Organic farming winter conference: facilitating connection to soil, society

The Northeast Organic Farming Association Conference drew organic food enthusiasts from near and far to the University of Vermont Davis Center last month. Photo by Victoria Tamas
The Northeast Organic Farming Association Conference drew organic food enthusiasts from near and far to the University of Vermont Davis Center last month. Photo by Victoria Tamas

Victoria Tamas, Contributing writer

Why would 1,200 people including farmers, teachers and families gather on the coldest weekend of the year for workshops, community art and ice cream? On Valentine’s Day weekend, the annual Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-VT) Conference drew organic food enthusiasts from near and far to the University of Vermont Davis Center.

NOFA-VT Executive Director Enid Wonnacott estimated the attendance to be roughly one-third farmers, and the rest gardeners, homesteaders and teachers. The 87 workshops were organized in three tracks: community/school gardens, food systems solutions and direct marketing assistance to help organic farmers do business.

“The movement has had the energy of the underdog, but it is growing rapidly now,” Wonnacott said. “Schools are a huge part of the program. There are now over 100 Vermont schools affiliated with FEED [Food Education Every Day].”

FEED is NOFA-VT’s joint venture with Shelburne Farms, promoting activities ranging from student-tended gardens that contribute to the cafeteria menu, to integrating farm-to-school content into the curriculum. “Our goal is to do [farm-to-school programs] in every school in Vermont,” Wonnacott said.

Rural Vermont Executive Director Andrea Stander said the NOFA-VT winter conference gives the community an opportunity to connect and solidify relationships. “It’s also a mini-university on farming,” she said. “I love seeing the demographic shift over time. In 2008, the majority of the conference participants were people who came to farming back in the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement; now I’m seeing predominantly younger people: farmers, food entrepreneurs, and students.”

Such anecdotal data is encouraging, as the aging of the farming community presents sustainability challenges. According to the most recent US Agricultural Census (2012), the average age of a Vermont farmer rose from 56.5 to 57.3 years old since 2007. At the same time however, more new farmers are young: there has been a 30.5% increase in farmers in the 25 to 34-year age range.

Almost half of farmers still have other jobs, a reality echoed by many of the conference participants relating the challenges of marketing (usually pricier) organic products that compete with conventional produce. Ren Weiner, 30, a Winooski-based food entrepreneur, said, “If someone wanted me to explain why my organic tomato costs more than the supermarket’s tomato, I’d tell them that the price is low for the amount of nutrition in that organic tomato.”

Deirdre Holmes, the Charlotte Central School’s school garden coordinator, was at the NOFA-VT conference presenting about permaculture and edible landscapes. The motive is to make school gardens sustainable from year to year by making them less dependent on large investments of volunteer time. At CCS, Holmes reports, the garden program has expanded to student engagement in composting and recycling at school.

Finally, last week the Vermont Agency of Agriculture awarded a farm-to-school (FTS) action planning grant to the CVU High School, signaling an important shift from FTS as “project” to curriculum at all grade levels. This shift is certain to help students see and appreciate the full ecological loop of food and the environment, Holmes said.

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