Proving that sustainable agriculture is hotter than a compost pile in July, the 28th annual Ecological Farming Conference known to all as Eco-Farm — from which I've just returned — completely sold out in record time. More than 1,500 farmers, ranchers, educators, and activists descended on Asilomar, the conference center set in a beautiful oceanside national park near Monterey, CA, for a jam-packed three days and more than 70 information sessions. Among those I attended were ones on the health threat posed by genetically modified foods (see my traveling companion Tom Philpott's writeup at Gristmill), the challenges of small-scale organic meat production, whether mainstream retailers can be trusted to market organic food, self-regulation of California's leafy-greens industry, and research into the nutritional value of organic vs. conventional foods. I hope to share some of what I learned when my pesky pinched-nerve issues improve, along with accounts of the lighter side of Eco-Farm — the seed swap, talent show, and dance.
There was a palpable air of excitement to the conference that even the nonstop drizzle couldn't dampen. The original hippie farmers, with their ponytails, grizzled beards, and amazingly buff chests and arms, mingled freely with their fresh-scrubbed heirs; everyone kept saying they'd never seen so many young people at an Eco-Farm. I interviewed a few attendees informally to learn more about who they were and why they were there.
Lucienne Grunder, Owl Creek Ranch
Grows Chestnuts, walnuts, and a red-fleshed nut called Livermore on 600+ acres near Modesto, CA
Farming since "1979. I had grass-fed beef back then. I was way ahead of my time. People wanted low fat, but they thought it was too tough."
Eco-Farms attended Four
Why she attends "To network and meet other farmers. Chestnuts are still pretty unknown, although Monterey Market [in Berkeley] has been very supportive almost since we started growing them years ago."
Favorite session "Jeffrey L. Smith on the dangers of genetically modified foods. We have been so careful for a long time about what we eat, but I am really worried now about what the kids are getting in the schools."
Carlos Torrez, California Polytechnic Institute
Grows Organic fruits and vegetables as part of CalPoly's student-run organic farm; he's a graduate student in botany
Eco-Farms attended "This is my first. It's pretty neat. I never would have thought there were so many people interested in organic farming. I feel at home here."
Learned "A lot about the importance of hedgerows and non-crop vegetation, and how that's being threatened by the new food-safety regulations."
Nora Brereton, Hayes Valley Neighborhood Parks Group
Teaches Garden education to children and residents around the Koshland community garden in San Francisco
On Eco-Farm "This is my first one. It was so nice to have time to brainstorm and talk with people — I feel really inspired, with many new ideas."
Learned "A lot about immigration policy, from the session on Thursday."
Grows Grapes for various Sonoma wineries
Why came to Eco-Farm "I spend a lot of time next to grapevines. I like to meet other farmers, find out what's new."
Favorite sessions "The one with the older organic farmers explaining the history of their farms and families was cool. I also learned a lot from the session with Native Americans talking about traditional resource management. There were so many I would have liked to go to."