MOSES: Our Weekend of Abundant Organic Information, Food and Coffee

Amazing small farmers and food policy advocates from around the Midwest, and many from much farther, alongside several Wisconsin students (and ten F.H. King members!) all traveled to La Crosse this weekend for the 23rd Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference.  MOSES, more formally known as the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, is a non-profit organization that believes in farmers who produce healthy, high-quality and abundant food to consumers using organic or sustainable methods.

More than just an advocate, MOSES also believes in the power of farmers sharing information and ideas with one another.  Aside from their annual conference, which is an educational hub for organic and sustainable agriculture in the Midwest region, MOSES hosts workshops and field days to allow farmer education year-round.  They lead a Farmer to Farmer mentoring program and Rural Women’s project while also providing abundant resources on their website.

It is clear, however, that this action-packed weekend is the biggest event of MOSES’s year.  I don’t know the final verdict, but preceding the keynote speaker on Saturday, executive director Faye Jones announced that the 2012 conference attendance had surpassed 3,300 people!  This was up significantly from a record-setting year of 2,600 in 2011.  They will begin planning for 2013 on Tuesday (and the date is already set!).

The conference always begins on a Thursday (although the workshops on this day are not included in regular admission) with a little something called Organic University.  Rather than attend three-1 ½ hour sessions, participants spend seven hours in a hands-on, more intimate-sized workshop.  Pre-conference workshops go into much more depth than regular session workshops.   Thursday evening is concluded with film screenings (ag-related documentaries), the option to purchase an organic supper, a general welcoming session and poetry slam.

My boyfriend and I didn’t arrive at MOSES until 9:30 on Friday morning, due to a minor incident related to locking the keys in our running car and AAA not being able to get ahold of anyone at 5:30 am.  Although seriously disappointed by missing the first session (now we’ll never learn how to keep bees!!!), MOSES is so action packed that it hardly matters when you arrive.

We didn’t know this at the time of course.  My boyfriend and I plan to start a small, diversified organic vegetable farm during the spring of 2013 so these workshops were essential to us.  They would provide us with an education it’d be hard to find elsewhere, especially in two-days’ time. We sulked around a bit, mad at ourselves for getting a late start.

Exhibit hall

Eventually though, we meandered through the exhibit hall, an arena filled with over 160 exhibit booths and information on literally everything you ever needed to know and/or purchase related to organic and sustainable farming.  From seed catalogs to worm castings to mushroom starter packs to information on USDA grants, this exhibit hall was a haven of resources and educational material.

We were told about grants.  We were bogged down with literature on too many environmentally-conscious products to count.  We were literally welcomed with open arms by so many wonderful people who were thrilled to see potential young farmers and eager to share the best methods they knew.  This is when we learned it didn’t matter what time you arrived at MOSES.  Regardless of whether you can make it for three days or one, you will leave with a renewed sense of pride in the work you do and feel like part of a family of people who are literally trying to change the world through agriculture.

Synister Dane and the Kickapoo Disco Cosmonuts: music by farmers for farmers

The funniest, greatest band ever!!! Please google them and listen to their hilarious political music.

Next on the agenda was the first keynote speaker of the conference: Margaret Krome.  Krome was introduced as a tireless advocate for organic and sustainable agriculture, and after listening to her speak for five minutes, this was quite clear.  She has been involved in ag policy at practically every level imaginable and in so many states I lost count.  Krome educated us on the most recent Farm Bill and explained what we needed to be concerned about, pay attention to and stand up for.  Her presentation was concluded with a visit from Senator Herb Kohl (!), who agreed to stand with farmers who were a part of this new food movement and push for change in the next Farm Bill.

Herb Kohl!

After the keynote address, we were instructed to “not all go to the dining hall at once”, so my boyfriend and I visited the Silent Auction and bid on way too many amazing organic products.  Luckily we only “won” a bag of worm castings, which cost us an overpriced $22, but ultimately went to funding MOSES, so I guess it’s okay.

Silent Auction!

We headed to lunch, a meal of sloppy joes, macaroni salad, harvest slaw (coleslaw with grapes in it!), fresh greens, tortilla chips with salsa and cranberry bog bars in the largest room I have ever dined in.  The tables were set up with eight seats each so farmers and other MOSES attendees were “forced together” to network and discuss their work and their differences.  We wound up at tables with farmers from as far as Ohio, South Dakota and Colorado.  As with the rest of the conference, people were warm, friendly and eager to share information and ideas.

Hugest Dining Hall EVER

First lunch!

After lunch, everyone headed to two successive hour and a half workshops featuring a plethora of topics.  My boyfriend and I together only attended three of the twenty-two workshops: Integrating CSA with Other Markets, Soil Health and Biodiversity in Practice- Harnessing Biology, Ecology, and Resiliency on the Farm, Cover Crop Innovation on Organic Farms.  But other F.H. King members attended many more, so if you want more information on workshops specifically, mention it in the comments’ section below and I can do a write up on some of the most popular F.H. King-attended workshops.

First workshop of the day! So pumped!

The workshops were the end of the Friday festivities for us, but many more enjoyed more film screenings (Dirty Work, Vanishing of the Bees, and Truck Farm), an organic supper or listened to the Bad Axe Blues Band until midnight.

Saturday proceeded much like Friday: breakfast, workshop, keynote speaker, lunch, workshop, workshop and time built in for exploring in between.  After rushing through a breakfast of fresh fruit, incredible oatmeal and an egg bake, my boyfriend sprinted off to workshop number one (Fungal Dynamics Underlying Plant Health) and I met up with F.H. King members and students from other schools to discuss sustainable agriculture on our campuses and future aspirations in this realm.  A couple of times the discussion broke out into heated debates about issues related to farming and although no one feels comfortable in these tense situations, I was glad to see so much passion surrounding these issues on all sides.

The meeting had to end well before we had exhausted the list of things we sought to discuss, which according to Lawrence University students, is a chronic problem of these student meetings at MOSES.  Growing out of these frustrations, Lawrence University founded the Student Initiatives for Sustainable Agriculture (SISA) conference last year.  They will be holding SISA again on the weekend of March 31st and April 1st.

After the meeting, we all found our way to the ballroom where our second keynote address would be held.  We listened to Curt Ellis, filmmaker of King Corn, critique Clint Eastwood’s already famous Superbowl commercial of America as a football team that can come out strong in the second half, despite faltering in the first.  Ellis made the astute observation that the commercial showed us “going back on the field to win, but with the exact same play that made us lose in the first half.”  Ellis doesn’t believe that industry or fossil fuel use is necessarily bad, but also recognizes that we should not be “running this play all the time.”  We ignore the fact that there might be other plays that could also work, perhaps work even better in certain circumstances (like in food production for example).  It is important to realize what works and what doesn’t.  What is helping us and what is actually making our situation worse.  He describes the need for a new vision.

The model Ellis puts forward is called the Schoolyard Model which is currently being played out by an organization he co-founded called Food Corps.  It relies on three pillars: knowledge in the classroom, engagement (through gardening, cooking and being a part of food production) and access (by getting the food kids learn about into cafeterias).  This process, besides improving the health of America from the youth of our nation upwards, keeps us thinking and learning.

He shared stories of the determined and influential youth involved in Food Corps, explaining to the crowd that there are new and powerful faces behind this new food movement which seeks to make food fundamental again.  Ellis helped me to remember that all of us at F.H. King are an important part of this movement by understanding the issues and distributing knowledge and fresh produce to both students and community members.

Then it was time for yet another meal, which again, we avoided right away by checking out the MOSES book sale.  A sale which possesses “the largest selection of organic farming books under one roof”.  I couldn’t resist buying Farmstead Chef but wrote down twelve more titles to check out from the library.

Getting around.

We dined on teriyaki beef, sesame chicken, snow pea and bok choy salad, white rice, greens and dinner rolls, again seated beside the friendliest of strangers.  Before long, the conference was nearing the end.  We attended another two workshops each (again, out of the twelve offered at each session): Crop Rotation for Vegetable Growers, Pastured Pork—The Other Red Meat, Running a Successful CSA Farm, and Renewable Energy Options for Farms and Value-Added Food Producers.  And then we were out the door, back in our car, and on the way home to Madison (without locking the keys in the car this time).

Pastured Pork workshop!

This annual conference, more than anything, is a place to expand knowledge, brainstorm like crazy and inspire one another.  I left on Saturday feeling not only enthusiastic about beginning my own farm (ask my poor boyfriend, I didn’t stop talking for the entire three hour drive…) but also honored to be doing so.  The MOSES conference taught me a lot about CSAs, marketing and the tools essential to beginner farmers, but none of those things are why I feel in love with MOSES and this rapidly growing conference.  I left with a genuine sense of pride in myself and the decisions I’d made related to sustainable agriculture.  I left with e-mail addresses of people I admire whole-heartedly.  More than anything, I left giddy with happiness and inspiration.  MOSES is a big time commitment in the midst of an always-busy school semester, but I would recommend it to anyone and everyone interested in these issues.  Let’s make the 24th even better next year!  I know I’ll be there!