering way to end the first day and provided for some good conversation with friends over dinner. The conference was also full of levity though, and our post-dinner agenda included a happy hour for growers/producers followed by music and contra-dancing back at the convention center. Indeed, as Dan and Anne had mentioned on the way to LaCrosse and as became apparent over the duration of the conference, one of the things that keeps people coming back is the chance to reconnect with peers, have some fun, and tap into a larger network.
Saturday morning brought another treat as I was able to hear my friend Eric Udelhofen of Taproot Farm and Fruit (where I also work seasonally) present a workshop. Eric was wearing his other hat for this occasion, speaking as a Solar Project Manager for H&H solar and discussing options for on-farm solar energy. Speaking with Eric were Juli and Chris McGuire of Two Onion Farm. Chris and Juli had recently installed a solar PV system on their farm and judging by the level of interest in the room, barn-top solar panels will be an increasingly common sight in the years to come.
The second session of the day was equally interesting and also touched on energy issues, if from a completely different angle. Atina and Martin Diffley, of Gardens of Egan in Northfield, Minnesota presented on farmer land rights and energy infrastructure conflicts. They shared their successful struggle to prevent a crude oil pipeline from being routed through their farm and the work they and others are doing to make sure power and pipeline companies clean up their construction sites and fairly compensate farmers for damages to their land and operations. They urged farmers to be proactive in engaging their communities and seeking allies before a pipeline even gets proposed. They didn’t specifically mention frac sand mining, but the lessons they learned would apply there, too. With energy demand ever on the rise and infrastructure projects popping up all over rural counties, the Diffley’s message was one all farmers would benefit from hearing.
Encouraged by the solid morning sessions, I had high hopes going into the afternoon’s main session and I was not disappointed. Every year MOSES selects an Organic Farmer of the Year in recognition of their outstanding land stewardship, innovation, and outreach. The 2015 award went to Greg and Mary Reynolds of Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minnesota. The Reynolds are successful vegetable growers and have recently begun focusing on selecting and saving locally grown seeds. Seeds adapted to local conditions, Greg argued, are far more likely to survive and thrive in increasingly chaotic weather patterns. He spoke of being less dependent on inputs from far-flung sources and building resiliency in their farm. He pointed out that GMOs are bred for one specific trait, but what farmers needed was a more general adaptability to unstable growing conditions. Greg praised the work of Seed Savers Exchange in preserving heirloom varieties but noted that at his farm he wasn’t as concerned about the purity of original varieties as he was with finding plants that worked. His humble, practical message touched a chord with the audience and he left the stage to a standing ovation.
By this time I think I had reached my threshold for sitting and listening so my last houror so at the conference was spent in the exhibition hall. Ranging from tractor implements to hand hoes, seed companies to policy groups, and large acre row crops to urban permaculture plots, the array of vendors truly did provide a little something for everyone. I enjoyed conversations with Tillers International—a non-profit in Michigan that trains farmers in draft power, blacksmithing, and toolmaking; FarmMatch—an innovative company in Viroqua that uses a Google Maps interface to allow consumers to search for farms and food; and Kinstone Academy of Applied Permaculture in Fountain City, Wisconsin where participants can take coursesin permaculture design, natural building, and traditional skills.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the issue of diversity. Farming, as widely noted, has in this country traditionally been the domain of white males. The demographics in the field change slowly but that change was evident at MOSES. I was happy to see a large number of women among presenters and attendees alike, reflecting the fact that the percentage of women-owned farms continues to grow. The MOSES Rural Women’s Project provides resources and support to this growing segment of the farming population. While the conference crowd was still very white, I was also encouraged to see a selection of workshops with Hmong interpretation available. Much work remains to be done to make farming a truly inclusive profession but MOSES is taking steps in the right direction.
Wandering through the exhibits Saturday afternoon reflecting on my first MOSES conference experience, a couple of important themes were juxtaposed for me. On the one hand, it was obvious that a central appeal of an event like this conference was the opportunity to connect. To connect with friends and peers certainly, but also to connect in a more philosophical sense to a movement much larger than one’s own part in it. Farming can be lonely and isolating on top of all the quotidian challenges it presents and the sense of being part of something bigger that MOSES provides is surely part of the remedy. On the other hand, I was struck by the incredible diversity of ideas being generated, niches being discovered and filled, and creative approaches to the challenges sustainable agriculture faces. What Greg Reynolds said of seeds—that they “need a more general adaptability” and “must be able to thrive in both cold and wet and hot and dry”—is true of farms, farmers, and all our attempts at sustainability as well. For as important as connecting to the larger movement is, there won’t be one overarching answer to the challenges of climate change, peak water, peak soil, and feeding an ever-growing population. Instead the answers will be as shaped by their contexts as a seedling is by its particular stretch of soil—organic and local in the truest sense of the words.