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Empowering Farmers for Action and Other Revelations

The third and final installment of our EcoFarm 2012 coverage

Jamie CollinsLast week’s EcoFarm Conference gave Central Coast organic farmers a lot to be hopeful about—and affirmed that every farmer has an important role to play in the creation of a more just food system and a healthier environment.

The opening plenary session at what was the 32nd annual EcoFarm gathering provided a ray of hope by showcasing a handful of policymakers who are on the side of organic farmers.

The event’s first speaker was Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross, whose job it is to inform the governor about local food issues.
Ross said she wholeheartedly believes there is a way to grow food for the people while protecting the environment and encourages farmers to use their voices.

She believes that the farmers who are directly involved in connecting communities to their food sources are invaluable, and those on the front line working to change policy to improve our food system for the betterment of the environment will help create a dialog between consumers and the government that monitors and enforces the regulation of local agriculture.

Secretary Ross’ own goal is to make sure policies are not put in place that hinder the process of getting fresh, healthy food to the people. (One of the topics I feel could be looked at differently: deregulation of raw milk for small producers that want to sell nutrient- rich, unpasteurized milk to their neighbors.)

It was encouraging as a farmer to learn that a lack of understanding about what works for small farmers and the methods they use to market their produce may be the cause of rules and regulations that now present hardships for farmers. It was also good to hear that some important people who make policy changes are on our side and encourage us to give feedback on regulations.

Next up was Mark Ritchie, Minnesota secretary of state and one of the co-founders of the Northern California cooperative food system, which started in the 1970s and was a collaboration of farmers, bakeries, processors, wholesalers and stores. He also founded the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy with a group of rural leaders and served as the director for 20 years before running for election to his current position.

Like Ross, Ritchie believes that farmers working on the front line to educate the community about organic agriculture is one of the most important forces for positive change.

He called the “tillers of the soil” fundamental to the democracy of independent farmers and well-organized farm workers. He believes that folks who make a living growing and feeding people—whether it’s farmers or restaurants that buy from those farmers—are the backbone of the entrepreneurial system. And entrepreneurs, he said, rely less on governmental systems because they are self-sufficient and in control of providing for themselves and their families.

Ritchie made three key points to keep in mind when working to bring about grassroots change:

  • Sharing information is a critical piece of how we raise our voices and empower ourselves.
  • Farmers should stay clear about and rooted in the values of cooperation and cooperatives.
  • It is crucial to provide an alternative to collapsed and failed systems; it is important when one feels isolated and overwhelmed to look to relationships with like-minded people so that the feeling of alienation is less overwhelming.

I couldn’t help but see the relevance of the topic and how it relates to farmers young, old and in between.

Looking around the room I saw elderly, white-haired farmers with long beards and worn overalls sitting next to young and idealistic new farmers dressed from head to toe in organic hemp.

I find myself somewhere in the middle—not a brand new, aspiring farmer and not an older, seasoned farmer ready to pass the torch to the young farmers either.

I’m a little more tired than I used to be when I work in the field for a full day, and I find myself getting more and more interested in being a part of the voice that eloquently and patiently works toward real change in agriculture—a change toward growing food with peaceful and safe methods that improve the environment and the natural ecosystems.

The underlying, yet unsaid, common thread of the presenters seemed to resonate.

We need all of the farming generations. We need the new, excited, aspiring farmers who don’t yet know what they are in for and will soon realize that they have never worked so hard in their lives. We need the farmers who have a decade or more on the front lines and are now hoping to step into big-picture projects with energy and enough experience to speak on the topic of changing agriculture policy. And we also need the older farmers who may soon pass their organic land and their knowledge of it and tried and true farming techniques to young, energetic farmers.

And the process continues…


About the author

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Jamie Collins is the owner of Serendipity Farms and has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley since 2001. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.