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Julie Brothers

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Farm To Fork Across America -- EcoFarm Conference: Sustainable Agriculture, Food, Love and Butterflies

Posted: 01/23/2012 12:52 pm

In a couple weeks I'll be attending the oldest and largest ecological agricultural gathering in the West. The EcoFarm Conference has been a centrifugal force for more than 30 years. It will be jam-packed with networking opportunities and information on the newest eco-ag developments and techniques. Hot topic Farm Bill 2012 lectures will focus on important policy concerns. Newly emerging topics are elbowing their way into the Farm Bill: local food, urban agriculture, farm-to-school and community gardens.

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Here's this year's conference at a glance with Jillian Steinberger. Jillian owns and operates The Garden Artisan, an ecological landscaping company which designs, builds and maintains edible and herb gardens, and native hedgerows and meadows, based in Oakland, CA. She also writes on regenerative landscaping and farm-to-table issues for magazines and newspapers.

Hi. Welcome to my blog.
Thanks so much for having me. I love your blog. Kernza flour and wild yeasts -- wow! I'm learning so much from reading your posts. And I love your pictures.

Thank you. So, why are you going to EcoFarm?
I'm giving a workshop called Edible Eco-Gardens, which I hope will empower landscapers to believe that they can earn a living offering eco-edible services instead of exterior decoration and mow-blow-and-go. It's about right livelihood. I'm co-leading this with Owen Dell, an inspiring and distinguished landscape architect out of Santa Barbara who wrote Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies.

I'm also going as press, representing Edible East Bay. Also, I'm researching a story that I would love to see in Mother Earth News or Mother Jones... It's an exciting story about pasteurization laws, super-bacteria, global trade, economic justice and organic California almonds and goat cheese. In a nutshell, Americans have the right to bring shotguns into national parks, but we can't easily buy raw almonds or cheese. This doesn't seem right.

Who goes to the EcoFarm Conference?
Who goes is quite diverse, but the unifying factor, the common bond, is everyone is interested in being on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture, whether they are agribusiness people or greenhorns, cattle ranchers or vegan growers, angel investors or start-ups, policy people or school gardeners, or urban homesteaders and edible landscapers like myself.

Why are you interested in the EcoFarm conference?
EcoFarm is very intelligent, and I'm interested in a world that does things intelligently. Our federal food policy drives our national food culture, which is low brow (unlike, say, France). Most grocery stores today are like huge, glorified 7-11s... Why do Americans need 500 brands of dry cereal, an entire grocery aisle? This doesn't benefit the people. This does benefit the stock market.

What can I learn at the conference?
Many, many things. There are about 65 sessions. They're all over the map, but they're all germane. Here's a sample of session titles I find intriguing:

  • Farmer-Chef Relationships

  • A Trucker's View of Organic Produce

  • Wise Words from Well-Seasoned Farmers

  • Livestock Guardian Dogs

  • The Business Case for Responsible Packaging

  • Extend the Harvest with Fermentation!

  • Access for All: Bringing Relief to Food Deserts

  • See Jane Grow: How Women are Transforming Agriculture

  • Organic Muckrakers: Holding the Organic Industry Accountable

  • Planting the Spirit

I was told you have a funny story about romance.
Yes. This is a little silly but you asked. Lore has it that several happy loving couples have met at EcoFarm. I have a theory why. Many farms are family-owned businesses, and labors of love. Running a farm is hard work, so everyone contributes. It also requires a broad skillset -- the actual work of farming, repairing heavy equipment, marketing and bookkeeping, etc.
So I think farming culture is one where couples have to pull together. Wives and mothers and daughters are key to making the farm run smoothly, so the cultural positioning is that women are highly valued. Plus, the conference attracts the good guys. So I tell my chick friends who are single that they should go. But only the ones who are seriously interested in growing edibles.

Not all the couples I know of are hetero either. My friend Tanya Stiller and her girlfriend Denise Goitia met at EcoFarm six years ago. Tanya is an herbalist and she's also the Instructional Gardening Specialist at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley. She grew up on a farm in the Walla Walla Valley, in E. Oregon where it sometimes smells like onions. Denise teaches nutrition at San Francisco General Hospital in a program called Heartbeats, and she also sells gorgeous produce at the Berkeley farmers markets, where Farm to Fork started with the likes of Chez Panisse and the Gourmet Ghetto... Tanya and Denise are celebrating their 7th anniversary. Very romantic.

Tell me about some of the good guys.
Really good people are involved. Before becoming EcoFarm's new Executive Director, Ken Dickerson worked in the Occupation Agriculture Program of the Santa Cruz County School District. He worked with high school students in the garden and in the greenhouse, and taught ecology and science through organic agriculture and health and nutrition through culinary skills. He also worked at Santa Cruz's Homeless Garden Project, which is a gorgeous farm that trains homeless folks in farming skills and serves community meals. (They have a Women's Organic Flower Enterprise, and a CSA, among other things.) Anyway, Ken has been involved with EcoFarm for 17 years as a board member and volunteer.

There is another Ken who was also on the board, my friend Ken Foster, who programs the conference's landscaping and urban homesteading tracks. Every year he rides his bike 50 miles from Santa Cruz around Monterey Bay to Asilomar Center, and back. This is his 12th year. It's a cute stunt. But it's not just a stunt. Ken is involved in the Transition Movement and he is concerned about Peak Oil and lowering the carbon footprint. He started Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping over 20 years ago; it was the first landscaping company to have a bicycle maintenance service. So his staff rides bikes with trailers that carry their tools. Of course they also use trucks for major landscaping projects, but bikes are an important part of their service. Ken started doing eco-landscaping way back before anyone else was even thinking about it.

So, let's bring this back to the table. How is the food? (Conference food is usually not great.)

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Well, it's a community dining experience by and for farm-to-fork professionals. So the food is clean and pure, and the menus are sophisticated. Yet there's a humbleness and a joyfulness; the vibe is not pretentious. All the food is donated. Riverdog Farms is donating 300 lbs. of organic pork for a BBQ Pulled Pork Dinner! Far West Fungi and Earl's Organics are donating several types of mushrooms. There's also an organic wine tasting which I'm looking forward to.
And I hope to avoid a catatonic desert overload.

You said that the setting is inspiring. Please explain.
It's pretty ideal. First, the famous arts & crafts architect, Julia Morgan, designed and built the meeting halls, including the dining hall, in the 1920s. These are tremendously inspiring buildings to be in. Second, you're right next door to a monarch butterfly sanctuary. Third, the setting is California native coastal sand dune with all its special little plants and animals and birdlife. There are tide pools that extend for many miles in both directions... Great for stretching your legs when you have information overload!

Please join us at the 2012 EcoFarm conference on February 1-4, 2012 at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, CA.

Hope to see you there........Julie