January 5, 2021 – Later this month EcoFarm will again assemble a constellation of luminaries who have changed the way the world farms, eats and understands food.
That starts on Jan. 20 with keynote speakers like Saru Jayaraman, author of best selling Behind the Kitchen Door, president of One Fair Wage, and director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley and food politics expert Marion Nestle. Or Mily Treviño-Sauceda, who rose from working in ag fields at 8 to co-found the first state and national grassroots female farmworker organizations. Or young Amish legend John Kempf, a plant nutrition and biostimulant ace who will speak with as much authority as anyone out there on the power of regenerative agriculture. Pre-conference events take place on Jan. 13-19.
There will be conspicuous absences, though, starting with in-person participants.
EcoFarm organizers are rallying to transform that adversity into opportunity. New technology will help, as the 41st annual conference will arrive on a virtual platform called Hopin, which aims to simulate on-site experience with the flexibility to (yes) “hop in” goings-on ranging from the expansive swath of workshop sessions to main-stage proceedings. A randomized chat roulette will even echo spontaneous networking in 4-minute bursts.
“It recreates that experience of talking to the person next to you in line while waiting for lunch,” says EcoFarm Executive Director Andy Fisher.
Other special event favorites that will find virtual traction include the annual Seed Swap, the Sustie and Justie Awards and popular exhibition expo—and even yoga classes and a remote dance freakout too.
Program Director Gabi Salazar is pleased with how EcoFarm’s fam has executed the shift and points to a number of other factors that portend a resilient conference and its wider community.
“We are particularly proud of the transition to virtual, the growth of advanced farmer content…and our commitment to coming together no matter the circumstances,” she says. “The magic, the knowledge sharing, the collaboration, all happens when we come together, we have to make it happen.”
The biggest and most aching absence, though, will be Amigo Bob Cantisano. Communications Director Deborah Yashar reports it will be the first EcoFarm ever without its co-founder—who was a vigilant participant and member of the conference planning committee, and also laid the foundation of California Certified Organic Farmers. Cantisano died in late December.
“He was the way that the knowledge any individual farmer was developing would spread to other farmers,” best-selling author Michael Pollan told the L.A. Times. “He was a pollinating honeybee of knowledge.”
EcoFarm authored a tribute in the wake of Cantisano’s passing at his Heaven and Earth Farm.
“A visionary is known for being able to predict sublime outcomes on a grand scale, to treat that unfolding future as an accomplished fact,” wrote EcoFarm President Steve Sprinkle of Farmer and Cook. “This Amigo did. He was a public man who came of age when challenges rose up in black and white that needed to be put right. Amigo was imaginative and prescient. He embodied conviction. He was so certain of the righteousness of organic farming’s mission that he spoke with a power that was magical.”
This year’s slate of panels and workshops, organized around the theme of “Reimagining Our Future – for an ecological and just food system and world,” is one of the strongest EcoFarm has gathered. The fact viewers around the U.S. and the world can tune in—without having to finance lodging or travel, and at a much more affordable price than previously—provides some poetic symmetry: Accentuating access is something Cantisano prioritized.
Amid sessions touching on everything from CSA pivots in COVID to new developments in stone fruit varieties—and keynotes like “Farming is Medicine: Transforming our World through Agroecology”—equitable access finds increasing emphasis at EcoFarm. Social and racial justice represent a clear theme. Spanish translation programming now extends to every keynote session and more than 20 percent of workshops.
“We’re walking our talk in terms of the conference content and the way we develop content,” Fisher says.
Amigo did make it to EcoFarm’s 40th annual gathering, which (like this year) featured an altar honoring EcoFarm heroes who have moved on to the big toxin-free farm in the sky. In fact, insiders report he’s attended every conference since its inception in 1981.
At last year’s installment, he made sure to attend the seed swap, where he facilitated the crafting of seed bombs that were later distributed across Paradise, California, in the wake of the Camp Fire devastation—furnishing yet another simple and tangible way of reimagining the future and seeking a more just and ecological new normal.
“A visionary like Amigo trusted the sanity of what he learned in his grandmother’s organic garden and intuitively transposed that truth into the simplicity of farming with nature as the model, even organic farming on a grand scale,” Sprinkle writes. “It had to be true because it had been true all along, true long before chemical agriculture was normalized.
“This is how the planet has continually renewed itself. More truth was attracted to the principle like iron filings to a magnet. People recognized the truth he taught, and we recognized in him a voice that could be trusted.”
More at EcoFarm.org.