Elders and newcomers convene at organic farming conference
By Amy Wu
EcoFarm, a premier conference focused on organic farming, celebrated its 40th year with solid attendance that stretched far beyond its west coast roots. An estimated 1,657 attendees from 29 states and nine countries including the U.S., gathered at the Asilomar State Beach & Conference Center in Monterey from Jan. 22-25th.
Photo: RegenerAsians: Asian-Americans Reconnecting with Agricultural Heritage session led by Christine Su. By Broken Banjo Photography
This year’s conference titled “20/20 Vision: 40 Years and Growing,” featured 70 plus panels/workshops under 14 themed tracks, which covered a variety of topics from farm business, policy, pests/beneficial insects and ecosystems to regenerative agriculture and the history of agriculture in California. In addition, the three-day gathering included a tradeshow with 50 exhibitors, farm tours with a focus on soil health, screenings of ag-focused films, the annual and popular seed exchange, a variety of after-hour mixers sponsored by various organizations, and the awards dinner followed by live music and dancing on the final night.
Photo: Farm Tour at JSM Organics with Javier Zamora, by Broken Banjo Photography
A few of the many highlights of this year’s conference included:
- All keynote presentations this year were livestreamed allowing those who could not attend a chance to watch the presentations;
- Pre-conference day-long tours, which included visits to a wide range of farms including Coastal Moon Berry Farms - a blueberry and cannabis farm, Lakeside Organic Gardens - a large organic grower, and JSM Organics - a diversified grower with a specialty in strawberries;
- The annual Seed Swap, where people could connect with dozens upon dozens of growers and pick up seeds from one-another;
- An art exhibition featuring photos submitted by growers was curated by Alan Haight a farmer and artist based in Nevada City;
- An international agroecology delegation of small coffee growers from Central America, came to EcoFarm to learn and also shared more about their practices. The group was organized by Peter Ruddock, a co-founder of EcoFarm's Diversity Advisory Group.
- Panels and events that centered on farm labor and immigration policies including the film "The Last Harvest" about the shortage of farm labor in California agriculture. “This is the kind of discussion that EcoFarm needs to be taking an on-going role in hosting,” says Andy Fisher, executive director of EcoFarm.
- A Town Hall Meeting with Congressman Jimmy Panetta and CDFA Secretary Karen Ross in an informal question and answer session about key policy issues related to climate change, organics, marketing and other agricultural topics.
Photo: Town Hall Meeting with Congressman Jimmy Panetta and Secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross. By Broken Banjo Photography
The keynote presentation from Dr. Vandana Shiva the world-renowned scholar and tireless crusader for economic, food, and gender justice was well received. “The biggest solution to climate change...become part of the healing of the earth by returning organic matter to the soil,” said Shiva, noting the importance of regenerating food systems.
Rachel Duchak, a food journalist and repeat EcoFarm attendee, was especially inspired by Shiva’s speech.
“She is so smart and fearless: I particularly appreciate how she connects the dots of power, imperialism, money, and the food system in a way that is brutally honest while still providing a hopeful angle on how we the people can confront corporations and win,” says Duchak.
Photo: Keynote speaker Dr. Vandana Shiva, by Broken Banjo Photography
Many EcoFarm Conference attendees are growers or work in the agriculture industry, and are drawn to the event to gain knowledge or engage in exchange about organic growing techniques. Topics revolving around soil health, cover cropping, innovation, pest management, beneficial insects, pollinators and regenerative agriculture are part of that conversation.
Pam Marrone, the founder of Marrone Bio Innovations that produces bio-based pest management, says “the farm tour is always the best because you learn so much from talking with innovative growers.” Marrone, who took extensive notes on the tour to share with her company, says she learned “how regenerative agriculture, while not new, is gaining steam as a new movement backed by the need for increasing soil health and farmer resilience.”
Some attendees said they planned to return home and apply what they had learned, or share their knowledge with others. Helen Hatthowe, a farmer from Oregon, has been to numerous EcoFarms in the past. “It was wonderful to have both parts one and two for both the minimizing tillage and no-till workshops so that presenters could go into more depth,” Hatthowe wrote in her conference feedback. “Listening to successful organic farmers speak was both inspirational and helped me rethink how to change things on my own farm.”
Another grower wrote,“EcoFarm 2020 had innovative soil management workshops with very practical, hands-on approaches. That made the conference for me, as well as all the connections with other farmers.”
Diversity is a pivotal part of EcoFarm and conference organizers continue efforts to step up diversity with race, ethnicity and gender. Four years ago the organization launched the Diversity Advisory Group, a group of people passionate about reaching out to communities that are underserved or underrepresented.
“EcoFarm set itself a goal to match the demographic diversity of California, in attendees, speakers, volunteers, board and staff. It is much more diverse than when we began this effort, but there is much more work to do,” Ruddock has said.
This year diversity could be seen in a number of ways. There were events presented solely in Spanish designed to attract more native Spanish speakers. This included a workshop on year-round strawberry production by EcoFarm board member Javier Zamora the founder of JSM Organics.
Photo: International Delegation from Nicaragua and Mexico presenting a workshop on Women Building Local Economies with Agroecology in Mesoamerica. By Broken Banjo Photography
A number of panels and workshops featured native Spanish speakers. In the panel “Seen But Not Heard: Women of Color in Agriculture,” Celsa Ortega -- a native of Mexico and mother of four, shared her story of going from fieldworker to recently starting her own farm as part of the ALBA program in Salinas.
The Women in Food and Agriculture themed track saw more programming this year including a panel on women owned and operated businesses. The long running Women in Food and Agriculture Discussion Group & Mixer attracted women from all ages and backgrounds.
History was another popular track that offered a range of talks including the history of Native People to the history of organic farming on the West Coast. “An Untold History: Asians in Farming” workshop drew a crowd with standing room only. Larry Hirahara, a Japanese-American farmer in Madera and a long-time grower in the Salinas Valley, shared the contributions of Japanese-American farmers in the Salinas Valley along with the lineage of the immigration history. Hirahara shared a pop-up exhibition with photos of Japanese farmers. Robina Bhatti, a scholar with CSUMB and farmer with ALBA, brought to light the contributions of Southeast Asians especially in the Imperial Valley. Bhatti noted that Mexidus (a mix of Mexicans and Hindus) were now a part of the shifting landscape of immigration and otherwise.
There was extended space for sharing related to the challenges that growers of color face. Christine Su, the CEO and founder of PastureMap, led a discussion group designed for Asian farmers.
This year’s EcoFarm also attracted more young people in their 20s and 30s who are either farming or interested in farming. The conference has tended to skew toward an older crowd, “and yet, young people are attending in higher numbers than ever…They are more diverse than the older crowd. And they are likely the source of much of the new energy that we are feeling,” Ruddock says.
EcoFarm also awarded 70 scholarships making it possible for folks such as Sharie Bee, a registered nurse who recently moved into bee farming, to attend. For Bee it was her first EcoFarm Conference. Bee said a highlight was meeting and listening to Shiva, and gaining insight on the potential of success and marketability from speakers such as Jonathan Lundgren, Terry Oxford and Susan Kegley.
“This conference was a beacon of light which all of us can share with the world,” says Bee who founded beekeeping company Cascade Girl.
Alan Haight, who has been a farmer for the past 20 years, said the diversity ultimately emerged through the hundreds of photos he curated from growers for his art exhibition that debuted on the first night of the conference. Growers from all over the world submitted photographs showing them in their element—planting, harvesting, seeding and much more.
“As we all know, farming can be hard but it also produces a kind of beauty that is difficult to find in another human economic endeavor that is so basic to human wellbeing and sustenance,” Haight says.
Alan Haight presenting "Who We Are: Farmers in their Own Image" at EcoFarm's Opening Night Art Show. By Broken Banjo Photography
In the end, most attendees agree that EcoFarm is about bringing people together and giving them the opportunity to connect. Friendships are built and strengthened.
“Most of all, I enjoy seeing a wide range of attendees having such a productive and wonderful time learning, networking, strategizing, and being inspired. It's amazing to see that so many people have such a deep connection to EcoFarm, that they return year after year,” Fisher says.
More information about EcoFarm 2020
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To learn more about EcoFarm Conference visit www.eco-farm.org
Amy Wu is the founder and chief content director of “From Farms to Incubators,” a multimedia storytelling platform that highlights women innovators in agtech. She is a member of EcoFarm’s Diversity Advisory Committee.