When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
So wrote Wendell Berry in “The Peace of Wild Thing,” creating in poetry a beacon for the expression of reverence for the natural world—the soil, air, water, and all life within and upon it—and the hope and renewal it offers.
Berry’s words became the opening lines for keynote speakers Joshua Kunau and Jeremy Seifert, echoing as well the sentiments expressed throughout the weekend by fellow keynote speakers, Farmer of the Year Charlie Johnson and farmer-author Anita Diffley, and the myriad presenters at the 24th Annual Organic Farming Conference attended by over 3,300 people last weekend in the LaCrosse Center.
For while organic farmers are diverse, coming from all walks of life, holding every conceivable political or religious view, there lay underneath it all an optimistic creed which says embrace the natural processes of the world, work with them, model your work upon them - and the world will be a better place, one full of diverse life, with land, water, and air that we need not pollute to survive, and survive well.
Doubt the philosophy? Think it’s too idealistic? Unworkable? Unrealistic?
Well, they have facts and they have figures. They have classes to teach you the skills to succeed. Oh, and do they have tales to tell.
“It’s about putting the culture back in agriculture,” said Faye Jones, Executive Director of MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services).
For filmmakers Kanua and Seifert, the story began with a newspaper snippet, an article of a few inches about poor farmers in Haiti who refused seed donated by Monsanto Corporation, even burning some of it in protest.
Why would they do such a thing?
Monsanto has historically donated seed genetically modified to both withstand pesticide and herbicide applications, but to also produce sterile seed.
In one of the poorest nations in the world, saving seed is an absolute necessity. Monsanto’s donation was seen as a direct attack on their cultural food sovereignty.
Researching the issue led director Seifert to learn more about genetically modified organism and in turn led to Seifert and Kunau’s new documentary “GMO, OMG,” a film meant for the average consumer who knows nothing about genetic modification and the impact these seed technologies have had on our cultures, our laws, and quite likely, on our health.
“How can we work without doing irreparable damage to the world, including ourselves?” quoting Wendell Berry a second time, Seifert asked the crowd.
Seifert and Kunau noted that in researching their film they found many of the “promises” of GMO technology to be untrue, saying that despite claims it would feed the world and reduce pesticide and herbicide use, it had failed to deliver. Herbicide use alone has increased 527 million pounds since 1996.
“We produce enough food right now to feed 14 billion people, but half of that is thrown away,” Seifert said.
The filmmakers see GMO technology as an example of a divide in how we see the natural world.
“We are divided between exploitation and nurture, opposite kinds of mind,” Seifert explained.
Seifert and Kunau’s film will be released later this year.
Anita Diffley also spoke to the impacts of agriculture upon culture. Having just released her book, ‘Turn Here: Sweet Corn,’ the author and founding farmer of Gardens of Eagan in Eagan, Minnesota, brought a history to share, both personal and historic.
Having lost her first farm to urban development, Diffley and her family faced down Koch Industries in an eminent domain case over an oil-pipeline planned to cross their certified organic farm.
The historic case, a David vs. Goliath legal moment, set new precedents for acceptable impacts on organic agricultural land and influenced public policy in Minnesota’s two most heavily populated counties.
However, while Diffley’s account of struggle is moving, it is in her stories of relationship, to the land, to each other, and to food, in which she is most eloquent.
“We knew what development meant when we lost our land in the 80s,” Diffley said. “They bulldozed right up to our crops – took every blade of grass, even the soil to sell it. It caused an ecological collapse on our land.
“We learned in fourth grade that we need an ecosystem to survive,” Diffley continued.
“That first loss was a spiritual collapse (for us),” Diffley said.
That first loss was the impetus to the second fight. When Diffley and her family say the Agricultural Impact Mitigation plan, enough was enough.
“The plan wouldn’t knowingly allow more than 12 inches of topsoil loss?” Diffley recalled. “We realized that wouldn’t work and hired an attorney. We could show that an organic farm is a valuable natural resource, beneficial to society, providing beneficial insects and a habitat for multiple species, protecting the soil.”
The struggle to protect their farm reached out into the community and resulted in over 4,000 letters to the judge from consumers of the food the Diffleys grew.
The efforts of organic agriculture are recognized even by those outside the movement.
“Today, there is a quiet respect for what we do,” said the Organic Farmer of the Year Charlie Johnson.
Johnson and his family farm 2,800 acres in Madison, South Dakota. They have 1,800 tillable acres in a rotation of corn, oats, soybeans, alfalfa, and winter wheat (for green manure). Two hundred Angus-Gelbich-cross cattle graze their pastures in 10-day rotations. Crop fields are kept small, creating more field edges and habitat for increased biodiversity. Oh, and about 60 chickens. But they aren’t really raised for the money.
“It’s nice to have the egg component,” Johnson said with a smile. “It keeps me connected to local food.”
Johnson’s family came to organic farming under his father’s guidance in the 1970s.
“He was comfortable in trusting himself to make decisions based on his own beliefs,” Johnson said, noting that the move was greeted with some skepticism from the community. After watching from afar, the operation is well accepted within the community. When word of Johnson’s award as Organic Farmer of the Year got out, one neighbor created a large replica to hang in Johnson’s shed.
“It matters little if I can come to events like this, if I don’t take care of things on the farm, though,” Johnson added.
Building, nurturing, improving. Those words were echoed constantly through the conference. They are the ethos that informs the vision of attendees and presenters alike. The words were heard again and again in the conversations of young and old, as they moved between presentations and as they sat at lunch. They were heard again, when lecturers spoke upon their specific areas of expertise.
“Natural processes create the abundance of the earth, not the inputs of convention farming,” said Mark Shepard, Viroqua farmer and presenter of ‘Restoration Agriculture: An Introduction to Farm-Scale Permaculture.’ “The past abundance is gone! We have to plant the economic boom of the future now.”