It’s the end of January, and that means it’s time to migrate south to Pacific Grove for the annual EcoFarm conference at Asilomar. This is not your typical conference filled with suits, sports shirts and heels. Instead, it’s an earthy venue attended by deep-rooted farmers, earnest advocates and practical teachers—mixing it up, all for the love of organic and sustainable agriculture.
The Ecological Farming Association or “EcoFarm” is a non-profit educational organization whose mission is to nurture safe, healthy, just, and ecologically sustainable farms, food systems, and communities.
For the past 38 years, they have congregated the earnest and hardworking ones, hungry to advance sustainable and organic agricultural systems.
I have been a faithful pilgrim of the conference since 1988 and am continuously amazed at the depth and scope of content that’s served up. Where else can you learn about carbon sequestration, nematode management, compost regulations, food sovereignty and unusual poultry practices all in one place?
This year the nearly 1500 attendees were served up a menu of twelve tracks filled with workshops covering everything from soils & water, pests & beneficial plants, habitat & permaculture to production tools, regulations & certification, policy, business & labor, food justice, livestock, seeds, health and marketing.
From the Farm Bill to Women in Agriculture or the benefits of daily drip irrigation—there was something to satisfy everyone’s agrarian hunger.
Audries Blake, the Assistant Director of the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was one of this year’s attendees. She explained that she was learning a lot of great things that will help her at the University Farm and Garden. “This conference holds a rich diversity of perspectives that come to inform people from various places. I have met beginning farmers and as well as experts who are dialed in. It’s a great learning experience for everyone,” Audries said.
As I walked the conference grounds, it was striking to see the diversity in age, color, sex and various tribal dress. The fact that so many young faces with an appetite for agriculture were bobbing about a sea of gray-haired folk (like me) gives hope for the future of the movement.
Gabi Salazar, the Program Manager of the conference, commented “EcoFarm has evolved a lot over the years; it’s grown from a very solid core of passionate farmers, advocates, educators and industry professionals that attracts more and more people each year. There’s a wide range of age groups who attend, and it’s a place where young farmers can find community with elders and thought leaders. Farming can be difficult because you are out there on your own and may not have people around who are farming organically. Finding that community of leaders who have been doing it for 40 years is a real benefit.”
A series of keynote speakers challenged the crowd with new ideas from the main stage at Merrill Hall. “Sow Good” was this year’s theme focusing on regenerative agriculture. The first keynote was Regenerating Our Soils: Hope for Farming & Climate where the speakers went “beyond organic” with a story of hope decelerating climate change with a carbon farming revolution. Watch the video on EcoFarm’s Facebook page.
Those being of strict adherence to the USDA organic seal may have had their feathers ruffled a bit.
Ann Thrupp, Ph.D., Executive Director Berkeley Food Institute, noted “…we are all in this together. We can’t afford to have the movement drawn down into divisiveness. Rather than denigrating what’s been done, we should build on organic.”
Gabi noted, “A real strength of EcoFarm is that we aren’t afraid of being up to new or controversial issues. For instance, when EcoFarm first came to Asilomar in the 1980’s, organic wasn’t really in the public realm—it was small and controversial. It’s because of those early leaders that said ‘this is what we want and this is what we are going to create, and now organic is enormous. We hold the space for innovation and creativity so the next 30 years can be just as transformative.”
Friday’s keynote speakers, John Ikerd and Doria Robinson, articulated succinctly why “eliminating hunger is the first requisite of agricultural sustainability.” You can watch the video of that Keynote here
Next year EcoFarm will once again take place at the Asilomar Conference grounds January 23rd -26th.
Do you want to be involved? Gabe has a few ideas, “We welcome everyone who wants to be part of the planning committee to help develop next year’s workshops and theme. If anything in our content lights your fire and sparks interest, then you will come. You will get workshops, information, and you will get connected with leaders and educators and everyone else that attends. That’s the magical part of this conference!”
I am proud that UNFI regards this conference as an important tool for organic farmers and thought leaders through our ongoing sponsorship each year.
If you are involved in organic agriculture, this is the place to satisfy your hunger for more.