"PASA includes farmers who see the growing of nutritious food as an end in itself, not just a way to eke a living from a patch of dirt." - Kim Miller, PASA president 2000-2007
This past weekend, I was in State College, Pennsylvania, for the annual Farming for the Future Conference, the largest sustainable agriculture gathering on the East Coast and among the biggest in the country, with about 1,700 attending.
The conference was organized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and drew all sorts of farmers and artisans out of the hills and gulleys: from Amish draft-horsesmen to biodiesel proponents, from grass-fed beef ranchers to organic herb farmers, from bee keepers and mushroom culitvators to back-woods denizens of hand hoes and makers of tomato sauce, organic flour and artisanal cheese.
There wasn't an agribusinesses in sight.
I participated in a couple of panels, on the growth of organics and where this movement is headed. As might be expected, there were misgivings about the onward corporatization of organics and concern that the label would be devalued. At the same time, farmers expressed a strong desire to protect the "meaning" of organic, fight to maintain the integrity of the organic label, and welcome corporate players, if they played by the rules. Well, that last point might be overstating it - there was a clear distrust of the mainstream food companies.
One of the more enlighting talks of the conference came from Michael Ableman,who delivered a keynote on the need to elevate the recognition of farmers and draw new ones into the fold. He also talked about ways to better faciliate the farmer & consumer connection (one thing this blog aims to do as well).
His solution - don't hit people over the head with a sense of all that's gone wrong, rather entice them with what can go right. For consumers, that might come through the food and an understanding of how it was grown and who grew it.
He also talked about the need to attract younger farmers to the land, perhaps with a sexual enticement. Ummm, not actual, but building on the idea - as one bumper sticker from the 60's put it - that "organic farmers are more fertile." Sexuality is humming through the farm, not just among the animals, but among the bugs, the seeds, in the soil itself at a microbrial level. He drew out this metaphore to many laughs, but made the point that there was a richness, even, at the extreme, an eroticism in this relationship with the land. Isn't this what marketers have known all along? Sell the sizzle? Actually, I've met quite a lot of young farm interns who matched up during their apprentice years and went on to start farms of their own.
The other interesting thing - aside from the workshops on how to butcher an animal, make your own sauerkraut, start a farmers' market - was the absolute buzz around biodiesel.
Recall, this meeting is the epitome of the do-it-yourself set and finally, in energy, biodiesel gives these farmers one more opportunity to cut their ties with The Man - Big Oil. Long live the french fry!
One farmer, though, who picks up gallons of the stuff every week, said he's around the fry oil so much, belching out of his tractors and trucks, that he has sworn off fries. "I won't eat 'em," he said. But that's probably not a bad thing.
I suggested, for variety, he try fry oil from a Chinese restaurant.
"That's a good idea, except when you get frying oil from a Chinese restaurant the trucks never seem to get full," he replied.