Kelly and I attend the MOSES conference in LaCrosse. And no, the waters of the Mississippi did not miraculously part. There were no acronyms in Biblical times, so back then Moses was a guy. These days it is short for Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services. If you didn’t pay attention, you might think it was a flannel shirt convention. Even the staff at our hotel wore flannel in honor of its farm guests. Yes, we wore ours too.
We attended lectures on composting and chickens and cover crops and fruit tree pruning and other stuff that some conventional farmers might consider quaint. We watched a documentary about agriculture in Cuba and how limited access to fossil fuels led to widespread small-scale organic farms to feed the masses.
We met lots of nice people, some new and some we already knew. The first new person we met was a farmer from the Green Bay area whose wife is a physician. Go figure. I made contact with Mark, an organic apple grower from De Soto, Wisconsin. He replied to a Craiglist ad I placed last year asking for sources of scion wood (apple tree sticks of different varieties to graft onto apple tree rootstock). Mark brought me sticks from his orchard and he connected me with another orchardist who had more varieties, so I am set for late spring apple grafting. I even saw Bill the winter spinach guy from our farmers market in Madison. “I know I know you,” he said studying my familiar face. I told him I was one of his customers. Customer for now, anyway.
We met Kelly’s farm mentor, Casey, for the first time. Kelly was matched with Casey through the MOSES mentoring program. I encouraged her to enroll so she would have a real farmer to teach her, and because she wants to grow and sell vegetables. We decided that she will be the farm’s annualist and I will be its perennialist. Not that I won’t be helping her with the market garden, but she is now the boss of that. Most likely if you eat a One Seed Farm tomato, onion or pepper, she will have nurtured it and if you get an apple (in 2019 or so) it will come from a tree I grafted.
Of course there was much networking at the conference, often at mealtimes, which were held in a large auditorium loud with the exchange of ideas. And yes, the food was organic. And yes, it was good. And yes it was served in compostable containers with compostable utensils. And there were no plastic lids for the coffee cups and nothing bad happened. I have been to many conferences over the years and I have never had food at a medical conference as good as what I have had at the two farm conferences I have attended. Why should that be?
At times experienced farmers offered us unsolicited farming tips. I especially appreciated the weathered fellow with admirably thick hands who sat next to me before the farm scale composting lecture. He asked why I was there and then gave me a chapter’s worth of information on raising chickens and how to use an old-fashioned manure spreader to mix the compost piles. The willingness of people in this community of cooperative competitors to share information inspires me to do the same, just as soon as I know a damn thing.
My favorite talk was given by Kristine Nichols, who is not only the chief scientist (something like that) at the Rodale Institute, but a funny, engaging speaker. She talked soil biology, which sounds like a dry subject, but not if you are enthralled by it. Contrary to popular belief, soil is not just a collection of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and minerals. Yes, it has all of those things, but it is full of life too. At least healthy soil has life. She said there are 5,000 to 20,000 pounds of living organisms in an acre of real soil. Bacteria, fungi and zillions of other microscopic animals not only populate the soil but barter with each other and with plants for essential nutrients. Worms and insects and small animals live there too, if not rendered homeless and hungry by our growing methods. The relationship between plants, animals and tiny organisms is a critical symbiosis not yet fully understood and ignored at great risk to mankind.
Two quotes from Dr. Nichols come to mind: 1) Floods are man made. 2) Drought is a choice. As evidence she had pictures from experiments done in Rodale’s test plots, where plant plots are grown side-by-side to compare conventional and organic methods. She showed a photo of North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown’s cornfield after an early summer storm. But this was no ordinary storm. Thirteen inches of rain in 24 hours. The photo showed rows of corn seedlings poking out from the cover crop residue. What we did not see was a drop of standing water. When you factor in the inescapable threats of drought and flood and especially if you could subtract taxpayer subsidized crop insurance, organic sustainable methods beat conventional agriculture. The yield is better. The money is better. The soil is better. The food is better. You may disagree with me, but that doesn’t change reality.
I was reminded of a discussion about organic-based growing I once had with my good friend Mike. He asked the question often posed by traditional agriculture proponents like chemical companies: “Yeah, but can we feed the world (organically)?” I did not have a good answer at that time, but I have one now, and it has nothing to do with my belief that it is not and never was the intent of industrial agriculture to feed the world. My answer is that we can and we should feed the world organically. My answer is that there is no other way to do it long term, assuming we care about the well-being of our progeny. You don’t have to believe me if you think that sensible farming cannot be done successfully on a large scale. Go to YouTube and watch any of Gabe Brown’s videos and then tell me there are not better ways to farm, even on a grand scale.
By the way, I found out I lied to my son. The blue whale is not the largest living thing. One fungus in Oregon spans more than 2000 acres and is thought to be at least 2400 years old. If humans lived that long do you suppose we would care more about the soil?
Footnote: Though we believe in soil health and non-toxic inputs, we have not yet decided to become a certified organic farm. Until we are, we cannot legally label or advertise our produce as organic. For the most part we believe in and support the organic movement and its people, at least when the growers and consumers are in close proximity (organic bananas from Bolivia are a double edged machete), but we are wary of the dark side of organic agriculture. Money and cheating are like fire and smoke--impossible to separate. We wonder how much food that is labeled organic by people whose faces we cannot see and voices we cannot hear is what we want to believe it to be. So, for now, One Seed Farm is local, sustainable, regenerative, committed to growing food without synthetic fertilizers and substances poisonous to plants or animals and always open to questions about our methods. By the legal definition, we are not organic, but if we are good, maybe that's OK.