LA CROSSE - More than 350 participants from around the Midwest are expected to take part in the 14th annual Midwest Value Added Agriculture Conference, Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 12-13, at the La Crosse Center.
The conference features several speakers who are considered leaders in sustainable agriculture for small-scale farmers and the development of niche markets for locally-produced food.
Francis Thicke, an Iowa farmer, will speak on "Ecology as a Model for 21st Century Agriculture." Thicke and his wife Susan own and operate an 80-cow, grass-based, organic dairy near Fairfield, Iowa. They process their milk on the farm and market their dairy products through grocery stores and restaurants in Fairfield.
Thicke has a Ph.D. in soil fertility and has served as National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Laura Jackson, a professor of biology at Northern Iowa, will speak about "Tallgrass Prairie: Adding reliance value for farms and watersheds."
"The agricultural Midwest is losing its ability to absorb shocks such as the current drought and recent floods," writes Jackson. "Ever-increasing acreage of row crops along with tiling and tillage have reduced our topsoil depth and quality while moving water out of the fields faster into rivers.
"The original tall grass prairies and savannas that built our soils are largely gone, but prairie processes live on where cattle graze on grass. Deep-rooted perennial grasses and wildflowers are well-adapted to both drought and heavy rains, protecting and building the soil while providing forage throughout the summer.
"If we look at agriculture through the lens of ecological restoration, there are many practical opportunities for imptoving resilience at the level of the farm and the watershed."
Dr. John Ikerd, a retired professor and author, will speak on "Re-creating the Food System; Through Cooperation." "The global food system is being re-created in response to growing questions of sustainability," Ikerd writes. "Paradoxically, a quest for ever-greater economic efficiency has led to exploitation of the natural and human resources that are essential for economic sustainability."
Ikerd argues that "vertical cooperation must replace both vertical competition and vertical integration. The new food system must be re-created through cooperation among those who share the ethical and social values essential to moving beyond sustainability fo a new and better way of life."
Other featured speakers include Chris Blanchard of Rock Spring Farm and Flying Rutabaga Works and regional author Michael Perry.
A variety of breakout sessions will deal with grant writing for farmers, market building, "farm to fork" issues and other topics.
The conference is presented by the River Country RC&D Council Inc. It is a non-profit organization that "brings people and resources together to address issues and opportunities, in order to conserve our natural resources, provide sustainability and improve the quality of life for the people who live and work in West Central Wisconsin."
Other major sponsors include the Wisconsin Farmers Union, People's Food Cooperative of La Crosse, Gundersen Lutheran, North Central SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education), Organic Valley, The Cooperative Foundation, Producer's Choice, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Leopold Center, Land Stewardship Project and Daryland Power.
This is the first time the conference has been held in La Crosse. "We are expecting that the conference's location in the heart of the Driftless Area will offer a new and exciting perspective for small-scale farmers, agricultural educators, and local food enthusiasts,": said Marilyn Mayenschein, president of the River County RC&D Council.
Mayenschein added, "This conference comes at a time when the interest in locally sourced food is increasing. Small-scale farmers are developing niche markets, expanding product diversity and sustainability on the farm. At the same time we are seeing increasingly educated consumers reaching out to local farmers for fresh and wholesome foods.
"The stories and knowledge shared at this conference will enhance small-scale producers' ability to create sustainable and profitable businesses that will meet the needs of a growing consumer base.
"The Midwest Value Added Agriculture Conference brings together people from a variety of different backgrounds that all have the same goal of creating sustainable local food systems, complete with thriving rural communities and a diverse and vibrant agricultural sector."