A “food revolution that is sweeping across the country” is what is feeding the continued growth of an annual organic farming conference in La Crosse.
“We might surpass 3,000 participants this year,” said Faye Jones, the director of MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) and co-director of the conference, scheduled for Feb. 24-26.
“Our numbers have continued to grow despite the economy. It’s really because of a food revolution that is sweeping the country. Many people agree that our food affects our health.
“It’s been a ripple effect that has led to growth in the local food movement, farm to school programs, farmer markets and many other things. Organic is very much part of that, and out conference continues to grow because of it.”
More than 70 workshops will be offered this year at the conference. Pre-conference courses, with slightly lower enrollments, will be held on Thursday, Feb. 24. Some of the workshops have become so popular that they get 200 or more attendees, but smaller groups are also available.
“All of our workshops are very hands-on. Farmers learning from farmers has been the heart of the conference. We have researchers coming in with farmer partners for some of our workshops. We also make sure that time is built in for the farmers to talk with each other. They learn from each other, not just in the workshops.”
Jones notes that organic farming is being fed in more recent years by a couple demographic groups that are not the traditional farmer looking to convert to organic practices.
“We’ve seen a growth in early retirees who decide they want to go into organic farming,” she said. “Some have no experience, or perhaps were raised on a farm but have not done farming for years.
“The young farmers also are a growing group. These are young people in their 20s, with virtually no experience, but a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We’ve incorporated things into the conference for these groups.”
A tract of breakout sessions, and even some of the entertainment, for the conference also are geared to young farmers, just starting out.
“They’re the future of organic and sustainable farming,” Jones said. “We want to encourage and help them.”
One of the Organic University sessions features Paul and Sandy Arnold, who have tips for new farmers -- young and old -- on how to get started in market farming. The Arnolds have spent 22 years building their farm from bare land to a thriving organic vegetable and fruit enterprise.
Keynote speakers include Urvashi Rangan, director of Technical Policy for Consumers Union. She has developed a ratings system, database and web site for evaluating environmental labels. She continues to decode the meaning of “eco-labels” for consumers and advocates for credible labeling in the marketplace.
“Organic, natural, sustainable labels can be rather confusing and misleading for the public consumer,” Jones said. “Urvashi has done much to bring credibility to rating these labels and products.”
Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds, will present another keynote address titled “What Are We Waiting For? Now Is The Time to Rebuild Our Healthy Food System.” Stearns will focus on local food system development in Hardwick, Vermont, and the collaborative work among farmers, businesses and the community.
“One of the themes running through this year’s conference has been the link between organic foods and health,” Jones said. “Many consumers of organic foods say they buy the products because of their concerns about health.”
One specialized area that is drawing quite a bit of interest this season is growing mushrooms. Sessions look at the growing of oyster and shitake mushrooms, as well as other more exotic varieties. Mushrooms are being grown as value-added additions to CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and as stand-alone businesses.
The annual conference is a boon to the La Crosse area convention and tourism business during a winter month. It is a natural for the area, with Organic Valley dairy cooperative located in nearby La Farge, the preponderance of organic farms in neighboring Vernon County and other counties, and the proximity of Spring Valley, where MOSES is headquartered.
Mail registrations for the conference must be postmarked by Feb. 11. More information can be found at http://www.mosesorganic.org. Registration can be done at that web site until Feb. 16.
-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He writes the GreenBiz column monthly.