January 14, 2020 – Holy compost pile it’s actually 2020. For those asleep on the tractor that means EcoFarm has been evolving its farmer-to-farmer education juggernaut for no fewer than 40 years. (Or, poetically enough, 20 plus 20.)
This year’s theme, unfolding at Asilomar Conference Center Jan. 22-25, is “20/20 Vision.” There will be a lot happening and no shortage of vision.
To wit: Attendees could sit in on a movement meditation with Kalita Todd called Seven Pointed Star Awakening; join Asilomar Environmental Resources staffer Amanda Peece for a walk and talk on Asilomar birds and their habitats; listen in on “The Past, Present, and Future of Organic” keynote from Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, director of Ecdysis Foundation and CEO for Blue Dasher Farm in Iowa; explore books, new products and café tastings in the exhibition tent; meet up with the Farmer Educator Network; and participate in one of a dozen workshops like “A Permaculture Collaborative: City Repair Meets Social Forestry” or “The Real Dirt on Pesticides and Bee Deaths.”
And that would all be before 3pm Thursday.
Multiply that type of activity across four days and four decades and you have a massive amount of organic ag wisdom being harvested.
EcoFarm’s new executive director Andy Fisher—who not coincidentally won an EcoFarm “Justie” award in 2008 for his work with Community Food Security Coalition—says he’s eager to helm his first EcoFarm after attending for years.
He is particularly excited to listen in on the daily keynotes, particularly Leah Penniman, cofounder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land and India’s Dr. Vandana Shiva, founder of Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology; and Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources and organic farming.
The big perspective pieces of the EcoFarm puzzle are a crucial complement to the practical how-tos, like this year’s “Coming to Terms with Vineyard Mealybug in an Organic System” and “Comprehensive Nitrogen Management for Crop Health and Reporting.”
“We have numerous workshops that are not about farming, but about the broad changes needed to make our food system more equitable and sustainable,” Fisher says. “It’s important to have different strokes for different folks: Half of our attendees are farmers, half are not.
“If we only did innovative pest management strategies and which tractor to buy, we’d miss out on the vision of where things are heading—farmers want to know why [they’re] doing pest management a certain way, how it fits in the bigger picture. And without the practical workshops, it can get too abstract and sterile quickly.”
This year, workshops touch on everything from cover crops to on-farm seed trials to post-harvest handling design. Meanwhile the perennially popular expo center will host dozens of pioneering eco-savvy outfits like Patagonia, Café Mam, Sustainable Technologies, University of California Agriculture and True Organic Products. Tastebuds will tap into wine-and-cider and beer-and-cheese tastings. Special events will include a seed-and-scion swap, yoga for hips and hamstrings and flicks like The Pollinators and Dreaming of a Vetter World. Along the way, various 40th birthday observations and celebrations will figure in, including a video retrospective.
“The longevity is a testament to the community and people’s dedication and willingness to keep on going,” Fisher says.
Amid all the formal activities, many veteran participants enjoy the impromptu conversations and collaborations—sprouting from shared meals or social events—most of all.
“These are people are not doing what they do the way they do it just to make money,” Fisher says. “They’re doing it as part of a bigger movement. I think EcoFarm helps provide that context.”
Asked to look back on the high points of EcoFarm’s extended run, Fisher pauses. “It is certainly not the USDA, I’ll tell you that,” he says. “The food movement has done a great job in building consumer awareness to transform agriculture to something more sustainable than it has been. We see among younger generations, including millennials, an understanding that we need to be growing and consuming food in a different way. People are really getting it, especially in the context of climate change.
“EcoFarm has played an important role in that, and in bringing together organic farmers to learn from one another and be financially sustainable. It really has helped galvanize the organic sector.”
Dru Rivers of Fully Belly Farm, a 400-acre, 100-percent certified organic spread north of Sacramento, has been attending for 38 years.
He observes the attendees getting younger and the content of the workshops getting better.
“We have all come such a long way since 1980 as farmers and an ‘industry,’” he says. “We are a much maturer group in many ways. Forty years is a lifetime. Many people have passed on and there is a whole new bunch of bright fresh faces!”
He believes those unfamiliar with EcoFarm might be surprised by what the conference delivers.
“It delivers a heart full,” he says. “Honestly, I think so many come for the first time and are amazed how [much] they have learned much about farming—but also their whole life perspective often changes as well.”
After decades of attendance, it has gotten to the point where EcoFarm helps Rivers structure his year as it regenerates his motivation.
“I always mark my year by EcoFarm because I come back to my life here on our farm and am so inspired to keep going, to keep learning, to keep farming,” he says. “Our farm is part of a bigger and broader network.”
More at eco-farm.org.
Mark C. Anderson is a freelance writer based in Seaside (and in his backpack). Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @MontereyMCA.