Beet Farmer-Reporter Has Fun, as Usual at 23rd Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference

March 2, 2012 at 10:57 am

After the long growing season, weekly markets, CSA deliveries, hot sun, pelting rain…some farmers I know look forward to the season ending frost, the snowdrifts that keep them inside under a warm blanket. Winter slows things down on the farm; we breathe; we reflect; and we plan. Veggie farmers pore of their seed catalogs – glossy farmer porn from Johnny’s Seeds or artistic line drawings from Fedco. High Mowing Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange get a lot of love, too. Heirloom aficionados turn to Bake Creek. Farms looking to grow polish their business plans. Livestock farmers prepare for spring -calving, lambing, kidding, farrowing, etc. Farmers, also, leave their slumbering farms for winter conferences. This is the rare time when farmers and aspiring farmers get together to share knowledge, learn new skills, and SOCIALIZE!

This past weekend 3,339 farmers, aspiring farmer, and people concerned with moving agriculture to more sustainable models , congregated in La Crosse, WI for the 23rd annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference(OFC). MOSES, although revelatory, is not a biblical reference. MOSES stands for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.

The MOSES OFC registration officially opened on Thursday evening, but some farmers had been hard at it since morning at the Organic University (OU). Pre-conference sessions have been incorporated at MOSES OFC for several years. The OU offers small, intensive sessions for farmers to learn topics in depth. This year’s sessions included: Advanced (organic) Crop Agronomics, Growing Dollars in Your High Tunnel, Livestock Health Care and Management, Balancing Soil Fertility for Top Quality and High Yields, Fearless Farm Financials, Quality Forage Production for Dairy and Beef, Organic Pastured Poultry A-Z, Producing Organic Beer Ingredients, Intro to Organic Farming Systems, and Scaling Up Your Vegetable Operations (Local CSA operator, Matt Sheaffer, of Sandhill Organics taught this course).

Another popular pre-conference program was the Rural Women’s Project “In Her Boots” program that dealt with the singular obstacles women face and their dynamic approaches to organic agriculture. Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm’s dear friend Lisa Kivirist of Inn Serendipity facilitated this workshop.
(Lisa Kivirist at the MOSES Booth)

At 5:00 on Thursday (opening of registration/sign-in), the conference center began to hum. On the agenda were:  farm documentary film screenings, presentation of the Organic Farmer of the Year award, and the Second Annual MOSES Poetry Slam.

I skipped the general session to get dinner with farmer friends, but my son and I attended the poetry slam. Recitations ranged from the silly to the sublime. All were creative, some were intensely moving, and each was indicative of the complex blend of art, science, passion, and humor necessary to be a sustainable farmer. This event definitely put some CULTURE back into agriculture!
On Friday the conference moved into high gear. There were three sessions offering a total of 34 different workshops. Topics ranged from GMO contamination to soil health, to incorporating additional markets into CSA. The silent auction opened at 8:00am, the exhibit hall was open, and several social events were planned for evening.
Here are some pics from the exhibit halls.
(Lisa Isenhart of the Chicago’s own Food Animals Concerns Trust – FACT)
(Organic seed supplier – Albert Lea)
(Brett of the Young Organic Stewards checking out some farm tools)
Evening events included: more film screenings, a children’s theatre production “The Little Red Hen and the Big Feast”, Wine and Dine with MOSES benefit dinner, and live music and dancing in the ballroom.

The children’s production was by kids who were participating in the conference childcare. The MOSES OFC has great childcare! There are crafts, a movement room (dodge-ball anyone?), workshops, and group of teenagers from a local Waldorf School help keep everything moving smoothly. Our two youngest attended in 2011 and were in the children’s production. This year our middle boy returned to visit with old/new friends and anticipated getting to MOSES for weeks.

This year, I scored a free ticket to the “Wine & Dine” event – thanks Lisa Kivirist! Chicago notables at the event were David Miller of Working Farms Capital and Helen Cameron of Uncommon Ground. I was seated at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) table and met their president Jim Harkness. I felt good chatting with someone who is working to effect positive changes in food and farm policy (read 2012 Farm Bill) that support sustainable farming. Particularly interesting was the idea of carving money out of the USDA’s farm crop and revenue insurance subsidies to help farmers acquire affordable healthcare coverage. This is policy that ALL farmers could support as most conventional farmers rely on a spouse’s group plan for coverage. The lack of affordable healthcare is a HUGE barrier for young farmers entering the field. If anything comes of it, I’ll post here!

Not surprisingly, the table’s discussion revolved around food – including food options and typical choices made by consumers. I mentioned the importance of media literacy in making good food choices.  Melinda Hemmelgarn (Food Sleuth), who was sitting across the table, nearly fell out of her chair.
“Are you a teacher? Do you work in media literacy?” she asked me excitedly.
“No. I’m a farmer; and, as a PARENT, media literacy is very important.” I told her.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone outside of a media literacy conference talk so well about media literacy,” she told me. (Melinda is a registered dietician from Columbia, MO. She writes a blog that connects the dots between health, nutrition and our food system. Find her radio podcast here: Food Sleuth.)

I think I made another friend at MOSES OFC.

MOSES OFC offers a lot of workshops and opportunities to learn from other farmers (and some university people) committed to organic and sustainable farming in a structured setting. Even though there are thousands of people attending the conference, the MOSES staff and a cadre of volunteers keep everything running smoothly.  What I like best about MOSES OFC; however, is the unstructured time and “hallway moments” when farmers connect. Sometimes old friends reconnect to reminisce, share ideas, or commiserate – often all three. Other times, a new friendship forms.  At lunch on Saturday, I met a couple from Missouri that operate a meat CSA. It was fun to learn about the similarities and differences in our models and approaches.
Speaking of lunch, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the food at MOSES OFC. Breakfast, lunch, and snacks are including with conference registration; and everything on the menu is organic with most of it being sourced locally. I have to say that it is just as gratifying for me to meet the farmers who feed me at MOSES as it is for my CSA members to meet me.  Coffee (there is a lot of coffee consumed at the conference) is Peace Coffee, and dairy comes from Organic Valley – they are big supporters of MOSES. An organic dinner is, also, available at a very reasonable $15 for adults and $7 for kids. It being Wisconsin, cheese (organic, of course) was served with every meal.

I left the conference physically tired, but mentally refreshed – by new friendships, innovative ideas, and real hope for future. If you’re and aspiring farmer, food activist, or simply a local food aficionado; I highly recommend making the trip to La Crosse and immerse yourself in the local, organic flavors and feel the energy of the good food movement. You’ll go home with a new appreciation for the people making it happen in the field. I know I do!