Growing Forward: Holistic Management of Organic Farms
Tilth Producers Conference, November 9-11, 2012
(Attend the conference “virtually” by viewing these slideshows: Day One, Day Two, Day Three
If you are on an iPad or have trouble viewing the above slideshows, try these:
Day One HTML, Day Two HTML, Day Three HTML.)
(Click on any image to view a larger version.)
The weekend started out mild and sunny and finished with a “blustery day.” Regardless of the weather – late fall sunshine or cool, brisk November overcast – the more than 650 people who attended the 2012 Tilth Producers of Washington Annual Conference enjoyed warm friendship, made new acquaintances, and dined on some of the best locally produced organic food available.
(A tip of the hat to Bon Appétit Management Company for the miracles they performed in the kitchen. I’m pretty picky about my veggies and perfect broccoli for 650+ is a real challenge; BAMCO delivered!)
It is ironic that an overhauled military base – now a Washington State Park – played host to a conference for organic and sustainable farmers and good food advocates. Fort Worden, outside Port Townsend, as a venue is quirky, challenging, and yet oddly appealing.
The spacious and sunny commons was filled to bursting for meals and large group gatherings while meeting rooms as varying as the Schoolhouse, the Chapel, and the Park Shop gave a special flavor to a wide variety of workshop and informational sessions.
Two events preceded the Annual Conference at large: the WSU Symposium, Seeding the Future, and the Farm Mechanics Workshop.
Seeding the Future: Ensuring Resiliency in Our Plant Genetic Resources
It all begins with seed…
Patented seed development, genetically modified organisms and transgenic crops threaten both organic and conventional farmers that want to breed and save their own seed.
The privatization the US seed industry has strongly affected the diversity of agricultural crops grown. Between 1903 and 1983, a survey of 66 crops by the US National Seed Storage, found that about 93 percent of the varieties had gone extinct.
Washington State University, WSU Extension, and local seed companies have focused on developing new varieties of food crops suited for the range of growing conditions on both the east and west sides of the Cascades.
In light of a national discussion about labeling food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a session presented by Michael Neff, WSU Associate Professor of Crop Biotechnology, was standing room only. He discussed the “methods, pros and cons, and biotechnology” of GMOs.
Because food certified organic does not contain GMO ingredients, consumers of organic products don’t have to watch for additional warning labels. Organic farmers, however, have to be vigilant against cross-contamination.
Farm Mechanics Workshop
A farmer once told me, “If you don’t know how to weld, you can’t be a farmer.” From the looks of the very hands’ on workshop presented by Albert Roberts, Pine Stump Farms, and Grant Gibbs, Gibbs Organic Produce, you also have to know how to dismantle and reassemble small engines and other farm equipment of all sizes and shapes.
The real truth is that small organic farm operations are dealt another challenge: conventional farm equipment is designed for industrial farming operations and completely unsuited in both scale and function to the new eco-agriculture. One farmer commented on over-sized combines by saying, “Just turning it around in my small wheat field would take out all the neighboring rows of basil.”
While manufacturers are just beginning to catch on and build small-scale equipment, most of it comes with large-scale price tags. In the words of Sam McCullough, supervisor of Machinery Maintenance, Nash’s Organic Produce, good traditional machinery is laying all over the landscape for the taking, if you know how to repair it. Craftsmen Albert and Grant are showing young farmers how to do just that.
A full house – limited to 30 sets of hands – hovered over, peeked under, and leaned around each other to get a good look at what was going on. Roberts and Gibbs are recognized experts in the maintenance of small engines and equipment. Learn more about Albert Roberts in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Meets Farmer Jane.
Tilth Producers Annual Conference
When you have hundreds of farmers, consumers, agencies, vendors, and academicians concentrating totally on discovering new ways to bring good farmers and good food back into the spotlight, you have the makings of a great event.
The two-day conference included 29 workshops, a small tabletop trade show, and networking events to bring together farmers and friends of all ages. From a cheese and cider tasting and intergenerational trivia mixer to yoga for farmers and a square dance, there was something for every taste!
The title of the event, “Growing Forward: Holistic Management of Organic Farms,” was inspired by Allan Savory’s Keynote: “Small Farmers Leading the World Through New Approaches to Agriculture.”
Savory is widely known for his holistic management philosophy and practice, primarily around grazing animals. More recently he has turned his focus to using holistic management as a decision-making framework for planning strategies or actions to achieve a wide range of objectives.
“If we look at all the things we ‘make’ using technology in some form, we find we achieve our objectives with amazing success – from the development of the first Stone Age tools to putting a man on the moon.
… If we look at the things we ‘manage’ but do not make (human organizations, agriculture, natural resources, economies, finance, etc.), we find we are running into ever-mounting problems. Problems such as we are experiencing with global finance, economies, agriculture producing more eroding soil than food and accelerating desertification with its symptoms of mounting poverty, droughts, social breakdown, emigration, violence and global climate change.”
To manage holistically in each situation – farm, ranch, community, organization, village, town, city, or nation – the people making decisions need a context for their objectives. Savory believes that using the holistic framework to ensure actions are socially, economically and environmentally sound in both the short and long term will reduce unintended consequences from working outside the situational context..
Several of the workshop sessions this year confirmed just how much paper work is required for small and organic farmers. Four especially addressed the challenges of the paper chase:
- Essential Record Keeping for Farm and Business
- CSA Start-Up: 1-100 Members
- Organic System Plans: Benefits Beyond Certification
- Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) Certification
I was astonished at the number of clipboards it takes to keep track of all the elements needed to document production and distribution of products. Surely it requires buying them by the case from the office supply store! Then add the amount of paper and time it takes to track all the data. Yikes! I’m sure these farmers have lots more to do than be bookkeepers!
On the other end of the spectrum – and for the price of one or two dozen clipboards (depending on the quality and volume) – farmers raising organic produce can use a computer, iPad or iPhone to keep all the records they need with COG Pro from Certified Organic Business Solutions.
And when it comes time to assemble all the records and prepare all the forms for the next organic certification audit, it just takes a few minutes. After years of experience marketing and implementing specialized software applications, I’m all for automating repeated data collection!
The annual conference provides a great venue to recognize people who have “gone the extra mile” to promote the organization and its mission. This year, instead of the usual two recognitions, a third was presented.
Special Thank You: Nancy Allen– long time support, past Managing Director, Program Manager, and institutional memory – of Tilth Producers is retiring after almost 11 years with the organization. Every organization has someone who is integral to its smooth, effective functioning, and Nancy is that person for Tilth Producers.
This year’s Farmer of the Year Award was presented to Juana Lopez Paramo and Clayton Burrows of Growing Washington for their work to promote local, sustainable, and organic food, but also as stewards of both farmers and farmland in Whatcom County.
Karen Kinney, Interim Executive Director of Washington State Farmers Market Association, is the recipient of the 2012 Advocate of the Year Award. Karen has played a critical role in developing and supporting Washington’s sustainable agriculture community. Her tireless work and steadfast commitment has made Washington State a better place by increasing access for low-income consumers to local food from local farmers.
See You Next Year
Every year, it is more and more obvious that there are a lot of smart, energetic, and dedicated young people who want to farm. The audience at the Tilth Conference seemed to be leaning toward the under 40 set – especially important since the average age of a Washington farmer is closing in on 60.
These young folks are bringing new eyes (and hands) and new ideas to the business of farming, and they’re ready. We just need to give them the financial and moral support they need to do the job.
At GoodFood World we say “thumbs up” to all the farmers and food advocates we met at Fort Worden. We are especially humbled by the dedication and hard work it takes to produce the good food to feed us all.
Thanks everyone for a job well done! We’ll see you next year!
PS. We especially look forward to seeing Gorgeous George in 2013. May he have a long and healthy life!
PPS. Watch for Organicology, to be held Feb. 7-9, 2013, in Portland, OR. It’s the next big food and farming event focused on organic production and distribution in the Pacific Northwest.