Organic Farmers at MOSES Conference Plant Seeds for a Sustainable Future

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day at the largest annual organic farming conference in the US, held just two hours away from the Twin Cities, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference provided a glimpse into the zeitgeist of today’s organic movement. Although organic food is fully integrated into the marketplace and can be found everywhere from Cub Foods to The Wedge, the small farmers who make up the backbone of the movement don’t lack for revolutionary fervor. They’re still driven by a passion to change the world.

There’s no better evidence of this passion than the twinkles in the eyes and sly grins on the faces of farmers who come to the conference to swap their seeds. By developing their own seeds, saving them for replanting year after year, and sharing them with other farmers, they’re thumbing their noses at the conventional seed industry. That industry is dominated by giants like Monsanto, which develop and patent seeds and then require the farmers that use them to repurchase them every year, essentially making them pay over and over again for the same technology, instead of buying it once and re-using it. This strategy has been very successful – Monsanto controls 95 percent of the soy and 80 percent of the corn grown in the US, according to the Associated Press – but organic farmers aren’t about to let them get away with it. And by independently developing their own seeds, organic farmers are doing more than just bucking a trend. They’re ensuring that the seed pool remains diverse, and that heirloom varieties aren’t lost forever.

They may also be building a life-raft to help us survive a climatically uncertain future. As Lisa Hamilton, conference presenter and author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers and the Age of Agribusiness, noted, highly productive plants like the varieties sold by Monsanto often only thrive in a narrow range of environmental conditions. Monsanto and its peers are responding to the threat of a changing climate by developing new genetically-modified strains, but the profusion of seeds being stewarded by organic farmers may be a better safety net. (Surely it was a farmer who first warned us not to put all our eggs in one basket?)

The race to innovate isn’t stopping with new seed varieties, either. Chuck Hassebrook, MOSES's keynote speaker and Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs, reminded farmers to continue to be entrepreneurs.  With the current market success of grass-fed beef, he wondered whether grass-fed milk might be next on the horizon. Rodale Institute Farm Director Jeff Moyer encouraged farmers in his presentation to think about using perennial plants like switchgrass and miscanthus as buffers around their cropland to prevent erosion of soil into waterways. These perennials have the additional advantages of sequestering carbon (a big plus for mitigating global warming) and being convertible into biofuel through a much more environmentally friendly process than turning corn into ethanol. Lots for farmers to digest and experiment with, and lots to get consumers and environmental advocates excited.

Despite all the emphasis on progress and innovation, though, it was clear that the more things change, the more (some) things stay the same. One pervasive fact of life for organic farmers, unfortunately, is the rift between themselves and their conventional peers. Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Farm in North Dakota, which develops and markets organic seeds, reminisced in her presentation over a conversation she had had with her neighbor in the 1980s when she started farming organically. The neighbor – a dietitian from a family of conventional farmers – told her that “organic” was nothing more than a marketing ploy. Podoll’s story sounded like no more than an amusing historical anecdote until an audience member asked advice on how to partner with conventional farmers, with whom organic farmers often share both natural resources and social communities. In response, Podoll and co-presenter Lisa Hamilton offered advice for networking with other organic farmers, but couldn’t help bridge the gap between proponents of conventional and organic farming.

A more positive constant in organic farmers’ lives is the continuing survival, against all odds, of the family farm. Support for family farms, which Chuck Hassebrook defined as those owned by the very people that farm them day-in-day-out, was evident among all participants of the MOSES conference. Hassebrook’s insistence that the government stop subsidizing “bigness” to the detriment of small family-run operations met with thunderous applause. Despite these skewed subsidies, the dozens of farmers at the conference who shared their expertise in everything from pasturing poultry to building hoophouses demonstrated beyond a doubt that the family farm is alive and well. The 2,800 or so conference participants are going to make sure it stays that way.

“Organic” might not be as trendy today as “local” or “sustainable,” but organic farmers are still out there fighting the good fight. They haven’t lost an inch of their spirit, or their conviction that organic farming can literally make the world a better place. And since they share many of the values of the proponents of local and sustainable farming, they support many of the same goals. At the MOSES conference, they both celebrated their successes in meeting those goals and challenged themselves to keep covering new ground. The revolution isn’t over.

Angelique Chao is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who spends most of her time noodling about the ethical implications of what we choose to eat. She thought she’d left philosophizing behind for good when she finished her dissertation and joined the business world, but after several years of corporate life her natural disposition reasserted itself, and she’s now a full-time writer and researcher. When she’s not out touring farms and processing facilities, you’re likely to find her at one laptop-friendly spot or another -- a library, a coffee shop, or home. She blogs at


I'm always curious to know why Oganic produce are more expensive. If they are grown without any pesticides herbicides chemicals that cost money, then shouldn't they be cheaper?

Also, the organic produce that are grown in Mexico, are they really organic? Is there a way Dept of Agriculture checks and monitors the farming in Mexico? I'm just curious.

Thank you.

To answer Rashmi's question about why organic is more expensive: We substitute management and labor for oil. Oil is absurdly undervalued so products made from it are very cheap.

Organic farms do have weeds and insect pests to deal with. We can't do nothing, we wouldn't get a crop. So it is human labor that makes the system work. Labor is my biggest expense. In an organic system we pay more of the real cost of the food upfront. That makes it more expensive since we are externalizing fewer of the production costs.

As far as imported organic products, hmmm maybe. It kind of depends on your definition of organic. If you add 300 gallons of diesel fuel to a truckload of Mexican organic produce, is it still organic ? Was US feedlot dairy ever organic ?

Organic certification is only a substitute for knowing your farmer.

Riverbend Farm

Thank you for answering my questions Greg.

Yes, thank you Greg. We appreciate your response and point of view. "Organic" has a strict definition according to our government, but it's one that doesn't necessarily include fair-trade labor practices. Connecting the dots helps us get a much better sense of what we're paying for and why.

'Organic' has different meaning for my country's farmers. FArmers define it as food production done through natural fertilizers like animal manure. And I am ready to pay high amount for those types of foods. It is because organic (in my country's definition) food production produces low amount of food than that of chemical used fertilizer. Similarly, these types of foods are highly demanded in our neighbour countries too for high amount of protein etc.

I am not professional in this field. But I just stated what it looks like to me as just consumer.

Studs from ficus tree

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