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.