This past weekend, I made my third pilgrimage to LaCrosse, Wis., for the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, put on by Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). This conference has proven to be a great forum to see the full spectrum of colors in the organic farming flag, and appreciate the diversity in the people and their ideas as much as we appreciate the diversity in their food production and marketing. Plus, it is a great testament to one of organics most obvious underlying themes: growth.
As I entered the LaCrosse Center, I was greeted by what I have come to realize is the usual eclectic mix of organic farming archetypes: from hippies to cowboys to Mennonites to very conventional-looking Midwestern farm folks. The trade show was as large as ever, with representatives from seed companies, equipment manufacturers, not-for-profits, certification agencies, and universities all highlighting their efforts and advances in organic agriculture. I connected with people from Farm Aid, Goodness Greenness, Chicagos Green City Market, Oxfam America, and Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, all doing wonderful things to increase opportunities for organic farmers. I attended sessions about organic control of agronomic weeds, management-intensive rotational grazing, and growing gourmet mushrooms, just to name a few. And, of course, I ate more than my share of organic food.
Right off the bat, the conference was christened with the motto Growing More Organic with a short poem from Jim Riddle, who was most recently chairman of the National Organic Standards Board. This is a highly appropriate motto, since organic is still growing in a variety of ways.
Overall attendance at the conference surpassed 2,000 people this year, which is up from 1,500 and 1,800 the last couple times I have gone. Certified organic acreage is increasing, the number of organic food products and ingredients is increasing, and, most importantly, consumer demand is still increasing.
As a matter of fact, demand is increasing so rapidly that MOSES has launched a campaign called Help Wanted: Organic Farmers. In these days of commodity surpluses and often disappointing farm gate prices, it is encouraging to hear we need to recruit more farmers to grow more product to meet the demand for organic food. Even more encouraging was meeting the upstart farmers who are finding their way into the organic market. With all this growth, there is plenty of room for them.
Another highlight of this conference was the amount of positive exposure for Illinois! This conference seems to have been long dominated by people from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, but, for the first time, the University of Illinois had a booth manned by two of my colleagues, Dan Anderson and Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, who both work with the universitys Agroecology/Sustainable Agriculture Program. Although some were disappointed to hear there are still no majors or degrees offered in organic agriculture, they were excited to know the level of interest among students and faculty, as well as to learn about the field research studying the most efficient ways to transition from conventional to organic agriculture. Also, they were delighted to hear that the University of Illinois held its second annual organic production conference in January, nearly doubling attendance from its inaugural year.
Another feather in the states organic cap: this was the first year an Illinois organic farmer won the MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year Award! Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms grows organically in Shelby County and is a client of mine. He raises pastured poultry, cattle and hogs, as well as organic produce and field crops in a soil-building rotation. He is well known for his meat buying club in central Illinois, but he also sells at area farmers markets.
Stan was a conventional farmer for a long time, and worked a factory job to support his farming habit. He feels farming really became vibrant and fun again since he went organic and started selling direct to consumers. Plus, his son Ryan has recently joined him in his farming ventures, and you could hear the pride welling up in his voice as he made some short acceptance remarks in front of the crowded auditorium. He immediately donated the $500 award to Central Illinois Farm Beginnings, a new farmer training program held by the University of Illinois and The Land Connection, so beginning organic farmers could come up to attend the conference in the future.
If you ever want to learn more than you can possibly absorb about organic farming in one short weekend, plan to attend the 18th annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in February 2007. You can find information at http://www.mosesorganic.org/index.html, and while youre there, nominate an outstanding farmer for Organic Farmer of the Year. With this kind of momentum, I feel confident Illinois is going to continue growing more organic.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or email@example.com.
From the March 8-14, 2006, issue