OEFFA Conference Reflections

Recently, in response to my latest apocalyptic post on social media, I received a challenge from a friend. Using the form of some quote or poem, I was encouraged to choose hope over dismay. I calmly responded that, as a realist (read: pessimist), any optimism I might conjure must be rooted in something tangible, a development or practice that is actually yielding hopeful results. Looking out at the world, as much as I’d like to indulge in hope, I wasn’t feeling it.

I brought this conflict with me to the 40th annual mid-winter conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). Like the other seven-or-so OEFFA conferences I’ve attended, this one was geared to generate hope. Yes, the problems are defined and the enemies are identified. These are challenges and we empowered farmers will rally, returning to our communities to do our small part to collectively save the planet one sustainably-managed farm and garden and woodlot and pasture at a time.

This year I noticed the word “regenerative” more than in previous years. Farming cannot afford to be an environmentally benign practice, it must be regenerative—whereby pollinators are restored, nutrients retained, soil built, and carbon sequestered while healthy people abound and thrive.

It’s a nice idea. But I found my enthusiasm checked by a conversation about yet another Northeast Ohio farmer—one I regarded as one of the most successful vegetable growers in the Cleveland area, who sold a diverse selection of produce year-round—calling it quits.

“Maybe,” I timidly offered, “he is just taking a year off?”

“You don’t sell your hoop houses when you’re taking a year off,” my farmer-colleague responded.

Just when communities should be doing all they can to support local food production—regenerative local food production—all I could see was retraction, as many small producers that I know around Cleveland struggled, scaled back operations or got out altogether.

Of course there are many reasons why a farmer might quit—a family or health issue perhaps—but I couldn’t help focus on the stressors I heard being discussed all around me at the conference: the exorbitant price of land barring entry of aspiring farmers; the lion’s share of government incentives allocated toward commodity crops; the constant struggle to operate a farm such that consumer price point thresholds (i.e. low as possible) can be met. Indeed, after pointing out the inarguable meaning of a farmer selling his hoop houses, my friend went on to tell me about the new housing development going up across the road from his farm. Being built on a recently sold-off farm, “some of the best soil in the state of Ohio,” he asserted, would now be covered in houses, driveways and yards.

Whereas I brought the “dismay” to counter the conference’s “hope,” another duality awaited me there: unity vs. division.

Of course, this is the ongoing theme for the nation. However, applied to small-scale organic family farms, the conflict is a bit more interesting. Organic farmers do not all fall on one particular side of the nation’s divide. For example, as I strolled through the crowd of farmers the past two conferences, I overheard approving comments of President Trump’s performance and cabinet picks, as well as—to use that word again—the dismay of many others about the exact same performance and picks.

What unifies OEFFA participants is a desire to make one’s living growing healthy food with ecological integrity. Food: The Great Unifier.

My workshop picks pursued unity, as I explored the possibility of offering a CSA on my farm. Community Supported Agriculture, as the name implies, unites consumers and farmers in an agreement to trade money upfront, and sometimes work, for part of the future harvest. It is, at its root, a hopeful arrangement, a hopeful practice, as the conference’s keynote speaker Elizabeth Henderson, co-founder of one of the country’s earliest CSAs, conveyed as she discussed decades of experience working and visiting CSAs around the world.

For me, the most striking example of unity came from the conference’s other keynote speaker. Asking the audience to stand if you are a farmer and then to stand if you are an educator, Onika Abraham told the mostly standing and nearly all-white crowd how good it felt to be among “her people.” By breaking with our destructive conventions for how to divide people, Onika was then able to lead audience members on personal journeys to their family’s historical agricultural roots, coaxing us to imagine how those histories made farming an accessible life pursuit for each of us. She concluded by asking if it was OK to point out the history of systemic racism that has separated black and brown people from agricultural land and agricultural family stories.

For me, it was more than OK. And while I can’t say I came away from OEFFA’s 40th conference optimistic about humanity’s trajectory, I do recognize that hope is not just something verified or legitimized by trends in the data. Hope is a product of being united in community with a common goal, that only by working together do we stand a chance of achieving.

—Steven Corso; Photo of Steven at his Bat Barn Farm by Matthew Connors