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 http://fromanimaltomeat.com.