As I understand it, the Ecological Farming Association's annual EcoFarm conference has been held at the Asilomar Conference Grounds for 20 of its 30 years (the unofficial conference motto this year was "Still Dirty at 30"). With that long of a commitment to this beach-side central coast location, you'd think that there was a good thing going. However, things are not always that rosy, and EcoFarm is needing some help.
Last year the owner of Asilomar, the CA State Parks department, signed a 20-year contract handing over the running of the property to Aramark, a national corporation with 260,000 employees. This led to some controversy at the recent Hazon sustainable food conference, where certain local, sustainable producers had their products rejected as donations for the conference. The reason? "Food Safety", according to Aramark.
And now, this "Alcohol Announcement" from the 2010 EcoFarm program guide:
"Dear EcoFarm Friends! We know that celebration is a very important component of the EcoFarm Conference and you are probably noting a reduction of fun activities, especially reagarding the consumption of alcohol. The new Aramark management at Asilomar changed several longstanding policies regarding alcohol in the months leading up to the conference and we did not have time to figure out a new cost and activity structure to accommodate this. Therefore, we needed to cancel several bars and activities. We hope that you will still find plenty of fun - ask EcoFarm staff if you are looking for ideas! Thank you for your patience and understanding!"
I'm not that much of a drinker, and I did still have plenty of fun, but I understand a certain disappointment. Many farmers see this conference as their vacation for the year; its the one time they can kick back with their organic-growing buds from across the country, talk shop, get inspired, and party. While I had a great time at this year's conference, I can see how Aramark's new management style might be just a signal that EcoFarm needs to move into a new phase. And sure enough, EcoFarm's organizers are openly considering a move.
With 1,300 registered attendees and more who wanted to attend but couldn't register, the popularity of ecological farming may finally be catching up with the EcoFarm community. The organizers really seem to know what they're doing, helping us come together "for education, inspiration, and creative solution-building". There are workshops for everyone; for the farmer, for the gardener, for the activist, for the policy wonk, some practical, some aesthetic, some en Español. Over the three years I've gone, I've learned what I love most about the conference (besides the conviviality, and the seed swap) is that I really come away inspired to continue working on these issues, with these people.
Particularly, I get inspired by talking to "heroes" of the movement, like Bob Scowcroft or Judith Redmond, who have done so much to advance the cause of just, sustainable food systems, yet remain so humble and approachable. Sure, it instills in me hope to know that progress can and has been made, but it also makes me think about how (personally) I am only at the beginning of my journey as an activist. My goal is not just to create change, it is to create change while having a good time and being good to people, and it's nice to know that I have role models for that!
As for the conference itself, I've learned that I get the most out of the practical workshops, so the ones I attended were:
"High Quality Organic Wheat for the Local Whole-Grain Market"
"Advanced Soil Fertility Topics: The Wise Use of Micronutrients in Organic Farming"
"Farming With a Sharp Pencil!"
"Are Internships Illegal?"
and "Classical Plant Breeding for Improving Vegetable Crops".
With the exception of the wheat one (where a UC researcher babbled about the chromosome locations of wheat/rye hybrids), I learned a lot. I learned how to be a better farm business planner. I learned that regulations intended to protect workers are ruining the prospects for on-farm internships (which have no doubt played a huge role in the expansion of ecological farming's success). I learned the importance of proper Boron levels in your soil (and what to do if they're out of whack). And, in the workshop which could have been titled "Dorkin' Out on Seed Saving", I learned how to effectively set the right genome composition of desired traits into a summer squash plant, over years of selection and growing.
The most theoretical session I went to was "Planting the Future: New Leaders in Activism for Food Justice". This was a plenary, so all minds were on deck to ponder a newly-emphasized aspect of ecological farming: urban food access, and the various forms of environmental racism associated with food. This was a wonderful presentation, full of hope for more collaboration between social justice advocates and the ecological farming community. It made me think, however, about what the next step was. With so much press and emphasis on urban farming and urban food issues, you'd think that once people start growing food in the city, a sustainable food system is inevitable. But clearly this is too simple a read on the problem. I love that people are making efforts towards urban food self-sufficiency, but maybe we should think three steps ahead: we may be growing more of our own food in 20-30 years time, but we likely won't be able to grow all of it. So I'd like to see a concurrent emphasis, along with urban food production, on connecting urban communities with their rural counterparts. This connection could be rooted in physical trade of food and work, but also serve to foster inter-cultural dialog. Obama may not be able to unite the country, but perhaps sustainable food can?
Honestly, after attending many other food conferences, I have almost nothing bad to say about this one. It was a blast, and I'm grateful to the organizers for sticking with it for 30 years. I encourage anyone who has ever been, or would like to go in the future, to contact EFA with your ideas for a new conference venue, or any other suggestions you can make to help them improve and expand the conference while maintaining its integrity.