Before offering any of my own thoughts, I wish to thank the peaceful and courageous water protectors of the First Nations. Water is life. Please support the Standing Rock camp in any way you are able.
The week after Thanksgiving the Organic Revolutionary took off on a cross country trip. First stop: Omaha, Nebraska for a jam-packed few days at the Acres, USA Eco-Ag 2016 Conference & Trade Show.
This was, I learned, the 25th such yearly conference, which started out with Acres, USA's founder, Chuck Walters, when the publication was based in Kansas City, MO. Chuck passed on in 2009, and was succeeded at the helm of the organization by his son, Fred. The magazine and the conference have both evolved in the course of this transition, but have remained true to the founder's vision. I resubscribed after a long lapse at the instigation of my former NOP colleague Mark Keating, who wrote for them for a few years. Mark's interview with me appeared in the July issue.
In Chapter 1 of Organic Revolutionary I describe the enormous influence of Chuck Walters and Acres, USA on the organic movement in North America:
Galvanized by Rachel Carson’s revelations, Walters “realized how the methodical cheating of small farmers and the enforced swing toward chemical agriculture were gears in the same machine, working in tandem to transform the countryside.”
Many of us learned a huge amount through Walters’ efforts. Writing in the early nineties, I characterized Walters’ tone as “conservative, frankly Christian, anti-Eastern intellectual polemic that makes a lot of us leftish intellectual types uncomfortable.” Some of the issues we first read about in the pages of Acres, USA included: warnings of global climate shift; destruction of tropical rainforests; the dangers of biotechnology, water fluoridation, mercury amalgam fillings, food irradiation, fossil water depletion; milk pasteurization; hemp legalization; farmers alcohol; free trade; and, of central concern, farm debt, the fight for parity pricing, and economics in general."
My conference teaching assignments started out with co-leading a day-long preconference intensive with Gary "the dynamo" Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer Durand on the subject of "No Risk Transition to Organic." Of the 40 or so participants, a good third to a half of them were conventional grain and livestock farmers interested in transitioning or in the process of transitioning to organic. They asked good questions, and clearly were concerned about the state of their soil and water, looking for a way out of the toxic treadmill that did not require huge financial risks.
While I think my presentation on how to navigate the National Organic Program standards and certification requirements was helpful, I could offer few assurances that they could find a market that would reliably compensate them for the expense and short-term yield drop that they would encounter. While there is indeed a shortage of domestic production of organic crops such as corn and soybeans, suppliers from India and Eastern Europe, among others, are currently meeting the demand at lower prices than domestic organic producers feel they need.
The conference organizers kept me busy with a book signing and a short workshop on "making sense of the NOP," followed by my closing keynote on Friday evening. Whew. In between I did manage to make the rounds of the trade show section and listen to a couple of other speakers. Wonderful to encounter my old NOFA comrade David Yarrow, now advising midwestern farmers on biochar and soil carbon, and got to listen to restoration agriculture guru Mark Shepard. Listening to Dr. Don Huber tell us about the scientific facts about GMOs and the damage done to our soils and our health by glyphosate (aka Roundup) was an eye-opener.
My personal highlight was getting to hang out with Thursday’s keynote speaker, Denise O’Brien. I’m sure Fred Walters had no idea that he would be reuniting two old friends, besides giving an unprecedented bully pulpit to two women leaders with politics considerably to the left of many in the (mostly male) audience. Denise and her husband, Larry, had to miss hearing my keynote the next day so they could prepare to drive a bus full of people and supplies to Standing Rock.
Highlighting Human Liberation
Opening with a declaration of support for Standing Rock garnered a round of applause from the smaller audience that stayed at the conference all the way to the end. I also accorded great respect to the current Acres, USA team for sticking with the term "Eco-Agriculture" and including "Organic" within this big tent—and for their unflagging efforts to inform us and challenge us to expand our thinking, and use science and reason to counter the extractive and exploitive assumptions of the chemical-industrial-agribusiness complex.
My talk highlighted some of the insights offered in my November blog, in which I discussed the 50+ year betrayal of heartland farmers and rural communities that led to the shocking recent election outcome.
An excellent analysis of the history of this betrayal showed up in my inbox the previous day, courtesy of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Author Ben Lilliston credits IATP founder Mark Ritchie’s comprehensive pamphlet, Crisis By Design with sounding the alarm about the policies that were deliberately implemented to drive small and medium sized farmers off the land and drive down the price of farm commodities, precipitating the devastating farm crisis of the 1980s. A crisis that is now being repeated with a vengeance, according to Lilliston.
Coincidentally, I have also recently discovered Oliver Stone’s documentary series, The Untold History of the United States, which shines a light on the political machinations that deprived Henry Wallace of the Vice Presidential nomination under FDR. Wallace was another little known hero of alternative ag mentioned in Organic Revolutionary.
Next Stop: SoCal
My trip was planned to allow me to spend a few days in southern California, visiting my sister and niece in Oceanside. The trip was made even more worthwhile thanks to Marianne West, who set up a couple of back-to-back talks for me at libraries in the towns of Alpine and Lemon Grove. Ecologically far removed from my Vermont home, culturally the region around greater San Diego could just as well be another planet. The drought-ravaged desert environment in which sits a sea of concrete, acres of autos, and humungous malls, with its landscape of conspicuous consumption, felt like alien territory indeed. But the good people I met during my sojourn in sunny California reminded me that we are indeed all in this together. And I have to admit that a chance to walk barefoot on the beach in Encinitas before it was time to fly back to cold and snow was a welcome break.
Bidding farewell to my family, fear mixed with resolve permeated our conversations about what kind of future we are all facing. Never was there greater need for progressive-minded folks to stick together and expand our concept of family.
Sending blessings to all in this season of rest and reflection, and assurance that the light will indeed return.