NE expects record numbers of organic farmers

August 10, 2009 1:39:04 PM PDT
Barbara Wefing has been growing fruits and vegetables organically for nearly 60 years, ever since she kept most of the seed packets she was supposed to sell for her elementary school's fundraiser. But despite decades of experience, the 65-year-old Morristown, N.J., woman readily acknowledges she still has plenty to learn as she looks forward to this weekend's Northeast Organic Farming Association conference in Amherst.

The three-day conference that starts Friday is expected to draw a record 1,500 people, continuing a pattern of growth that prompted the nonprofit organization to move the 35-year-old event from Hampshire College two years ago to the more spacious University of Massachusetts across town.

"Interest is fueled by economics, but more and more people are becoming aware of the issues of sustainability," said conference co-coordinator Julie Rawson.

This year's conference, which draws organic growers from all six New England states as well as New York and New Jersey, features more than 200 workshops on just about everything from growing crops and raising livestock, to setting up community-based farming co-ops, to marketing and selling produce, to food politics.

"This is for anyone who has their hands in the dirt," Rawson said.

Most of the people expected to attend this weekend's conference are not large-scale farmers, said Rawson, who cultivates fruit and vegetables and raises livestock with her husband, Jack Kittredge, on about eight acres of land in Barre. In fact, calling it a "farmers" conference is a bit of a misnomer. Most of the attendees run small-scale operations on just a few acres, or are simply people prompted by the recession to save money by growing their own food on small back yard plots.

In California and Wisconsin, the nation's top two organic states, with a larger number of bigger operations, a growing number of farmers are giving up their organic certifications because of economic pressures. Wisconsin dairy farmers have been hard hit by feed prices and Californians struggling with drought.

The Chicago-based research firm Mintel says U.S. sales of organic foods sold mostly at supermarkets are expected to drop 1.1 percent this year, the first decline after annual growth rates that have ranged from 12 percent to 23 percent since 2003. Mintel has said consumers concerned about food quality are maintaining demand for organic vegetables and meat, while slowing on organic snacks.

Still trade groups in California and Wisconsin say there remains a strong interest in organic farming and chemical-free production.

"More and more people are understanding the energy issues, the nutrition issues, the farmland preservation issues, and more people are realizing that organic agriculture is one of the best things we have to fight climate change, to fight diseases, to fight obesity," said Bill Duesing, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the organic farming association. He grows garlic, potatoes, salad greens, tomatoes and squash on his one-acre plot in Oxford, Conn.

"The demand for organic food is such that it's not hard to get rid of," he said.

Wefing, a hospice nurse who has been attending the conference for 15 years, has picked up hints on how to better grow blueberries and raspberries and improve her soil's acid-alkaline balance.

This year she hopes to learn more about composting, maintaining organic lawns at the apartment complex where she lives, and how to better use cover crops rather than letting land lie fallow between growing seasons.

"They have all kinds of helpful hints every year," she said.

Some conference workshops also are geared to the growing trend in urban agriculture, or growing produce on small inner-city lots.

"It's like victory gardens all over again," said Ruby Maddox, who helped found and still helps run the Gardening in the Community program in Springfield. The organization teaches about 20 teenagers from the city to grow their own food on four abandoned lots in the city, none larger than a half acre.

The participants bike the herbs, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cabbage, broccoli, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries to local farmer's markets and also sell to local restaurants.

"This conference brings practical experience and scientific knowledge together in one place," Duesing said.

--- On the Web: Northeast Organic Farming Association, http://www.nofasummerconference.org


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