Lately I’ve realized that in the midst of distracting sights and sounds, I forget to notice the smells around me. So last weekend at the Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I made an effort to pay attention. Surrounded by friends new and old, I smelled hay, dirt, manure, beer, sweat and growth. Fields, leather, people, wool, and love.
The fact that the rooms were so full of smells is a testament to me of the values that the attendees of this conference hold - hard and honest work, being outside, authentic living, natural materials and quick, genuine smiles.
I first went to the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, put on by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), five years ago in 2004. I remember being impressed in several ways – the food was amazing and lived up to the expectations of an organic farming conference, the speakers were inspiring, and the people who attended felt like old friends I just hadn’t met yet. Back then, the conference attracted around 800 folks from around the Midwest. Since then the conference has grown to 2,700 participants from around the country, but still has the same friendly, down-home feeling without a suit or tie to be seen.
One of the more memorable quotes was from Tom Frantzen, who with his wife Irene farms in New Hampton, Iowa. They were named the farmers of the year. In the award presentation, Tom was quoted as saying that “change is not made by comfortable people."
There is a lot to be uncomfortable about these days. Author, physicist, and agricultural activist Vandana Shiva, one of two keynotes at the conference this year, discussed her extreme discomfort with consolidated, industrial agriculture as a model for feeding the world. Even though mega-meatpacking corporation JBS recently announced it will cease its efforts to acquire National Beef Packing, the effects of agricultural consolidation still plague family farmers.
To a packed audience, Dr. Shiva remembered the roots of industrial agriculture, which was born out of a need to find different uses for the chemicals of war. Now seeds are patented and controlled by only a few multi-national corporations while producers are driven further into debt and suffer from hunger. As agriculture becomes more consolidated and fewer people control our food supply, Dr. Shiva asserted that the very health of our democracy is at risk.
A strong democracy requires that people, not large corporations, are free to control their own destiny, she said. It requires broad scale opportunity, distributed ownership. The control over decisions about our economy, society and environment are vested in the people. Agriculture is an important frontier in the battle to preserve the values that are crucial to our democracy.
I found Dr. Shiva riveting, as did much of the crowd; we all popped to our feet the moment she finished speaking. As I listened, though, I found myself wanting references for many of the points she raised. At length, she discussed the detrimental effects of chemicals and genetically modified crops on soil flora and fauna that clearly came from studies other than those funded by agribusinesses. It is another effect of agricultural consolidation that private research dollars to fund projects supporting claims of agribusinesses are much more plentiful than publicly-funded research.
In the end, Dr. Shiva urged the farmers in the audience to protect nature’s means of producing abundance by using organic farming methods.
It can be hard to challenge people's preconceived notions about what kind of food and farming system our country needs or how to make the policy changes necessary to realize a different system. But the change we need won't come until we face our discomfort with the fact that our current system fails for too many of us.
If we can all summon the courage to confront the conventional wisdom of our families, friends, neighbors and co-workers, we can force people to face their discomfort with the current situation. Because honestly, who can help being uncomfortable when you really start to think about corporate food system?
The conference reminded me that I am part of a larger farming and rural community that isn't limited by geography. Instead, we're connected by a set of shared values. While I would love to build a small town out of the 2,700 attendees at the Organic Farming Conference, I think it is more valuable for each of us to go home to our communities and try to make each one a better place to live.