Thoughts From Eco-Farm

February 9, 2007

At the end of January, CUESA staff attended the Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove. The Ecological Farming Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing ecologically sound and economically viable agriculture, organizes the annual meeting of farmers, activists, researchers, educators and others. The conference is an opportunity for people to exchange ideas, practical information, concerns, and visions for the future of farming.

We met new friends and allies, broadened our perspective, and learned a great deal. We also came home with much to ponder. Some of the topics that have occupied our thoughts in the two weeks following the conference include:

Peak Oil

Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, gave us an alarming reality-check about how the increasing scarcity of oil will affect America’s food system. He spoke about agriculture’s dependence upon fossil fuels and questioned the wisdom of the agricultural solution that is gaining popularity: ethanol. If we devote our acres to growing fuel, what will we all eat?
Learn more:
Threats of Peak Oil to the Global Food System by Richard Heinberg

Food Sovereignty

Miguel Altieri, professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley, talked about food sovereignty—and the lack of it—in lesser developed countries. Globalization, free trade agreements, corporate control over agriculture, and other forces are taking food and nutrition out of the hands of the people that grow it. Professor Altieri’s remarks left us thinking about how fortunate we are to have access to healthy food and how our food choices and our government’s policies can negatively impact our neighbors to the south.
Learn more:
Agroecology website

Food Miles

One of our locavore mentors, Gary Paul Nabhan, talked about the multivalent ethics of our food choices. Raw or processed, local or imported, organic, fair trade, heirloom—when we choose a food, we consider how it fits with a number of our values. Nabhan discussed the benefits of choosing foods grown locally, and he also stressed the importance of place-based foods. He believes that instead of just choosing something grown locally, we should choose crops that are specifically adapted to our climates and cultures. He pointed to the organization RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions), which considers our area part of Acorn Nation (formerly Abalone Nation).

Other speakers led us to think about the complexities of using “food miles” as an environmental impact indicator. Distance traveled is one factor, but modes of production and transportation also vastly affect the amount of fossil fuel and other resources that it takes to get food to our plates.

Ending Hunger

Social justice is a key aspect of sustainability, and this session left us pondering the question of how to ensure that all people have access to fresh, healthful, sustainable food. Kim McCoy Wade from the California Association of Food Banks spoke about the banks’ requirement for cheap food in large amounts—a need that rarely enables them to get food from small sustainable farms. Heather Fenney of the California Food and Justice Coalition talked about her organization’s hopes for the 2007 farm bill—including money to scale up and institutionalize successful food justice models, like that of the People’s Grocery in Oakland.
Learn more:

Treating livestock with compassion

Dr. Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation, spoke about her extraordinary work understanding animals and pushing America’s meat industry to become more humane. Dr. Grandin’s efforts to overcome her autism have given her a unique empathy for animals’ perspective. She has worked to make slaughter facilities more humane and has created effective auditing frameworks for animal welfare.
Learn more:

Where is the sustainable agriculture movement going?

This question presented itself repeatedly at the conference, as attendees debated whether the movement and the growing organic industry are still united. Is it a good or bad thing that organic foods are available in superstores like Wal-Mart? As organic foods are increasingly imported from other countries, how can we be sure of the quality of overseas certification? Can sustainable agriculture be plugged into the industrial food system, or does true sustainability require an entirely different model?

This year, with a donation from the California Certified Organic Farmers Foundation, CUESA sponsored the attendance of two Eco-Farm first-timers. Twenty-year-old Bonny Scott of Orangewood Farm and Will Brokaw of Brokaw Nursery attended workshops and exchanged tips with other farmers. Will says he got some good advice on growing kiwis, and Bonny says that a workshop on solar power was the tipping point for Orangewood farm: they are now actively looking to convert to solar.

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