Sunday, February 27, 2011

Signs of Spring-Skunk Cabbage

I have decided to start a new series of postings titled “signs of spring”. This self-imposed communication assignment is just an excuse to include walks and hikes into my daily routine, a way to get in shape for the farming season to come. Early spring farm work is all about precise seeding, filling trays, and making soil blockers- hardly tasks that improve one’s cardiovascular health. A focused walk with the goal of discovering and observing nature’s indicators of the spring season will be a welcome addition to my daily routine. An active step to peace of mind, spirit, and good health-productive slacking off so to speak.

My first of these “signs of spring” mission walks lead me to the swampy area at the edge of our woods, a place where I knew one of the earliest harbingers of the season can usually be found. I was not disappointed. The recently melted snow revealed the wine colored peaks of the skunk cabbage spathe emerging through the cold soil. A closer examination revealed the little knob of the spadix covered in small yellow flowers. I have always loved skunk cabbage, despite its strong smell. Skunk Cabbage is one of the few plants that have the ability to produce its own heat through a process called thermogenesis. Skunk cabbage also have these "smart" root systems that can literally pull the plant down into the swampy soil to protect it from storms and floods (triggered by some environmental indicator). It is just amazing to watch this plant change through the spring season. It reminds me of radicchio (in looks only—I am pretty sure skunk cabbage is poisonous to humans) when it first comes through up through the earth. Later on in the spring, the plant will generate large waxy green leaves that smell “skunky” when broken or crushed—giving rise to its descriptive and appropriate name.

In the wonderful collection of nature writing Notes From Turtle Creek, author Ted Browning writes of a winter class and nature walk he lead at the BVA's Myrick Center, with the focus being skunk cabbage. Teddy ends this column (the book is a collection of natural history themed essays he wrote for the Kennett Paper in the mid to late 1980s) titled "The First Flower of Spring" with the following paragraphs:

After a hearty trek, we reached the ancient colony of skunk cabbage deep in the Myrick woodland. Most of the plants sat in little circles of cleared ground -- they had melted the snow around them with internal fire. We indulged in some good old belly botany, flopping on the snow to look inside the plant. On one plant a tiny spider had woven a web across the opening to catch pollinating flies. We were amazed at the size of certain plants, deeply knobbed and convoluted, swirly red-blotched masses of plant tissue fully twice the size of plants usually seen. If recent research is near the mark, these plants could be very old, for it is now believed that cabbage plants can live up to 700 years.

It was impossible not to feel wonder and even awe as we studied the ancient colony and though about what we had learned: wonder in response to the astonishing things the plant can do; awe in realization of the near perfection of environmental adaptations. This plant is deeply beautiful in ways we hadn't thought of. We dismiss the skunk cabbage as a common, unattractive thing with a bad smell. And, unlike decorative garden plants, with their exuberance of colors, shapes and perfumes, the beauty of the skunk cabbage is like that of the earth itself-a rich, fecund, intricate, sometimes obscure sort of beauty. It is a beauty that results when living organisms evolve into near-perfect harmony with the soil, the rocks, the water, the other creatures that make their world - with their enviroment.
-February 19, 1987

I leave you with more pictures from my walk, along with Mary Oliver's wonderful poem about skunk cabbage.

Skunk Cabbage
And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunches leaves up
through the chilling mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below, stubborn
and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again - a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.
-Mary Oliver

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sowing the Seeds of Spring--its time to start planting

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has
been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed
there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
- Henry David Thoreau

The schizophrenic weather these last couple of weeks-60 degrees at one moment, 4 inches of snow the next; blustery wind then spring like breezes-makes it hard to get a sense of the season. My actions have been just as extreme-from winter walks in the snowy woods to seed planting in the solar heated greenhouse. My mind however, is singularly focused- I have spring on the brain. I am all about seeds right now, apparent even in the subject of my snowy landscape photos (goldenrod and milkweed pods).

With March just around the corner, this is the time to start many of our favorite summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. They need plenty of indoor growing time to get a proper jump on the season. I know many of you are avid home gardeners (even if you are CSA members) and I thought it would be helpful to share some resources that have been most useful to me.

First and foremost is the Johnny Seed website (and catalog). I reference the Johnny Seed Catalog more than any other resource. It is filled with great growing information for each of the types of vegetables, herbs, and flowers they sell. Below is a list of specific useful links all described in their January blog posting.

-Seed-Staring Date Calculator (I use May 15th, 2011 as a last frost date, you might be able to get away with earlier in May if you live a protected or urban area)

-Seed Amount Calculator--helps you fiqure out the amount of seed you need for your specific garden or harvest needs.

-Target Harvest Date Calculator—this is a great tool that Johnny’s has developed with another favorite resource of mine Growing For Market—it is basically an excel file that you can plug into to figure out planting dates based on when you want to do your harvesting (this is a new tool).

The Johnny’s Website is also filled with crop specific growing guides, videos, and more. Here is a great video from the Martha Stewart show featuring a Johnny’s expert about seed starting basics.

Although it was written a number of years ago Mother Earth News has a great posting about seed starting.

We also are lucky enough to have two great local resources in regard to seed starting—two local companies run by good friends.

Happy Cat Organics-a great source of heirloom seeds with a newly updated website.

Organic Mechanics- an organic potting soil available at both Kimberton Whole Foods and Harvest Market Natural Foods.

Local writer Margaret Gilmour has two recent postings on seed starting and heirlooms on her wonderful blog Fresh Basil.

Finally, I want to leave you with some added inspiration. Local filmmaker Rich Power Hoffman of Spring Garden Pictures uses time lapse photography to capture the amazing process of seed germination and plant growth. His film Fridays at the Farm is one of the most powerful and compelling pieces about the importance of supporting a CSA. If you have a spare 20 minutes, I strongly recommend checking it out. It makes me cry every time I watch it. Enjoy and happy planting.

Fridays at the Farm from Spring Garden Pictures on Vimeo.

Seeds of Spring from Spring Garden Pictures on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

PASA in Southeastern PA -March is a month full of great events

In my previous posts I have been waxing poetic about the importance of the PASA Farming for the Future Conference. PASA's great work is not limited to the conference or even its headquarters in central PA. In fact, we have a vibrant and busy office right here in Chester County (responsible for entire southeast). The office is located in the Chester County Economic Development Council building and has generated some productive partnerships.

The Southeastern PA Agriculture Partnership is an initiative of the Chester County Workforce Investment Board and the Chester County Economic Development Council with grant funds received from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The mission of the Southeastern PA Agriculture Industry Partnership is to build the capacity of farmers and their supply chain partners to meet the growing demand for local, fresh foods in the region through investment in business training and workforce development. The Industry Partnership Director is the wonderful Suzanne Milshaw, we all owe her a huge amount of thanks for the creative and useful programs she has helped develop. Two upcoming events include:

To Market,To Market: Pricing, Processing and Packaging Your Meats for Profit--March 7th, 2011

It's Time to Come to Your Senses:
A Professional Approach to Tasting, Classifying and Handling Your Cheeses
--March 16th, 2011

The Partnership is also involved in an upcoming Buyer Grower event that I highlight at the end of this posting. Click here for a facebook album from last year's Buyer Grower event.

PASA is also co-hosting a series of talks at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Click here to read all about this diverse lecture series dealing with some regionally hot button issues.

Today is the last day to register for an upcoming PASA Master Class double header about backyard chickens and bees (see info below). Finally I have included more information on the Buy Grower event, perhaps you can encourage your favorite chef to attend this great meet-up gathering.
Come and let us tell you about the "Birds and the Bees"
(Chickens and Honey Bees of course!)
A PASA Southeast Master Class Double Header!

"Chickens? In My Backyard?" and "Bee Keeping for Beginners"
Saturday, February 26th 2011
PASA Southeast Office
(located in the Chester County Economic Development Council Building)
737 Constitution Drive
Exton, Pa 19341
Morning Session: 10:00am - 11:30am
Afternoon Session: 12:45pm - 2:15pm

We are offering a morning and afternoon session for each of the classes. The same information will be covered in each section. Join us for one or both classes!
Chickens? In My Backyard?
Have you wanted to raise chickens but were not sure how or where to start?

Come learn the wonderful benefits of keeping a small-scale backyard chicken coop for your all-natural fresh egg supply throughout the year! Join us for an informative talk about how fun and simple it is for the whole family to raise chickens in your own backyard. Workshop will include slide show, coop designs, breed selection and chicken care basics.

Presented by: Amy Johnson (Greener Partners) and Chris McNichol
Morning Session: 10:00am - 11:30am
Afternoon Session: 12:45pm - 2:15pm

Bee Keeping for Beginner: What's the buzzing about?
Join Trey Flemming from Two Gander Farm and Apiary and learn what it takes to start and keep you very own backyard hive. This beginning bee keeping workshop will include:
•Basic equipment and safety gear •Honeybee biology
•Anatomy of a hive •Handling techniques
•A beekeepers year - A monthly breakdown of hive activities
•Swarm prevention •Pests and diseases
•IPM techniques •Surplus honey production options
•Honey Processing •Hive maintenance
•Preparing the hive for winter
Morning Session: 10:00am - 11:30am
Afternoon Session: 12:45pm - 2:15pm

Pre Registration is required to reserve your space!
Deadline to Pre Register is Wednesday February 23rd!
PASA Member: $15 per session
Non Members: $20 per session

Not a PASA member?
Join Today and save on registration for this and all future classes!
Walk-in Registration - (we can not guarantee space availability on the day of the workshop)
PASA Members: $20 per session
Non Members: $25 per session
**Please plan to bring lunch and enjoy the company of other workshop participants in our cafe area.

Join us for this FREE Event!
Buyers and Growers Making Local Connections

Monday, March 14, 2011
5:30pm - 7:00pm

Hosted By:
PASA's Southeast Regional Office
Chef Sean Weinberg at Alba
7 West King Street Malvern, Pa 19355

YOU MUST PRE REGISTER FOR THIS EVENT-Please read below for eligibility requirements

For Our Local Growers!

We ask that only growers with the desire and capability to sell their locally grown items on a commercial scale attend this event. Please note that all local growers will be screened to determine eligibility prior to the event. Don''t meet the requirements, but interested in selling locally? We encourage you to locate farmers markets in your area by visiting
For Our Local Buyers!
Savvy restaurants are choosing to buy locally for a number of reasons - local foods offer premium taste, maximum freshness and keep dollars in our local economy. Not to mention, many customers think buying local foods is important and beneficial to the well being of their families and communities. We ask that only buyers committed to buying locally produced foods register for this event
For more information about this and other PASA Southeast Regional events contact:

Denise Sheehan
PASA SE Member Services
(610) 458-5700 ext 317

Sunday, February 20, 2011

15 Years of Character-A Victory for Our Community

Last Tuesday I had the great pleasure of attending Victory Brewing Company’s 15th birthday celebration. I certainly was not alone; the parking lot was packed and the Brew Pub was filled with Victory fans eager to take part in the party. The large and enthusiastic crowd was true testament to the role that Victory plays in the local community, considering it was a Tuesday night in February. The evening festivities included the screening of short movie about Victory’s 15 year old story, a commemorative poster, an incredible “birthday” cake and most importantly, the tapping of a new beer (which I will talk more about later on in the posting).

I remember the first time I ever tried a Victory beer. It was a hand pulled Hop Devil and it was a life changing experience. I had no idea beer could taste like that-so floral, so full of flavor. Hop Devil has been one of my favorite beers ever since that moment. My relationship to Victory, however, goes far beyond simply being a drinker of their amazing selection of brews. At the time of my first Hop Devil sample, I was on the board of the local not for profit folk music hosting organization, the TurtleDove Folk Club. TurtleDove's artistic director Todd Tyson, was a big beer fan and lived fairly close to the Victory Brew Pub. We often had meetings at Victory and developed a longstanding relationship with co-founder, Bill Covaleski. Victory was an early supporter of TurtleDove, especially in regard to its annual folk festival at the Brandywine Valley Association. I have plenty of fond memories of hosting the Festival after-party at the farm, largely because it involved the consumption of Victory beer.

Over the years, as my attention moved from Turtledove to the local foods movement, I could always (and still can) count on Victory's involvement and support. Click here to read a blog posting from last year all about Victory’s support of local food/farm events. I am guessing Bill saw similarities between the craft beer and local foods movement. It also helped that Ron, Victory’s co-founder, has a sister with one of the biggest CSA’s in the state-Spiral Path Farm. It was Bill’s early concept of pairing beer with food that gave rise to the declicious and popular Brewers Plate event in Philadelphia. It is hard to believe that there was a time in our recent history without the wide-spread availability of craft brews, gastro pubs, and beer pairings; and it is even harder to believe that this “awareness” has occurred in my drinking lifetime. Although Bill seems to always pass it off as good business sense (which it is), beer lovers and local food connoisseurs owe Victory a huge amount of gratitude for the very active and collaborative role they have taken in championing the craft beer and local food community in our region. Below is a TEDxPhilly talk given by Bill Covaleski in which he mentions “the right here right now” of beer in Philadelphia (and the country) as well as referencing this fantastic beer/food pairing book of Garrett Oliver’s:

Speaking of Victory's contribution to the food and farming community, Victory Brewing Company has become such an important supporter of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) that the non-profit awarded Victory with a lifetime business award. Together PASA and Victory host the Bike Fresh, Bike Local that has quickly grown into the one of the most successful PASA fundraising events. You can watch a great clip from the WHYY Friday Arts program on the Bike Fresh, Bike Local by clicking here.

I could go on and on about events like the Bike Fresh, Bike Local that Victory has helped to make fun, successful and effective; instead I want to mention that beer that was tapped for the first time last Tuesday-the Headwaters Ale. This beer literally brought tears to my eyes and truly encompasses the spirit of Victory Brewing Company. Not only is delicious (a new favorite), it delivers a much need message of watershed stewardship. Protecting the local watershed has always been a cause near and dear to Victory's heart, water is after all, the main ingredient in beer. It was the quality of the water in Downingtown that was a major factor in choosing their location. Victory has since become active stewards and protectors of this resource. You can read all about the Headwater Pale Ale's inspiration here. One aspect of this beer that has not yet been mentioned on the Victory website, is that Victory intends to donate a portion of the sales of the Headwaters Pale Ale to watershed associations where the beer is sold. They are still working out all the details of this national grant program. Eventually all the details will be available at In the meantime they are planning on presenting their first donation to a watershed of the Brandywine on April 22. What an amazing hallmark of character-to celebrate one’s birthday and successes by giving back to the community.
So cheers to Victory!!!!! Congratulations on your fifteen years of character and thank you for all that you have done to create a satiated, delicious, sustainable, happy and creative community.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentines Day--my heart belongs to Kennett Square

On this Valentine Day’s, if I had to name the entity that most often fills my heart with a warm and fuzzy feeling of contentment and love, I would have to say it is the vibrant and eclectic Kennett Square. I am not sure if it is normal to have so much love for a borough, no matter, I could not be more thankful to call this community center my “home town.” For one thing, Kennett truly is a food lovers dream. From Talula’s Table cheese happy hours to the Mushroom Festival; the Brew Fest to the Farmers Market; the Fermentation Festival to La Michoacana Mexican Ice Cream-Kennett is full of experts, enthusiasts, sources and celebrations of good food and drink. It is after all the Mushroom capital of the world.Small towns often get a bad reputation for being closed minded, hostile to change, unwelcoming to outsiders, lacking diversity and ultimately boring. Kennett Square certainly does NOT fit this stereotype. It seems barely a month can pass by without some sort of festival, parade or arts event. Kennett is quite the cultural center with its own symphony, music venue, community theater company, book stores, galleries, an eco boutique, and more. From poetry readings to a town wide murder mystery theater, Kennett hosts it all. And what’s more, it does not shy away from integrating all these elements together. Good food, music, and merriment seem the hallmark for everything in my favorite small town. It is this creative community spirit that makes Kennett truly deserving of the fifth coolest town in the United States status.2011 marks a slightly bittersweet change for Inverbrook Farm. After ten marvelous years of participating in the Kennett Square Farmers Market, I no longer will be a vendor at this Friday afternoon institution. Instead I will be opening a member based Friday Farmstand at the Farm (see website for more information). Despite this change, my participation in Kennett Square activities will not lessen. Monday night Blues Jams at the Kennett Flash, the Wednesday evening free Summer Concert Series in Anson B. Nixon Park, and First Fridays with the diverse and always entertaining merchants-the town offers a reason for a visit almost every day of the week (not to mention my addiction to a Talula’s mocha and a scone-as shown in the first picture). So I encourage to check out the Historic Kennett Square’s website and browse the extensive listing of community events for yourself. I also wanted to share this Facebook album so you can see why my heart belongs to Kennett Square.

Friday, February 11, 2011

ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE-Further reflections on the PASA Conference and its Community of Activists

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Arundhati Roy

As is typical, I returned home from the PASA conference with a renewed sense of activism. I seem to be channeling this energy into my farm blog, so please bare with me and my rambling essays about the state of the world. These postings are my version of the now infamous social network movement. On this extraordinary day in world history-where peaceful protests seemed to have overcome a corrupt dictatorship-it is hard not to draw connections to our own political, economic, and activist communities.

At the Farming for the Future Conference there was much mention of the work we still need to accomplish in regard to the relentless “attack” on a sustainable future by corporate interests. Hot topics included the approval of two new GMO crops, natural gas drilling, and Chesapeake Bay watershed legislation. It makes it very hard for a farmer to stay out of politics (and luckily we have PASA’s effective advocacy in both Harrisburg and Washington).

As the PASA membership listened to the call to action from our Executive Director Brian Snyder and keynote speaker Wes Jackson, the situation in Egypt did not go unmentioned. Despite this awe inspiring model of nonviolent protest and call for democracy, it felt as if we (the attending PASA members) were a little more subdued than normal. It could have been the large percentage of PASA conference newbies who were not yet comfortable with the often boisterous tone of PASA events. It could have been the mere weight of the issues before us. Or, it could have been that the audience was missing two key young activists—Nic Esposito and Holly Tyson.

As anyone who has met Holly knows, she is quite skilled at getting both the volume and energy up at any event she attends—I definitely missed her cheers, hoots and good energy. As it turns out, Holly was actually in Egypt. Holly's friends at the PASA conference were all a little nervous—knowing that she would like nothing better than to be part of a historic democratic revolution. Leading up to the PASA conference, I was convince I was going to turn on the news one night and see Holly front and center with the protesters calling for Mubarak’s resignation. Holly, however, was traveling with her mother and brother who I am not sure share her revolutionary travelling sensibilities, and all three safely returned to the U.S. The consummate traveller, Holly has left the country again, departing for Sri Lanka and India, to continue the 3 month trip she had been planning before the unexpected evacuation from Egypt. As much as I love and miss Holly (Kennett Square loses a little sparkle when she is out of town), the activist I want to talk about in the posting however, is not Holly (you can read more about Holly in a blog posting from a while back and she is, by the way, the person holding the “do you love local food sign” in the previous posting). The activist I want to feature is urban gardener and story teller Nic Esposito.

I met Nic last year at the PASA conference through our mutual friends Hoots and Hellmouth. Nic writes the band’s blog Notes from the Urban Homestead and shares a house with band member Rob Berliner. Nic was unable to attend this year’s PASA conference because he has been traveling around India. In fact, Nic is currently visiting the farm and study center of Dr. Vandana Shiva, a former PASA conference keynote speaker. This past summer we (Nic, Holly and I) were lucky enough to attend Dr. Shiva’s amazing lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia. During her lecture, Dr. Shiva echoed much of what had been asked of us at this year’s PASA conference—the rejection of corporate models and the embracing of ecological truths. I encourage you to watch her archived speech—it is very inspiring.

Nic wrote is his last update from India:
So Rajistan (or the land of Kings, as it translates) was mighty good to us. We were sad to go, and the twenty four hours we spent traveling by bus, train, bus, bus, bus was well worth the trip to get here in the state of Uttarhand at Navdanya Farm. For those of you who don't know, Navdanya is an organic farming institute founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva. She was an Indian nuclear physicist who in the 80's had the foresight to see the looming crisis of industrial ag. So she started simple, just by saving seeds and storing them in an office in the nearby capital of Derha Dun. Now, it's an international organization that has saved over 2,000 varieties of seeds, saving them from being patented by industrial seed companies, and it also teaches courses to Indian farmers to show them how to convert their operations to organic.

I just sat for two hours, cleaning off turmeric and listening to an older woman who was Dr. Shiva's first employee. When Dr. Shiva first started she had the passion but not the know how. This woman retold the story of on her first visit, she threw out a bunch of seeds that Dr. Shiva brought to her. Dr. Shiva became upset and asked her why she'd do such a thing, to which the woman replied that the seeds were barren and wouldn't grow anything. Then she went into her house and got the seeds Dr. Shiva was looking for. They've been working together ever since. This is an uneducated village woman who now holds three slow food awards and is part of an international farming movement. It was very inspiring to see and hear her stories.

As for the farm, I'm sure after the week here I'll have plenty of stories. But for my first impression, it really is bringing back the essence of why I got into this movement. Just sitting in the field last evening as the sun went down over the foothills of the himalayas as we transplanted chamomile, I remembered the beauty that first captured my passion for this work. Although I love my work in Philly, sometimes the busy city streets and the limited space have made me forget this feeling. It's nice to have it back. Plus, it's great to be surrounded by people from all over the world who are here studying this movement, from France, to Canada to Japan. That's inspiring too. And the way that they all react to my stories of Philly and the work that is going on there makes me eager to get on home and keep it going.

But we still have two weeks and two emails. So you all stay well, and I'm looking forward to seeing you all soon.

Love Nic

Last fall Nic participated in the TEDxPhilly talks and this week his speech was posted on YouTube. I encourage you to watch for yourself so you can witness Nic's amazing skill for storytelling and community activism.

Finally I wanted to share some pictures of the home that Nic share’s with Rob and a handful of other housemates. You will notice their rain barrels and raised beds, a testament to the fact that this group is walking the walk as well as talking the talk. The sign was designed by a friend (Carpe Diem design) for his Urban Garden project.

As the images of the young Egyptian protesters flash across the computer or TV screen they immediately make me think of Nic and Holly—their shared passion and joy, their articulate goals, their effective community organizing, their love of humanity, their calls for peace and their belief that they are entitled to a more just and sustainable world. Which brings me back to the quote I started with from Arundhati Roy. Arundhati Roy, the author of the God of Small Things, is originally from Kerela, India (an area that Nic recently visited) and speaks often on issues relating to social and environmental justice. That beginning quote comes from a speech she made at the World Social Forum in 2003. I want to leave you with the expanded version because it again reminds me of the strength and gratitude I have for the amazing young activists that are a part of my life. It is people like Holly and Nic, like Wael Ghonim and the thousands of other young Egyptian protestors that are making another world possible and perhaps have given “Her” a stronger voice.

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness: and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe.

The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling: their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Arundhati Roy
World Social Forum
Porto Alegre, Brazil
January 27, 2003

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2011 PASA Conferences--Reflections and Revelations

It has been almost a week since I packed my bags in excited anticipation of the always inspiring Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the conference, and the growth of the sustainable agriculture movement since PASA’s first gathering has been nothing short of amazing. I first starting going to the PASA conference while a student at Penn State (the conference always takes place in State College, PA), and I have been hooked ever since. To get a sense of the look, feel, and vibrancy of the conference I encourage you to check out the conference website which is now complete with photos (many of the photos I have included in this posting are from the official PASA conference photographer), video and audio from this year. I also have posted some photos on the Inverbrook Farm CSA Facebook page.

This year’s keynote speaker was Wes Jackson, an appropriate pick considering he was the keynote speaker at PASA's inaugural conference in 1991. Wes Jackson is a personal hero of mine; his book Becoming Native to this Place played a critical role in my decision to become a farmer. His speech was serious and somber—because of the state of the world and agriculture in relation to limited resources, climate change, soil erosion and growing population. He began by saying he was “hopeful but not optimistic” and then continued by outlining human history as he saw it. It is a hard speech to sum up and I encourage you to listen for yourself at the conference website. In a very rich and a wide reaching manner he compelled us to change our mindset when it comes to the agricultural model we have been practicing since the dawn of civilization. The simple act of tilling the soil and extracting "carbon-based" resources has lead us down a very unsustainable trajectory. It is an ethic/path that permeates all aspects of society. He challenged us to really examine our history, to face the hard truth, and to acknowledge and explore our real ecological place on this Earth. He ended with a quote from T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploring
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It was a weighty and academic speech, but still nothing short of brilliant. It left the audience not exactly cheering, but contemplative and serious. It is not an easy message to hear-the truth that if we are going to survive on this planet we have to change our dominant social constructs—like our obsession with economic growth and its influence on agriculture. I think, however, it was a fitting start to this significant anniversary year for PASA. It was a call for our movement to grow up, so to speak, and end our teenage years of naive passion or complacency. It is now time to begin an era of difficult, complicated, and effective decision making and action. In a later break out session Wes Jackson went on to outline his solution--a "50 Year Farm Bill" a document that he co-wrote with Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann in 2009 and delivered to the White House. To read their New York Time opinion click here.

In true PASA conference fashion, right from the start, we were encouraged to take on the big issues—including the extremely discouraging government deregulation of GMO alfalfa and sugarbeets (for more information checkout the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture's action plan for GMO Alfalfa and Sugarbeets). With the strength that comes from 20 years of existence, we PASA members were encouraged more than ever to be active and responsible stewards of our local food system. A task that the large and diverse audience seemed to gladly accept-and that is the true power of the conference.

One of the highlight’s of the conference was the Southeast PA Regional meeting—the time during which the southeast region's members gathered to hear about all the great projects that SE PASA office has accomplished in the past year, along with all the great projects that the community is involved in on its own. The volume and scope of projects, new farms, partnerships, non-profits, collaborations and issues took my breath away. I left the meeting invigorated and optimistic-from hunger relief to land issues-PASA and its members are dealing with it all. It is very heartening to know that such a creative and committed group of individuals are out there accomplishing the work the needs to get done in our part of the state. In fact, this year's PASA-bilities Sustainable Ag Business Leadership Award went to our very own Ned MacArthur from Natural by Nature, whose retail store is located in Avondale, PA.
So my lesson from the 20th Farming for the Future Conference-with the fitting theme of Strength from Our Roots: Claiming Our Food System Future-is that the ability to face the daunting challenges that lay before for us, comes not from a particular speaker or leader, but from the wellspring of energy and motivation of PASA members themselves. At the root of this wonderful organization is this amazing community of people. A community that is caring, nurturing, creative, sharing, and celebratory. A group that does not shy away from the difficult issues in life, a group that likes to work (traits that might simply be indicative of farmers). Nothing is more inspiring or reassuring than to look around a room and realize that the heart of a delicious, health, vibrant food system is you, your neighbors, and your colleauges. So I want to leave you with a call to action of my own--if you care about the health and vitality of your local food system get involved in PASA--you will be in very good company. This is a community that also knows how to have a good time. PASA gatherings are always full of meaning, connection and fun. For example, below is a video of the PASA crowd dancing (and discussing cattle) to the music of our friends Philadelphia based Hoots and Hellmouth. Together we are all a part of this amazing movement working effectively to make the world a better place.