Winter Farm Conferences
By Heidi Lewis
The Monterey Peninsula is one of the most beautiful spots in the world, but it wasn't just the sparkly ocean breeze dancing through the pines that brought a near sell-out crowd to this year's Eco Farm Conference held February 1-4. It was the exchange of important ideas and sharing of issues that concern family farmers that brought more than 1,500 attendees.
This year marked the 32nd annual conference of the west's largest and oldest agriculture gathering, organized by the Ecological Farming Association, a Soquel, CA-based non-profit organization founded in 1981 to “provide education, alliance building, and advocacy.”
"The EcoFarm conference is my favorite conference all year, I make sure not to miss it," says FruitGuys West Coast buyer Rebecca North. “It's a great way to connect and engage, with agricultural issues, activists, farmers, and policy.”
Winter is the most opportune time for busy farmers to rest, regroup, order seeds, and attend farming conferences being held across the country. Regional produce buyers for The FruitGuys are attending conferences in their areas.
The conferences "help us understand the issues that farms may be dealing with and the trends they are seeing, which in turn helps us better work with our farmers and helps inform our efforts around Good Works and Farm Stewardship," says Erin Mittelstaedt, The FruitGuys VP of Operations.
East Coast FruitGuys buyer Jessica Bickis and Eastern Regional Manager Kim Jordan attended the 21st annual Farming for the Future conference organized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), another advocacy ad education group committed to supporting small farms and local food systems. Kim called the February conference “a great mixture of rural farmers, sustainability advocates, dairy farmers, and urban growers from all over Pennsylvania.” She said that many sustainable farmers expressed “gratitude that people seem to becoming more and more aware of where their food is grown and who grows it." In March, Mid West Buyer Rachel Schiros will attend the Family Farmed conference.
The attendees at events such as Eco Farm defy characterization. There are farmers, activists, climate geeks, sustainability scientists, produce buyers, chefs, and just folks. The participants are a mix of generations and styles, some coming with their kids (childcare was provided). Yet, you will still hear snippets of farmers' conversations about tractors such as, “That ”˜58 Indy could go 30MPH in road gear!” or introductory conversations that begin “So, how long you been in the dirt?”
The sixty-odd workshops offered a range of information, training, and networking opportunities on topics ranging from soil, grazing systems, bees, and growing grain to creating food hubs, labor laws, packaging, alternative financing, and food safety. This year farmers were concerned with some front burner environmental topics, including a California ballot initiative that would require that food containing GMOs be labeled as such; stopping fracking (hydraulic fracturing, a mining process that extracts natural gas using pressurized chemicals that have been shown to leach into groundwater supplies) of the Marcellus Shale formation in New York and the mid-Atlantic region; and the federal Farm Bill, which is up for renewal by Congress in 2012.
Nationwide, the larger topic for 2012 is the survival of the organic family farmer: how to preserve affordable farmland, and the task of transferring retiring family farms to younger farmers, sometimes not related to the owners. A large percentage of U.S. farmers are retiring but their children are not taking up the mantle. However, farming as a livelihood has captured the imagination, willpower, and strength of a whole new generation of young people who are looking for farms to take over or continue.
Organizations such as California FarmLink were on-hand at Eco Farm to help connect new farmers with land opportunities. Of those responding to new farmer training opportunities, The Center for Land Based Training reported that 41 percent were under age 36 and 7 percent were under 21. Nearly 70 percent of new farmers have a college or post-graduate degree. The trend is that many people are switching careers and college grads are moving into farming - which is a hopeful sign for the future of farming in the US.
Dave Henson of Occidental Arts and Ecology welcomed the new and established farmers in his plenary speech: "Every year, this conference is populated by idea-visionaries, practical problem solvers, and a beautiful community of people who love life, land, farming, food and each other. Collectively, we are about as hopeful and hard working community as any."