NEWBURG, Md. — You don’t usually see the World Wildlife Fund, Tyson Foods, PepsiCo and a group of farmers in the same room together, let alone enjoying productive conversation and sharing a meal; but that’s exactly what made the recent Honor the Harvest Conference so unique and productive.
Held on June 5 and 6 at Bunker Hill Farm in southern Maryland, a mere one hour south of the nation’s capital, it was a national meeting of the minds from all corners of the agricultural, environmental, food, policy and agribusiness worlds.
Co-hosted by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and the Aspen Institute, the inaugural event was invitation only to some of the biggest names in food, agriculture and the environment.
The Honor the Harvest Forum had over 100 executive participants, with representatives from the National Black Growers Council, the Campbell Soup Co., the American Farm Bureau Federation, Bayer, Feeding America and many more.
The forum also included current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, as well as previous secretaries Tom Vilsack and Dan Glickman.
“The mission of the assembled group was to map out the future of U.S. sustainable food systems by focusing on ways to harness the power of agriculture to propel year-to-year drawdown of greenhouse gases, and to adapt to an already changing climate while growing shared values across the supply chain,’’ said Chip Bowling, current USFRA chair and host of the event on his family farm.
According to USFRA, studies have found that farming and ranching will play a critical role in solving climate change issues. Agricultural soils have the capacity to draw down and store carbon through the photosynthesis process. Through climate smart agriculture practices, farmers and ranchers can optimize production, improve resiliency, minimize fertilizers and other inputs, improve water use and quality, all while storing carbon for future generations.
Bowling elaborated on the specific goals within the group’s mission, “Our vision with the meeting was to discuss, come up with a plan, and work towards the following: fulfilling the potential of farming and ranching as being a strong part of new climate solutions, to further invest in resilient food production, to compensate farmers and ranchers for investing in nature, and to share and celebrate the exciting stories of how food and ag systems are mobilizing to solve climate change.
“It was also good for those who attended to be on the farm, to learn about the precision ag equipment, spend time on a working family farm, and to see all the conservation practices farmers in the area are using to preserve the environment and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of USFRA, and one of the meeting hosts, said, “We must grow and raise healthy foods to feed billions of people and we must do so in a way that positively contributes to the environment. There is no other sector that can provide nourishment for our communities while drawing down carbon into our soils and enhancing ecosystem services like the food and agriculture sector.”
After two full days of workshops, presenters, networking, team-building games, and a farm-to-table dinner hosted under a big tent on the farm, the group had a palpable sense of cohesion and cooperation that permeated the air.
“The conference was notable for bringing such different voices to the table across the public and private sectors. As someone who works for an organization dedicated to ending hunger in the United States, that spirit of collaboration is encouraging,” said Kate Leone, the chief government relations officer of Feeding America.
It’s also notable that the conference practiced what it preaches from the very beginning, with every attendee being given a conference binder with the following note in the front:
“In planning this event, we have done our best to make it as low-impact and sustainable as possible. The workbook binders and tabs are made from 100% recycled fibers with a minimum 85% post-consumer and 15% post-industrial recycled materials, and printouts are on Forest Stewardship Council certified paper with 30% recycled content. We are using biodiesel fuel in our shuttle buses, all the food waste from our meals is being composted on site, we are using reusable food service items whenever possible, we will recycle all name tags and other recyclable items, and all of the leftover supplies from the forum will be donated to a local school following the event.”
American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said afterwards that “the Honor the Harvest Forum was a great opportunity for agriculture and food leaders to talk about ensuring farmers and ranchers get the credit they deserve for providing solutions to some of our world’s greatest challenges. Farmers always have worked to conserve the resources they need to be productive, and now they are farming more sustainably than ever. We should honor the harvest and the heroes who produce it.”
When asked about the overall tone and success of the conference, Sally J. Rockey, executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research said, “It was an amazing and inspirational two days at Bunker Hill Farms. I was honored to be part of an effort to move together with one voice and vision that recognizes and values farming as answer to climate issues. Being a geeky scientist, I also was delighted with discussions from this incredible group of leaders of how agricultural science can be a driving force behind solutions.”