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A Wet and Wild 2012 NOFA Summer Conference

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 September Issue Newsletter

By Mindy Harris, Public Relations Coordinator, NOFA/Mass

After what was a very hot and dry summer, the rain gods came to the rescue of farmers across the region with some torrential downpours, in what was one of the soggiest NOFA Summer Conferences since its inception almost 40 years ago. The organization has now held the conference on the campus of UMass Amherst for 3 years, due to the growth of the conference. Throughout that time, UMass has been an outstanding host, providing dormitory housing, conference classrooms and meetings spaces, camping space, and fabulous all-organic meals in its dining hall. Over 1200 people descended upon the Pioneer Valley from across the Northeast. Despite muddy grass, a dripping tent, and many makeshift solutions to protect product and displays, the NOFA 2012 Exhibitors demonstrated enormous amount of good will, waiting out the storms through the conference. Campers scurried for cover as small valleys in the campus lawn became small lakes in a matter of minutes. Once the sun emerged for the afternoon on Saturday, August 11th, customers bustled through a crowded marketplace of artisan offerings, food producers, book stores, seed companies, non-profits, and educational institutions. Next to marketplace shoppers, slightly moist children partook of annual fair activities such as scarecrow stuffing, tomato-bobbing, and various races and games.

The conference provided over 200 workshops and featured a handful of thematic tracks including: Permaculture, Winter Growing, Nutrient Density, CSA’s, Beginning Farmers, Organic Land Care and Draft Animal Power. Conference attendees also demonstrated their hardiness and loyalty as they sloshed through puddles and sheets of rain as they traversed the campus to attend courses. One such attendee sent her thanks via a NOFA sponsor, Boston Organics: “We heard so many wonderful, cutting edge speakers! Like David Jacke- of Edible Forest Gardens- Funny how the old ways have become ‘new’ again! The weekend was packed full of information and inspiration. May God continue to bless the work of all your hands as you continue to be good stewards of His bounty. Many thanks to you all!” As is often the case with NOFA, there is a sense of common purpose amongst conference attendees, sponsors and presenters, and there is often overlap amongst those constituencies.

Carolyn Llewellyn, from Glynwood Farm in NY, has been attending the NOFA Summer Conference since 2001. This year, as every year, Carolyn brought along her daughter EJ (6), who was enjoying the Country Fair on Saturday afternoon. Carolyn appreciates the children’s program, which allows her to attend the adult conference workshops without worry. She knows that they are going to receive the same level of thoughtful educational and hands-on learning that she will receive. She also sees the scope of workshops, which target various levels of interest and ability. “Since I started coming to the NOFA Summer Conference, I went from being a farm intern, to a farm manager, to a farm educator and mother. There is still something here at the conference that interests me.”

Brian Turnbaugh, a member of the farm staff at Lindentree Farm in Lincoln, MA, recently went through a career change and decided to go into farming. Working in environmental policy down in DC, Brian decided that he could have a stronger impact on the various environmental causes that he believes in by going into farming. In February, he packed up his bags and his family, and moved to Arlington, MA, and got a job on a farm, and this is his first season farming. This was also his first season attending the NOFA Summer Conference. Every NOFA workshop is a new and exciting learning opportunity for him. “I came to the NOFA Summer Conference to learn about sustainable farming. I am thinking about starting a farm in the Boston area,” he shared. Bryan has already investigated land opportunities, and is just starting out, but is very serious about his commitment to this mission. ‘Beginning Farmers’ is one of the constituencies that NOFA serves with its Beginning Farmer track at the conference. Designed for folks farming for 10 years or less, beginning farmers not only get the specific technical assistance they need to be successful on the farm, but they also develop colleagues and a cohort at the conference. Perhaps the relationships built at the conference are at the core of what makes NOFA special. Very often farmers and farm staff are in far-flung places, out in the field working outrageous hours through the farming season, and never have the opportunity to receive the kind of informational and emotional support they need to keep going. NOFA provides a platform for these folks to learn and network.

Sarah Zettelmeyer was a representative from High Mowing Seeds, stationed in the Exhibitor tent throughout the conference. It was her first time joining us at NOFA. “It’s very helpful for us as exhibitors to have direct communication with our customers. We really enjoy and benefit from immediate feedback from farmers and growers on what is going on with our seeds this season. People let us know what is working and what is not. This is a really great source of product development feedback for us that we can take back to our company in Vermont.”

Jeffrey Smith arrived in Amherst on Thursday, August 9th, to offer a pre-conference seminar on organizing against GMOs. Dozens of attendees received hands-on strategies to be able to speak in public, and become effective advocates in their communities. Smith was impressed with the enthusiasm and energy around the GMO issue within NOFA. “It is clear that the issue has expanded, and that the time is ripe for accomplishing great things,” Smith observed. On Saturday evening, August 10th, Smith painted a picture of how activism around genetically modified seeds has evolved since their introduction onto the market, almost 2 decades ago. For Smith, educating others fuels his work. “Education is a big deal,” he remarked in his keynote speech, “I heard about GMOs in 1996, and heard a scientist, who is a genetic engineer, describe the details of what can go wrong, and why Monsanto’s venture of putting these not-ready-for prime-time seeds into the environment has an unprecedented trajectory of harm. Nowhere before in history have we seen the products of an infinite science affect everyone that eats.” In addition to his keynote address and pre-conference training, Smith also presented a film screening of his new film Genetic Roulette: the Gamble of our Lives, which played the day before the conference began, on Thursday, August 9th. At the core of Smith’s film, and his latest book of a similar title, is the health risk message. Motivated by political and media strategy, the GMO leader’s message has narrowed from an all-encompassing warning about environmental damage and agricultural damage, to a singular message: GMOs pose a major health risk to anyone and everyone. Much of Smith’s rhetoric is aimed at demystifying the science for an average audience. He explains about the process of creating a GMO plant in his film: “The process of insertion plus cloning creates massive collateral damage.” The health message has galvanized the medical community, parents fearing for their kids, consumers, and farmers alike. Smith’s language hits home with a wide variety of listeners, and he was well received at the conference. The GMO concern is perhaps the greatest food policy issue NOFA has tackled in its history, and will continue to drive political activities within the organization, including its ongoing appeal within the OSGATA v. Monsanto federal lawsuit.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree served as the keynote speaker on Friday evening, August 10th. An articulate and visionary leader, Pingree inspired many listeners to tears, as they applauded a strong ally in the federal government. An organic farmer herself, Pingree speaks with authority when she advocates for food policy at the national level. Pingree was elected in 2008 to represent the first district of Maine, and many think her political career in the Democratic Party is only just beginning. Born in Minnesota, the now national organic food advocate has farming in her roots. In 1971, Chellie moved to Maine as part of the back-to-the land movement. She eventually was a farm intern, then studied under Eliot Coleman and attended the College of the Atlantic. She bought a farm on the island of North Haven, in Maine, starting with 2 acres of vegetables. Over 30 years later, after establishing herself as a successful farmer and businesswoman (she started her own knitting business, inn and restaurant), she is combining her passion for a healthy food system with keen political abilities.

Pingree currently serves on the House Agriculture Committee and has been intimately engaged with the development of the current Farm Bill, which is due to be renewed this fall. As a farmer, Pingree evokes a strong sentiment of authenticity to those who listen to her. In her keynote, she indicated that as a farmer in Maine, she is delighted with her farm consumers’ level of interest -an interest in their farm work - which, according to Pingree, is unprecedented. Pingree is one of the authors of the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act in the Farm bill, which addresses issues such as farm credit, farm crop insurance for diversified crops, hoop houses, season extension, organics, SNAP benefits at farm stands, promotions for farm stands and markets, and support for schools that want to source locally. To date, the Senate has passed its version of the Farm Bill, which contains many of the provisions articulated by Pingree’s bill, but the House of Representatives’ version veers away from the goals of the Senate Bill. Pingree indicated that the bill may go to conference, where the two legislative entities work out their bill versions. However, she believes that the Farm Bill may not come together until the lame duck session, after the election in November.

Pingree left the audience with great sense of hope that Congress and the American public is going in the right direction. “We see the convergence of a trend. Markets and consumers are saying ‘I want to start eating healthier food. I want to look the farmer in the eye and say ‘what’s in this stuff I’m about to eat?’ Indeed, the NOFA Summer Conference success each year is in large part due to people’s thirst for knowledge. Food is no longer a trivial part of people’s lives. Farmers are no longer alone in their concerns for the food system. They are now supported by a strong network of consumers and activists who respect them, advocate for them, and collaborate in building healthy communities.

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