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Staff Experiences from the Organic Farming Conference

Seeing Jane Grow: Women Leaders in Sustainable Agriculture

Executive Assistant

This year I was one of the 2,612 people who attended the 20th Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse. On the first full day of workshops, a group of perhaps 50 of us attended the workshop “See Jane Grow: How Women Ecopreneurs are Leading America’s Rural Renaissance.” Presented by Lisa Kivirist and Aimee Witteman, this workshop was a combination of business-building strategies and profiles of women “ecopreneurs” who were creating positive change in the world.

I had come to the conference most excited about this workshop. A Women’s Studies geek by training and by nature, learning how women were “leading an underground, yet significant revolution by launching green businesses andleading the sustainable revitalization of our countryside” sounded like the cat’s meow to my already purring brain.

Beyond industrial farming

The timing of this workshop couldn’t have been better; it immediately followed the keynote address of the day, artfully delivered with fiery conviction by Dr. Vandana Shiva. Dr. Shiva has pioneered the organic movement in India and is the founder of Navdanya, India’s largest network of seed keepers and organic producers. Her address, “Agriculture for Life: Beyond Industrial Farming & Globalized Agriculture,” directly addressed the intersections of race, class, gender and environmental degradation in our increasingly globalized world with her indictment of the “agriculture capitalist patriarchy.” She spoke powerfully of the need to step out of the corporate agribusiness world, and find alternative ways to develop our economies and our communities. Part and parcel of that mission is the confrontation of racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other diseases of our societies that hold us back. I left the keynote fired up, ready to go out and do... well... something. But what?

Agents of positive change

Lisa and Aimee dovetailed off Dr. Shiva’s speech, providing in their workshop inspirational examples of how women have acted as agents of positive change. “See Jane Grow” began with a bit of scope-building. One-in-four workers in the United States are “free agents”—that’s 33 million people. A “free agent” in this case is an individual who is not under contract to any one employer, but is able to offer their services to whomever they choose. There are also 23 million “micro enterprises” throughout the country. A “micro enterprise” is defined as a business having five or fewer employees. Most of the women profiled during “See Jane Grow” fit into one of these two categories.

Specific to the “growing” side of things, woman-owned-and-operated farms are growing in number. Of these farms, about 40 percent are owned by women under 55, which is fantastic, as it shows a continuing interest in land cultivation by younger generations of women. Perhaps most exciting of all to me was this: woman-owned-and-operated farms are up 27 percent in Wisconsin since a few years ago. And woman-owned businesses now account for 40 percent of businesses in the U.S.

Business with a purpose

Most of these woman-owned businesses have a purpose: they are following a vision, a passion. An obvious example of another business with a purpose would be our very own Co-op, whose purpose statement is getting spruced up at this very moment. The bottom line is triplicate: profit, planet (i.e., environmental sustainability) and people (customers, workers, vendors and investors). The philosophy is to serve customers, not “consumers,” and to build community as they develop their businesses. Common themes in these “Earth Mission” businesses are: they walk the talk, engage in partnership efforts, find a way to blend family and work, mentor others, live lean and green lifestyles, and exude positive energy.

Take-home messages

“See Jane Grow” had two take-home messages. The first was Hope Through Empowerment. Lisa and Aimee both stressed that though there are obviously many things wrong in the world today, there is much that each of us can do to right these injustices. By giving us examples of successful business initiatives created by women, as well as a breakdown of the overarching themes that guide their success, the presenters gave us many of the tools necessary for developing our own visions for change. The second message imparted by Lisa and Aimee was more of a question that was repeated again and again: What is your Earth Mission? Or, to put it another way, what is your passion? All of us have the opportunity to be an agent of change through our passion. It is as simple as finding what you love, what you feel passionately for or about, and then working to make it grow.

Hits and Highlights

On February 26th, 2009 I began the trek to La Crosse for the Conference, and what a trek it was! I carefully maneuvered through an intense ice storm to land safely in La Crosse and find out for myself why the Organic Farming Conference gained its reputation as the nation’s leading conference for the sustainability movement.

The reason for this reputation is evident for any attendee at the point of registration. The La Crosse Center brimmed with over 2,500 participants navigating passageways to opportunity. The options were diverse. The schedule included 59 workshops covering everything from agricultural science through business profitability. A farmer showcase took up the main arena with hands-on demonstrations of new farming equipment, products, and seeds. A photo exhibit was on display—”Honoring our Organic Pioneers.” Over two days, the conference offered several video screenings including the indie hit “King Corn” and two documentaries from local filmmakers Gretta Wing Miller and Aarick Beher. Organizations aimed at assisting farmers and expanding farming knowledge hosted receptions including the Farm Service Agency who explored ways to finance a family farm and the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition’s (MACSAC) mixer on strengthening the CSA community. An expansive book sale that covered topics ranging from raising your own cattle the natural way to constructing your own backyard hot sauna was very popular.

A marketing workshop stood out for me. “Media 101: How Organic Farmers Can Work Effectively with the Media” addressed the challenge of taking the philosophy of sustainability to the mainstream using the media as a tool. Some advice was simple and indisputable such as the suggestion to build relationships off the farm or, in this case, outside of the Co-op. However, controversial approaches to deliver this message were also raised including the notion that portraying organic farming as a great alternative to standard practices is better than arguing it to be a “better way of farming.” Taking these baby steps in semantics, some argue, unnecessarily weakens the whole movement.

Strengthening the movement’s media adeptness is essential in order to combat the finesse with which corporations utilize the media against the organic farmer and the conscious consumer. This utilization is evident in contemporary coverage of how the recession impacts consumer demand for organic food. As the workshop pointed out, current media coverage of the recession is, understandably persistent, but parallel messages of a weakened interest in organic food run contrary to statistics. Even this morning over coffee, the New York Times included a front-page feature on how the recent salmonella outbreak has caused mysterious numbers of people to question the safety of all organic food. This media workshop helped me keep a sharp eye on this sort of reporting and to question the message in stories on the decline and fall of the organic food movement.

For many, the highlight of the Conference was the keynote presentation by Dr. Vandana Shiva. Dr. Shiva is a fiercely committed international environmentalist who has served as the pioneer of organic foods in India and authored numerous books. Dr. Shiva has been a recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize and spoke to attendees about the fact that industrialized farming incurs long-term financial detriments to our society and for individuals. Her assertion is that we can argue for sustainability from a purely economic perspective rather than the traditional arguments for environmental and personal health.

Of course, the conference is famous for dishing up organic meals to attendees featuring lots of local delicious produce. This year was no different and I thoroughly enjoyed the opening night feast of ribs and cornbread and wondered at the organizers’ ability to keep 2,500 participants content.

This event brings a lot of enthusiastic people together and is an excellent opportunity to mix and mingle and build community. Not only did I have the opportunity to meet activists and farmers from across the state but I also put names to co-op faces that I routinely see. It seems that starting local holds true on many levels.

Taking Education a Step Further: Activism in the Sustainable Food Systems Movement

It Starts with education

There’s always a free-flowing exchange of information when farmers and gardeners gather. Perhaps this is what I like best about attending the MOSES Organic Farming Conference; growers here are not afraid to share their experiences, successful or otherwise, in growing food. The hums of conversations drifting from one farmer’s trials with a new trellising system to the next gardener’s experience with the marketability of value added products- the entire convention center becomes filled with inspiring narratives.

During my second year of attendance, I made a personal conclusion that growers are the most gracious and helpful people I’ve come to meet. Ask any farmer at the conference about her yearly crop rotation and she’ll willingly tell you each and every variety and date in her logbook. The MOSES conference is always ALIVE with the exchange of information and knowledge, bringing people together to engage on a common theme; sustainable agriculture. Yet this educational experience is only the first step to moving forward in advocating for healthy, local and organic food, sustainable growing practices and equitable food systems. The other important part to this equation involves networking, collaborating, building relationships, forming alliances, and striding forward in the sustainable agriculture movement together.

A need for networking

I’d be preaching to the choir if I simply informed our Co-op Owners about the education I received at the MOSES conference. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to discuss the need to go further to advocate for change. At the conference, I was given the opportunity to fulfill the second part of the equation—to connect people in collaboration towards a common good. By sharing this experience, I hope to inspire readers to take a similar approach in their quest towards promoting healthy food, sustainable growing models and local food systems.

Creating a unified network

As a student gardener, I have noticed a lack in communication, networking and relationship-building between university student farms. Presently, universities across the country are starting up small-scale agricultural farms to display the viability of farming organically. Yet, each university is pursuing the same goal independently; as some would say, re-inventing the wheel. In discussing this issue with fellow students, we saw the need for universities to work together in developing sustainable farming models for universities. Acknowledging the lack in systematic communication and planning, I worked with my fellow student gardeners to develop a web-based open source site to connect the experiences of student farms across the country. Uniting forces, I co-led a meeting at the MOSES conference inviting college students to create a network of Campus Growers. By the end of the meeting, nine different colleges from across the Midwest committed to take action; to begin sharing information and resources to work towards the common goal of creating and strengthening student gardens. As affiliated Campus Growers, we are now benefiting from the efficiency and assistance of working within a network. No longer are we independent entities all striving for the same outcome, we are helping one another and together we are greater than our individual parts.  

Keeping the wheel rolling communally, cooperatively, collectively

I believe that my experience at the Organic Farming Conference demonstrates that although there is a continual need for education to advocate for more sustainable food, there is an even greater need to work together. I see this need in many settings. As a part of the Willy Street Co-op team, as a gardener, a leader, a student, the administrative director of UW-Madison’s only sustainable agriculture organization, as a master gardener in training, and as a former farm hand and youth garden instructor, I see many organizations working towards a communal vision but lacking cohesive action. We’re all running in the same direction, we’ve just simply forgotten to clasp hands. If education is only the first step to changing and moving forward in a sustainable food system, as growers, let’s not stop after generously sharing our gardening tips; let’s share our passion to create alliances, networks and relationships.

A call to all

I would invite anyone reading this article to take your experience, your personal story and connect with others. Share your knowledge and education with one another. Find organizations and groups with similar passions and work together. If we’re all running in the same direction, we should join hands, make alliances, create networks and relationships that will reinforce each other. MOSES did an amazing job in educating growers on why we need to continue working towards a more just, truthful, decentralized, local, organic and sustainable food system. Let’s take action. If we are all on board, we just need to paddle in unison.