NOFA-Vt., Winter Conference Growing by Leaps and Bounds

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Olga Boshart Moriarty is not an organic farmer, but she has farmed organically in the past — both as an employee of organic farmers and as the owner of her own organic vegetable farm.

Currently, Moriarty raises poultry, eggs, sheep and vegetables on a small homestead in Lincoln, Vt., so when she attends the Northeast Organic Farmer Association of Vermont’s (NOFA) winter conference each year, she always searches for and finds practical information to take home.

“But the real take away from the NOFA conference is inspiration,” Moriarty said, following the three-day conference in Burlington. “There’s a strong sense of community and togetherness that you feel at this annual event that keeps you motivated to continue the hard work necessary to propel this local, organic foods movement forward.”

Judging by the growth of NOFA-VT’s annual winter conference, organic farming isn’t just moving forward in Vermont — it’s running.

This year, more than 1,500 organic farmers, students and industry service providers descended upon the University of Vermont (UVM) for the event, held Feb. 15-17.

Organizers moved the conference to UVM from Vermont Technical College in Randolph four years ago, because it became too large for the latter, Moriarty said.

NOFA-VT has about 1,300 members on about 580 USDA-certified farms. The group — which formed in 1971 as part of an organics resurgence sparked by the hippie-fueled Back To Land Movement — had 250 members in 1990, on 57 certified farms.

“The conference grows each year by about 50 to 100 attendees,” Moriarty said. “The event has been attracting beginning farmers and students in droves over the past five years. We are now seeing colleges send 30 to 50 students as part of their curriculum.”

UVM student and Indiana native Liz Brownlee co-led a Feb. 15 session called “Farming for Resiliency in a Changing Climate,” a daylong workshop that attracted more than 30 people.

“Today is a chance to stop just thinking and combine thinking with action,” Brownlee said.

In the morning, attendees heard about the causes of climate change, their impact on agriculture and vice versa from Lesley-Ann Dupigny Giroux, Vermont state climatologist; and the impacts of climate change on crops and weeds from Lewis Ziska, plant physiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Bellsville, Md.

Their talks might be summarized by two sentences on one slide in Ziska’s presentation: “Past practices in agriculture are dependent on a stable climate. That is no longer the case.”

In the afternoon, farmers wrote and presented strategies for adapting their operations to climate change.

Moriarty heard positive feedback about the climate change workshop and others held over the three days. Giving farmers information they can apply at home — through speakers, workshops and education about trends — is always a conference priority when planning it, she said.

The conference theme this year was “Generations of Innovation,” and education was a topic laced throughout.

During his presentation, Ziska expressed concern over the lack of national focus and education on climate change, and adapting to it.

On Saturday, Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross told conference participants that “the biggest challenge right now is educating our consumers,” Moriarty recalled.

“The general public has misconceived notions about where our food originates, why food costs the price it does, and how organic production fits into the big picture,” she said.

NOFA-VT also offers several programs related to agriculture advocacy, financial resources, gardener education, farm apprenticeships, and marketing.

Other annual NOFA-VT events include a direct marketing conference, a summer workshop series, and a Share the Harvest Fundraiser in October.

“We’ve found the young farmer demographic growing faster than any other segment, but we also see our numbers on the rise with gardeners and homesteaders,” Moriarty said.

Results of the 2008 Organic Production Survey, the first such study from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, showed that certified and exempt organic farmers in the U.S. generated about $3.2 billion in sales that year.

The average organic producer had sales of $217,675, with average expenses of $171,978, the study said.

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