Monthly Archives: January 2008

live-blogging the eco farm conference 4

I am currently live-blogging at the Eco-Farm Conference, at Asilomar State Park in beautiful Pacific Grove, California. It’s Friday, the third day of the conference.

Weather report: Cloudy, drizzly, mild.

Plenary Session this morning features presentations by three successful organic farmers. Right now we are listening to Chuck and Lily Boerner from Hana, Hawaii. Their farm (Ono Organic Farms) looks like a tropical rain forest. They raise beautiful tropical fruits, coffee and specialty fruits. “Grow what you love to eat.”

ono fruit basket
Ono fruit basket

I am sitting in the overflow building where they are broadcasting the plenary session from Merrill Hall. It’s a lot less crowded in here, less than 50 people. There’s room for 250. The capacity in Merrill Hall is less than 900. It is totally full during plenary sessions. So where is everyone? Over 1,600 people pre-registered for the conference, so there must be a large number of folks who are doing other things.

overflow room
Overflow room and informational resource room

Next successful organic farmer is Tony Azevedo of Double T Acres, Stevinson, California. He runs a dairy in the San Joaquin Valley (at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Merced Rivers. He markets through Organic Valley. Tony took over the farm from his father who had started the farm on a run down piece of ground at the end of quarter-mile road. Tony says if you want to know if a dairy is healthy, look at the cats. If the cats are healthy, it’s a healthy dairy.

Tony’s father was able to establish clover and pasture on the white alkaline soils, and learned that after five years he could rotate out of the pasture into corn and be weed free for at least two years. Tony showed many great, old pictures and is a real local history buff. When Tony first purchased the farm from his father he shifted everything over to a more modern, agribusiness approach. He borrowed a bunch of money and put all the cows in confinement, and started buying his seed and fertilizer. It worked for awhile, but cracks started to show up and profits went down. Over time, Tony and his family built up an agritourism museum around a western theme and it turned out to be more profitable than the dairy farm. In fact, he was using money made from the museum to maintain and pay down the debt on the dairy farm. He finally decided to expand the dairy. He was only milking 160 cows. Before doing that he talked to other dairy farmers who were larger than him – 300, 600 and 1200 cow farmers. None of them were making it and looking to get bigger. That’s when Tony decided to do something different.

Tony shared stories about his experiences in Ethiopia, working with actor, Eddie Albert to help that country. One of Tony’s keys to success – focus on quality, not quantity. Other keys – Never allow you education to get in the way of getting your hands dirty; Farm the farm, don’t let the farm farm, you.

Tried to get into the 10:30 session on permaculture. I love permaculture. The session was packed. Actually, there was room in an attached overflow room, but the speaker wasn’t miked and I could barely hear her. I left and tried to catch the farm bill session, but it was packed. It’s raining harder now so I’ve holed myself up in the main lodge to try and catch up this blog. Still haven’t finished the post I started on the farm tour.

After lunch I took a nap. It was great.

John Masiunas and I attended afternoon sessions together. The farming with nature session was interesting…

2:00 – 3:30 Nature-Friendly Farming: What we Know, Don’t know and Need to Know.

Came in the middle of this farmer presented session. Phil Foster presented some very good photos of his farm (Pinnacle Organic, San Juan Bautista, California. The use and establishment of Hedgerows has been a real theme throughout the conference. We say it at the farm tour sites. Seems to be an important element in farming with nature (organic), particularly in controlling insects. Contributes to pollination as it provides habitat for native bees and other pollinators. Commercial beekeepers find their bees are healthier if hives are placed near hedgerows. Birds are also attracked to hedgerows. Birds can eat bad bugs, but can also eat beneficials so it’s a complicated dynamic. Owl houses help with the control of gophers in orchards. Farming with nature is a balancing act. Had to use fences to keep out deer and wild hogs.

Cindy Lashbrook of Riverdance Farm in Livingston, California.

Protecting the soil and building its health is the fundamental objective in farming in a more nature-friendly way. Cover crops are the natural method. But it’s clear Cindy has a passion for endangered (and non-endangered) animal species. 74 acres, only about 60 are farmable. There’s a river running through it. They host public open house event to deal with what she called “nature deficit disorder.”

John Anderson, Hedgerow Farms, Winters, California.

Hedgerow Farms produces native specie plants for use in hedgerows, insectories, riparian corridors and roadside plantings.

Roadsides – native grass plantings and shrubs. The plants change during the growing season, flowering at different times, keeping the weed populations down, and attracting beneficial insects and birds across the whole season. Riparian regions along canal banks are usually kept clean through out the valley to keep weeds from building up. Anderson has developed species mixes that create a wonderful habitat for riparian areas. Soil is held and habitat is created that can support aquatic species. Great images of what they’ve done on the farm to create a much more balanced system. Visit the site.

The Wild Farm Alliance handed out a survey trying to gather research ideas for farming with nature. Looks like they have a good site too.

The question is why farm with nature? Farming is really an organized resistance against the “chaos” of nature, re-inventing it to serve our purposes, forcing it to produce the maximum amount of the product we want. That approach sacrifices an infinite number of good things to optimize one thing – production. The reinvention is never easy and the battle to keep it in the image of our desire is a constant battle against nature’s slow and constant succession back to natural equilibrium. What’s the balance that retains the best of both?

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live-blogging the eco farm conference 3

I am currently live-blogging at the 28th Annual Eco-Farm Conference, January 23-26, 2008, Asilomar State Park and Convention Center, Pacific Grove, CA.

Weather today: Rainy, but beautiful. The people here who live in California are thrilled. It’s raining. After months of drought, water falling from the sky is pure joy. But look at that view!

view from asilomar

Menu Report: The food here at Eco Farm is always fantastic. Breakfast this morning — Biscuits with mushroom cashew gravy, herbed scrambled eggs or tofu, sauteed collards with apples and sesame seeds, turkey sausage, lemon prunes, cold and hot cereal, yogurt, juice. Stand by for lunch!

After breakfast I attended the 8:30 session on the National Organic Program Stakeholders Report. Panel member, Rebecca Spector from the Center for Food Safety presented CFS’ priority issues centered on the inserting more specific wording in the pasture requirement rules for organic livestock and finishing up the organic aquaculture rules. Fish and fish products are appearing on store shelves claiming to be organic when there isn’t even an organic certification for fish. The rapidly growing organic cosmetic industry also needs some attention. Panel member, Jake Lewin from CCOF focused on the need for stronger regulation of certifiers. I find it fascinating the ongoing tension between industrial organic and their constant efforts to water down the rules, and the production/certification industry who are pushing for more stringent rules and enforcement. The latter really values the integrity of the label and are willing to subject themselves to more regulation to insure it. The former seem to value quick, easy profits.

More later. Lunch bell is about to ring…

Menu Report: Lunch — Home made turkey and veggie burgers with all the fixin’s, French onion soup with crostini, spinach salad with lemon shallot dressing, dried fruit and nut platter. All good.

2:00 Plenary Session: A Bright Future for Our Farms and Our Food?

Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center and Kirschenmann Family Farms
Growing Into Our Food Future Sustainably: What’s at Stake?

fred kirschenmann at eco farm

Modern agriculture’s fantasmagorical success has been based on cheap resources. We are coming to the end of the cheap resources party. How will it change farming? The chemical era was an attempt to cheat nature. It was seen as a short cut to providing plant nutrition, but in actuality it short circuited the soil biology necessary to produce healthy plants and healthy food.

Fred presented information on energy, water and climate in terms of agricultural sustainability. But what’s the proper response? How are we going to maintain productivity into the future? And not just for 6 billion people, but for at least 9 billion people! We need to shift from a YOYO (you’re on your own) economy to a WAITT (we’re all in this together) economy. Imagining a better future will inspire humans to make changes now to benefit future generations. He cited Joel Salatin as an example of how different and better we can do things. The brightness of ag’s future will depend on which path we decide to take.

Paul Hepperly, Research Director, Rodale Institute
Organic Farming Sequesters Atmospheric Carbon and Nutrients in Soils

paul hepperly at eco farm

Last week Tim LaSalle, the new CEO at Rodale spoke at our Midwest Organic Production and Marketing Conference. He spoke about the research done at Rodale looking at the potential for organic farming to sequester carbon in the form of soil organic matter. It was a good talk, but short on actual numbers.

I always forget how long ago J.I. Rodale started The Organic Gardening Magazine (1942), and the Rodale Institute (1947). Paul recounted the story of J.I. being told by a doctor that he had two years to live. He moved out of New York City and started growing his own food according organic principles. J.I. lived, eventually delivering the eulogy at the funeral of the doctor that gave him the two year death sentence.

Paul presented results of Rodale’s farming system comparison study, now in its 28th year. Manure and cover crops result in a net increase in soil organic matter (SOM). Each pound of organic matter increases the soil’s ability to water by 40 lbs. Increased soil structure results in increased rate at which water can perculate into the soil. The organic systems tested in the Rodale research are lower in energy use than conventional systems. Cover crops are one of the keys.

Tyrone Hayes has shown that minute concentrations of ag chemicals in the environment impairs the sexual development in frogs. Paul presented other research, non-Rodale research supporting benefits of chemical-free farming and safer food.

Menu Report: Dinner — Spinach Butternut Lasagna, assorted breads, roasted fennel and celeriac with fried sage and currants, farmer’s field salad with balsamic dressing, almond anise biscotti bars.

The Organic Wine Tasting social, held every year to raise money for the Ecofarming Conference Scholarship Fund, was a big success. Had to be 20 vintners there, all organic. In Illinois we have one grape grower/vintner trying to produce an organic wine. Of course, Illinois is a different breed of cat when it comes to grapes. We can grow them, but to do so organically is a real challenge because of the humidity and resulting mildew and disease problems.

wine tasting 1
View from the balcony of Merrill Hall

wine tasting 2
Wine tasting, up close and personal

We turned in early, so we didn’t catch the talent show.

asilomar main lodge
Evening at the Asilomar main lodge

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live-blogging the eco-farm conference 2

Wednesday Farm Tour

Stop 1– Fuentes Berry Farm, Blackberries

Amigo Bob and Roy Fuentes

18 acres of organic blackberries growing the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville, CA are managed by Roy Fuentes and his family. After graduating from the local high school he had plans to attend college and become a CPA. Didn’t work out, but he seems to be doing what he’s meant to do. With high-tunnels and multiple varieties he extends his season in both directions, harvesting 3,200-4000 trays of berries per acre — all organic. He partners with Riders (stop 3) and markets strawberries nationally through Driscoll Berries. Uses cover crops and has planted hedgerows to increase populations of beneficial insects. Roy never admitted it, but he makes organic blackberries look easy.

hoops (and mud) covering whole fields

Stop 2 — Crystal Bay Farm, Organic veggies and agritourism

jeff and lori fiorovich

Jeff and Lori Fiorovich run Crystal Bay Farm, a 3.5 acre agritourism farm with on-site farm stand, u-pick berries and pumpkin patch, and host site for summer day camps for kids.

crystal bay farm 3

Jeff and Lori seem to love what they do and were not shy about sharing the challenges of running a small farm. The location is beautiful and the dogs were friendly.

CBF 3

Stop 3 –to be continued…

Riders Apple Farm is a really well run, organic apple farm and packing facility. Jim Rider showed us around the apple orchard, and described the management implementations of dwarf trees. No ladders means much less labor in pruning and harvesting. Makes sense. Jim also gave us a quick grafting demo. He made it look so easy.

riders apple farm 1
Tom Rider talks about organic apples

riders apples 2
Organic apple orchard with cover crop

Stop 4 — Tom and Constance Broz

broz 1
Tom Broz, the surprise farmer

Thirteen years ago Tom attended an Eco Farm Conference farm tour, and stood on the land he now farms, having no idea that farming was in his future. Now he raises a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables that he markets through a 800 member CSA. He showed us an example of a typical weekly CSA box containing winter veggies off his farm, free-range eggs and a jar of preserved tomatoes. We walked the fields, nibbled on brussel sprouts. I spoke with the CSA’s education coordinator about the school tours and other events they sponsor to educate their members and the general community on the value of organic and local food.

broz 3
Fava beans, a crop and a cover

broz 3
The pear orchard that survived on the Broz farm

At all the farm tour stops I was struck by how segmented the land is, divided up in small parcels, each parcel farmed by different farmers, so that you have several farmers, farming in such close proximity to each other. Then it occurred to me that it’s really the same in Illinois, only on a larger scale. Instead of five to ten (or less) acre plots, we have 40, 80 or 120 acre fields. Conventional farmers plowing right up to the fence dividing his rented land from his organic neighbor.

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live-blogging the eco-farm conference

mud on shoes

Over five years ago I attended my first Eco-Farm Conference and I’ve been dying to come back ever since. Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to return. Today it started — The 28th Annual — and I intend to live-blog my way through it (even though no one is reading).

For the record, I flew in late last night with colleague, John Masiunas, so we could participate in the pre-conference farm tours. 150 of us visited four organic farms in the Watsonville, CA area. The “extraordinarily” cold weather (in the 30s, golly!) failed to dampen people’s spirits. And it didn’t rain. More on the tours later.

Tonight was the opening plenary session, featuring Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling expose on the American food system — Fast Food Nation. I have to admit to wondering about this choice. Though powerfully impacting, FFN was written several years ago and Mr. Schlosser has since moved on to other issues. Still, he’s a big name in my book so I was interested to hear what he had to say about the topic of his keynote address as it was listed in the program — “Sustainability.”

Eric is almost as effective a speaker as he is a writer. The first half of his presentation was basically a review of FFN. McDonald’s and the philosophical mindset that produced it is evil incarnate, having wrecked all manner of harm and destruction on the world. They did this by promoting ignorance (about food), worshiping science, adopting technology without thought to its consequences, ruthlessly pursuing efficiency and treating people and animals like cogs in a machine rather than the sentient beings they are. It was good. It rekindled the flame that set my blood boiling when I read the book. But what about sustainability? According to Eric, the FF mentality is the opposite of sustainability. FF is the mentality of death. And sustainability?…that would be us. The 1,600+ attendees of Eco-Farm Conference and the food awareness movement that we represent. Knowledge is power, and the FFN controls the knowledge. What we have on our side is truth, and a system based on life, respect, holistic health, and a viable alternative to the culture of death that has swept the world. It was a good way to start this thing, the proper mix of righteous indignation, hope and encouragement.

Eric’s concluding comments were a somewhat strange departure from the otherwise pat organic message, but one I was glad to hear. He told us about where he had been last week. In Florida, he joined the fight with migrant ag workers fighting against large tomato growers for higher wages and humane working conditions. He made an attempt to join the organic cause to the cause of these workers. Though strongly supportive of organic, he said he’d rather not have an organic tomato if it comes from a system that exploits its workers like those in Florida. The message was clear — people are more important than any system of food production. Organic needs to be more than just eco-friendly. It needs to worker-friendly and livestock-friendly.

Good start.

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new tools for beginning organic farmers

New from The New Farm — new tools for transitioning to organic.

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got organic? (info)

A goldmine hiding a myriad of informational organic resources. Compiled by the clever folks at the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.

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hope for the youth of america (those wanting to farm)

We’ve been saying this for years. To make a living in agriculture you either have to get big, or get smart. Instead of producing an ever-increasing number of bushels of a commodity that is ever-decreasing in value, why not seek to increase your profit margin on the units of production coming off the farm by adding value…drum roll please…on the farm. Profitable farming now possible on a smaller scale, lowering costs and opening opportunities for young farmers just starting out. Going organic is an obvious strategy.

credit: center of rural affairs

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