Rooted in discomfort: Dispatch from the MOSES organic farming conference

rootsLately 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.

2 Responsesto “Rooted in discomfort: Dispatch from the MOSES organic farming conference”

  1. policyhog says:

    Thanks Steph…nice post and great to see you in LaCrosse.  For those who have never been, it is held in a beautiful spot right on the Mississippi.  Bald Eagles fishing on the ice. 

    Every Feb. it the  biggest gathering of the U.S. organic farmer tribe, about 2600 total.  More than at Eco-farm and other large conferences, producers do make up the large majority of attendees.  This is reflected in the name evolving into simply “The Organic Conference.”

    Discomfort may be a weak word for what some of the farmers are feeling.  Dairy prices, pollinators, the regulatory morasses and lack of organic seed improvement all wafted uneasily in the atmosphere.  Yet there was also an optimistic pheremone throughout the week.   This optimism has always been a contrast of organic farming meetings from their conventional counterparts, but it is all the more striking in the current environment.

    Certainly the early developments at Obama’s USDA created a certain lift.  There’s also the genetically positive  disposition of the American heartlanders.  But for me it also had something to do with an emergent glimpse of various parts becoming a full system. 

    I mean that systemic change is hazily visible in the growing linkages and flows of  food, ideas, energy and economic values among farms, schools, cities, colleges, co-ops and companies and so on.   It’s only a whiff against the gigantic stinking global messes that need not be listed.  Maybe that wisp though is enough to motivate doubling up our urgency and intention to really practice a new paradigm on a systemic scale.

    We can’t just rail against the toxic industrial techno-monopolies.   We must and we are building power to take them on, in our communities and in the capitols. We need an equal effort to build what will replace them.  It’s a lot of work to do but it will smell good!



  2. Mary Jurmain says:

    Is MOSES still sponsored by Horizon?  I have boycotted it for the last two years because Horizon, which claims to be organic but according to the Cornucopia Institute isn’t really,  was a key sponsor and “disinvited” Cornucopia as speakers because they called them out on it.