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Soil is the Solution at 35th EcoFarm Conference

ecofarm-conference-453x300December 23, 2014 – The Ecological Farming Association conference has put the “eco” into “ag” for over three decades, providing a forum for people to learn to grow food organically with the support of a community of farmers, ranchers, merchants, distributors, educators, policy makers, activists, and consumers.  

Now in its 35th year, the message of EcoFarm 2015 is that holistic agriculture can actually regenerate Planet Earth and her soils in the face of climate change, reversing damage while producing abundant, pure and nutritious food. Citing research from the Rodale Institute, executive director Ken Dickerson says, “The data is out. It’s science.” In other words: It’s not just a hippie fantasy: it’s biology, it’s science.

More than 2,000 people are expected to attend upwards of 80 educational sessions—as well as feasts, dances and movies at the conference—which take place from January 21-24 in the lovely setting of Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, next to a monarch butterfly sanctuary.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben
Environmentalist Bill McKibben

Environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org starts the opening plenary, which is titled “Hope Beneath our Feet: the Solution to Climate Change is Soil.” Other amazing plenary speakers include chef and author Deborah Madison, the riveting Brock Dolman on “Thinking Like a Watershed,” and celebrated ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.

Dickerson says that this year the conference is about more than looking for solutions: it’s about putting solutions into action, and the organization asserts that the solutions are accessible when we come together in community.

As a result, the Farmers’ Association will play an important role in the conference this year. It’s a program of Eco-Farm which was chartered after the conference last February to facilitate cooperative services for farmers, with support from the California Certified Organic Farmers. The Association will lead two full-day pre-conferences on Wednesday, January 21, including one on organic seed stewardship and another on producer-driven solutions in Central Coast meat production.

Chef/author Deborah Madison
Chef/author Deborah Madison

Another solutionary group out in full force this year is the Permaculture community. In fact, there’s an entire Permaculture track. This is a first for Eco-Farm, and the ground is rumbling. The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center will lead a pre-conference on “Applied On-Farm Permaculture Design,” and the legendary Starhawk will give the closing plenary. In between are many permie-inspired sessions on land and water management, education, and more.


Dickerson reminds us that there are about 400 million acres of arable land in the United States, and that about 70% of farmers will retire in the next 15 to 20 years. This means that a lot of acreage will be changing hands in the near future. So, he says preparing greenhorns for the future of agriculture is a top priority for conference planners. “This is the collaborative forum where we can create a new generation of restorative, ecoliterate farmers who operate according to a triple bottom line—people, planet, profit.”

In fact, the program provides abundant educational opportunities—many technical, all thought-provoking— for attendees of all ages and stripes. Just a handful of the intriguing session titles are:

  • Building Bridges: Climate, Agriculture and Justice
  • The Carbon Ranch
  • No-Till Vegetable Production for the Future
  • Cultivating a Relationship with Your Weeds
  • Learning As If Whole Systems Mattered: Permaculture in Schools and Universities
  • Drought Proofing Your Landscape and Garden
  • Chinese Medicinal Herbs: An Emergent Organic Market
  • Encouraging Urban Agriculture through Innovative Public Policy
  • Make Your Farm Energy Self-Sufficient
  • Forgotten Practices that Save Water on the Farm

There are at least three sessions on bees and pollinators this year, and several sessions on wise water management. Some unexpected sessions address cutting edge business management topics, such as:

  • Crowdfunding to Raise Capital for Your Business
  • Large-Scale Organics with Integrity: Costco and Nutiva
  • What is a B-Corp? Discover the Why and How of It
  • Demonstrating How to Embody Triple Bottom Line Values
  • Connecting with Customers through Online Channels

118-EcoFarm-Poster-with-TextSome topics are simply unexpected, such as “Psychoactive Substances and their Impact on the Organic Farming and Ecology Movements” and “The World of Creepy Crawlies: Ants and Spiders.” 

The conference is also just plain fun with mixers, tastings, a great line-up of films, a huge seed swap, and at least two opportunities to dance. The catering is all organic. Among this year’s large food donors is Mindful Meats, which will donate 200 pounds of grassfed ground beef for the pasta dinner, and Jacob’s Farm/Del Cabo, which will donate 300 pounds of produce. (A word to the wise—buy a meal pass; it’s worth it.)

A final word: Eco-Farm is raising $35,000 for 200 scholarships and 35 fellowships for beginning and limited-income farmers to attend the conference. Communications coordinator Deborah Yashar explains that the grantees make connections and form relationships that can serve them for life. Since 2012, over 130 farmers and ranchers have attended the conference with donations from better-healed farmers, and this year Eco-Farm is upping the goal. Learn how you can help here: http://eco-farm.org/news/let%E2%80%99s-help-more-aspiring-farmers-javier

See you at the conference. Bring your notepad—and your dancing shoes!

About the author

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Jillian Laurel Steinberger designs softscape landscapes with natural and upcycled materials. She loves combining edible plants with California natives to boost pollination and create sublime and wondrous beauty. She works for Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, in business in Santa Cruz for 25 years, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area News Group papers, BUST, Bitch, Edible East Bay, and other publications. Feel free to contact her at jillian at terranovalandscaping.com.