The State of Organic Farming, From Yesterday to Tomorrow

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MOSES Farmer Of The Year PresentationI was lucky enough to attend the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) 25th Anniversary Conference in La Crosse, Wis., this past weekend (Feb. 27 to March 1, 2014). The conference began a quarter-century ago with just 90 attendees, compared with the more than 3,000 organic farmers and growers who attended this year’s event. As Faye Jones, the executive director of MOSES exclaimed several times over the weekend, “This is the largest organic farming conference in the known universe!”

That first year, the now infamous four-season gardener from Maine, Eliot Coleman, gave a presentation while dressed as the Lone Ranger (complete with the cowboy hat and face mask). The idea, Jones recalled, was that the Lone Ranger represented those farmers who believed in the “silver bullet” of chemical agriculture. Tonto, on the other hand, represented nature and farmers who wanted to learn from and mimic natural systems in their food production methods. True to its original beginnings, the MOSES conference has proved to be a space where organic farmers connect with and learn from other organic farmers, an invaluable experience for a field of work that usually involves many hours working solo, often in areas surrounded by farmers and farming practices that look down on the “new age” organic and sustainable methods.

While I learned many new skills at the workshops, from how to prevent scab in an organic apple orchard to what to look for when buying a used tractor to organic no-till farming strategies, I took away a few major points. I also sat down with Jones and asked her opinion of how her experience in the organic farming world makes her feel about the current state or organics and the future face of sustainable agriculture. Jones told me she never would have guessed that organic agriculture and food would take off with as much vigor and as much sustained growth as it did from the time of the first conference 25 years ago. Based on my conversation with Jones, exhibitors, presenters and numerous farmers, here’s what to look out for in the next 25 years of organic farming:

MOSES Conference Exhibit Hall

1. Young people are eager to enter organic farming, but they need access to land and resources. The crowd was an incredibly healthy mix of young, middle-aged, and older farmers, all with varying degrees of experience. Most young farmers who are just starting out need assistance, either with finding a place to farm or learning more about how to grow and market organic products. Similarly, older farmers are in need of a way to gracefully exit from farming, while keeping their land intact and in production. There is a large need to connect these two groups. A few groups addressing this include Renewing the Countryside (with their Farm Transitions program) and the Land Stewardship Project with their Farm Transitions Toolkit.  

2. The organic market is hopeful for change, largely led by this new generation of farmers and by consumer demand. The more consumers learn about how industrial agriculture impacts the environment and the ingredients that are in the foods they purchase and eat, the greater the call for a change to more organic, sustainable practices that produce fruits and vegetables instead of commodity crops.

3. Organic farming is going to grow by tenfold in the next 25 years. Both Jones and keynote speaker and agricultural journalist Alan Guebert predict continued, incredible growth in the organic sector for the foreseeable future.

4. The Farm Bill has some good news for organic farmers. While not a total win for conservation by any means (in fact, conservation took a pretty big hit), Jones is quick to point out that the 2014 Farm Bill did take some positive steps for organic farmers. The biggest news is that the Organic Certification Cost Share Program has been reinstated, allowing producers to apply to cover some of the costs of their organic certification. Funding was increased for competitive organic research grants, organic data collection and reporting, the National Organic Program, and beginning and socially disadvantaged, small-scale producers. (For more information on the good and bad sides of the Farm Bill, read the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Farm Bill reporting.) 

5. Your voice needs to be heard in order to shape policy that affects organic agriculture and the overall state of farming in the United States. This call to action came from Jones directly, and is not limited to the Farm Bill. Several pieces of legislation and open comments periods that directly affect sustainable food production and the health of our environment are on the table this year. Jones says, “We have a responsibility to share what we know, to speak up and to be heard.”

MOSES Conference Attendees

6. On a more technical note, cover crops should be one of the most important crops you grow. Every presentation I attended made sure to address how vital it is to have flowering crops to attract pollinators and beneficial insects, provide ground cover for weed and erosion control, and enhance the nutrients in the soil. From orchards to small gardens to large, no-till grain crop farms, proper cover-crop management is an integral part of a sustainable, organic system. (Search "cover crops" in the Search bar at the top of this page for how to best use cover crops in your garden.)

Learn More and Get Involved!

You can find a wealth of valuable resources about organic farming at the MOSES website. Check out the Cornucopia Institute’s website for Action Alerts that affect organic and sustainable farmers and advocates. Sign up for our MOTHER EARTH NEWS newsletters to get up-to-date, biweekly information on self-reliant living, organic gardening and sustainable agriculture policy.

Photo captions, from top to bottom: The Podoll family, organic seed breeders of Prairie Road Organic Farm & Seed in South Dakota, were selected as this year's Farmers of the Year and gave several presentations about their operation throughout the conference. The exhibit hall was full of nonprofits, tool and seed companies, and more. Conference attendees networked throughout the weekend, sharing tips and reviewing the products in the exhibit hall together.

Photos by Jennifer Kongs