The price of Pixie tangerines. Contamination dangers for organic dairies from GMO alfalfa. The safety of tractor tweeting. Veterans transitioning into farming, pastoralism and grassland management, the cave paintings of Lascaux and sustainable meat production, the future of CSAs, hot heritage breeds and much, much more.
Such were just a fraction of the topics buzzing through the first day of the 31st annual EcoFarm Conference. It’s Davos for organic farmers, where hundreds of forward-thinking, change-making ranchers, farmers, wholesalers, seed-company founders, and advocates for sustainable agriculture and food justice converge for 3 days of workshops, presentations, meals, and talk–lots and lots of talk, spilling over through panel discussions, cheese tastings, workshops, lunch lines, morning yoga and evening movies.
There’s so much to discuss, after all, here at the forefront of the sustainable-ag revolution, where muddy boots and sun-creased foreheads tell the stories of decades spent cajoling balky tractors, hauling irrigation pipe, praying for rain or praying for sun, battling aphids in the Brussels sprouts and codling moth in the apples, and not least of all, convincing skeptical customers to try a purple carrot or a white beet.
And for once, Mother Nature has given her servants a gift: unheard-of sunny skies and summery, beach-basking temperatures, instead of the EcoFarm tradition of fierce winds, blustery rain, and January gloom. For once, the farmers who trekked in from the snowy reaches of northern Vermont or upstate New York are getting a real California vacation.
On Wednesday night, capping a day of “Farms with Barns” pre-conference events about sustainable animal husbandry, Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop, advocated fiercely for a return to pre-CAFO systems of ranching. Armed with then-and-now photos and armfuls of statistics, she made a passionate case for the environmental benefits of raising (and eating) animals fed exclusively on pasture, the way she and her husband, Bill Niman (founder of Niman Ranch, although he’s no longer associated with the brand), do in the green and pleasant land of West Marin.
It’s hard not to get platonic crushes on favorite farmers when you shop the Bay Area’s farmers’ markets, or at least to see them as rock stars of the vegetable world. And here they all are: white-haired David Little, Marin’s king of dry-farmed potatoes; smiling Dru Rivers and Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry, Tim Mueller and Trini Campbell of Riverdog Farm, Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, and numerous others.
And more and more, they’re getting the word out about their farms, their concerns, and their lives on and off the tractor through the same social-media outlets the rest of us use for cute-kitty videos and complaints/brags about kids and jobs. In a workshop about Social Media for Farmers, Greg Massa, a 4th generation organic rice, almond, and grain farmer for Massa Organics along the Sacramento River, admitted to tweeting from his tractor. (Although, as he pointed out, “If you’ve ever seen one, you know there’s not a whole lot in a rice field you can hit.”)
As a smaller-scale farmer carving out a niche, Massa found that as his company grew, he had to find a way to maintain the farm’s personal connection to customers, once he was no longer able to be the face of the farm at every farmers’ market. The answer? Facebook and Twitter. Customers (and fans) can find out what will (and won’t) be at his market stands each week, including his newest item, whole-wheat tortillas made from farm-grown wheat. (He also raises a couple hundred ducks in the fields, selling them as meat for a short time in the fall.) They can also share in the trials and delights of the farm, whether it’s a rice-loaded truck stuck in the mud or a chicken laying an egg in the pickup’s cupholder.
After several years of ignoring social media, this year’s conference was tweeting with a vengeance (#EFC11). Naturally, this made Farm City author (and proud typewriter-using Luddite) Novella Carpenter say, in a later panel about Women Writers & Farmers, “I hate Facebook, I hate all that crap. I could pet a goat or I could stare at a computer–fuck that!” She did admit to using Twitter for spur-of-the-moment commerce, like the frequent sidewalk farmstands she throws together in Oakland.
“Everything I do is illegal, basically, so I use it for that.” It’s part of the benefit of being a best-selling author, she pointed out. “The book took me 3 years to write, so I probably made about 10 cents an hour. But I can sell chard like crazy.”