Dispatch from the 38th Annual OEFFA Conference

This past weekend, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association converged at the Dayton Convention Center for a weekend of education, inspiration, and networking. This was my sixth attendance at the midwinter event, when farmers are most available to uproot themselves from their land for a couple of days. For the past 10 years, OEFFA met in a high school in Granville, an intimate and grassroots-ey setting, though perhaps also unbefitting for the statewide organization that certifies most of Ohio’s organic farms, and advocates and educates on behalf of farmers. The convention center was a new venue for the event.

Familiar friendly faces rode past me on escalators between three floors of workshops. We all were a bit bewildered by the altered context, made even more surreal by the concurrent convention of pesticide applicators.

We OEFFA convention participants behaved as honeybees, congregating en masse along trade show aisles and swarming the adjacent theater room before alighting to our chosen workshop sessions, only to return laden with information to share.

My choices indulged hindsight. I attended workshops to have a look where I’ve already leapt, including “Getting Started with Blue Fruits” (hundreds of such plants I’ve ordered will arrive at my farm next month); “Garlic, Onions, and Leeks” (all of which I’ve been growing with mixed success for years); “Effective Farm Finance” (don’t ask).

These workshops came at the painful exclusion of others of interest, from foraging and cooking tips to solar power and food policy discussions.

However we had spent our days, conference attendees united for two keynote speakers.

Jim Riddle was an organic inspector in his native Minnesota for decades. He served on the USDA’s National Organic Standards board, and became an international ambassador of organic standards, advising and training inspectors on six continents.

He offered us farmers, gardeners, homesteaders, and eaters a rousing call to defend organic standards and the policies that promote organic practices. Only 1% of American farmland is under organic production, we were reminded, and there is no good reason for this to be the case.

Robyn O’Brien has leveraged her unlikely background as a hedge fund manager from a conservative Texas family to maximize returns as a thorn in the side of Big Ag and Big Pharma. Drawing correlative links between the unholy profits from GMO crops and the price gouging of necessary drugs, O’Brien, who authored the bestselling book The Unhealthy Truth, projected sobering statistics on an enormous screen: Between 1997 and 2007, there was a 265% increase in hospital visits for food allergy reactions. This coincides with a steep rise in the use of the herbicide glyphosate on crops like corn, soy, and sugar beets. Today, 1 in 3 children have asthma, ADHD, allergies or autism. Cancer is the No. 1 cause of death by disease in children.

Reluctant to name the company associated with these trends, “M”, the Lord Voldemort of Big Ag, had developed a brilliant business model by selling crops genetically modified to survive being doused in the chemicals it also sells. “Maybe it works for them, but I don’t see it working for anyone else,” O’Brien offered in exchange for our thunderous applause.

It was an easy sell for the attendees of Ohio’s largest sustainable food and farm conference. Over the years, many of us in the business of ecological farming have expressed the sentiment that our work feels like a battle up a hill as steep as O’Brien’s graph of herbicide use.

But our gravest concerns and frustrations are also our source of hope. For a food system that poisons people and degrades soil, water, and climate—the essential elements of food production— is, by definition, unsustainable and will have to be changed.

And we are here, in our dirty boots and faded clothes, riding escalators in a Dayton convention center. We know another way, a narrow pathway of higher ground leading out of the muck.

— Steven Corso