“Everything old is new again,” declared Washington organic farmer Joel Huesby during his keynote address Saturday at the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association’s annual conference.During the speech, held before a crowd of several hundred in the auditorium at Granville High School, Huesby said that, like everything else, farming practices move in cycles. Just two decades ago, the idea of modern, industrial farming looked like an inevitable evolution of technology and commerce, while organic farmers and their supposedly outmoded agricultural techniques were ridiculed. Now, Huesby said, organic farming, boosted by the local foods movement which has swept the country in the last decade, has become an important movement, while industrial farming has become increasingly questioned.
With organics growing by as much as 20 percent a year, Huesby was upbeat despite the current U.S. economy.
“The stock market is down, but opportunities are up,” Huesby said.
He pointed out that if farmers consider where they are at in the long-term economic cycle, it is possible to make problems into assets. For instance, he noted, current unemployment figures are high. Huesby said this was a chance for farmers to make use of available laborers instead of using high-tech equipment and practices, which cost more. Fossil fuels and competition for crops for renewable energy sources are driving food prices high, but Huesby said this will help organic food be more competitive in the general market.
“Farmers are in the energy business,” Huesby said.
Organic farming uses free energy: Sunlight. All other farming techniques depend on inputs from outside energy sources, which are troublesome in terms of cost or environmental and social impact. As those costs become more painful, the world may choose to reject them. Until then, Huesby said, finding ways to direct market is the key to success. Ninety cents of every food dollar goes to processors, retailers and other such middle-men, Huesby said. Organic farmers can compete in the market simply by selling directly to customers.
Huesby said he thought it was an abomination that many farmers are receiving half their farm income through government price supports. He noted that his farming relatives used to call him left-wing for taking up organic farming. Now, he jokingly calls them socialists for depending on price supports, while he is making a living without them. Another problem Huesby cited is the intensely centralized operations of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and huge processing facilities. In addition to causing tremendous environmental stress with waste, he said these facilities make the country vulnerable to terrorists and fast-spreading health problems. Huesby said recent food-quality scares have demonstrated how vulnerable the national food system is, needing only a small, quickly-spreading adulteration of food to impact a huge number of people.
Huesby advocates the establishment of small-scaled portable slaughterhouse facilities, owned and operated by farmers themselves. This disbursement strategy, he said, would boost the United States’ security and health. Huesby also said environmental considerations are becoming important all the way across the political spectrum, and can only become more important in the future.
According to Huesby, the sleeping giant which will soon awake is that current industrial agricultural practices will be insupportable in the near future. He cited statistics about the escalating effects of nitrogen fertilizer in his own state of Washington. He said there are fields there which had balanced pH levels of around 6.5 in the 1940s, but which now regularly test at an acidic 4.4, due to the continued use of nitrogen fertilizer for over a half century. Now, he said, vast quantities of lime have to be used every year to neutralize the soil acidity. Other fertilizers are growing expensive and limited in natural availability and even natural fertilizers are subject to application by equipment dependent on fossil fuel.
“I don’t need a manure spreader,” said Huesby. “My manure spreader has four legs.”
After taking questions and comments from the audience, Huesby closed by reminding farmers to figure out where they are in the overall picture and what they need to do to thrive while the general economy is faltering.
“The most important real estate you have is the real estate between your ears,” Huesby said.
Preceding Huesby’s keynote address, the OEFFA Award was presented to long-time Knox County farmer Stan Gregg. Gregg, who started working with organic farming in the 1980s, said he was amazed to see how many people were involved now. He said he originally got involved by encouraging young farmers to go organic, so they wouldn’t be exposed for their entire careers to the powerful chemicals which came into mainstream farming usage in the late-twentieth century. Gregg said that as he faded out of the picture, he had the satisfaction of knowing his farm would still be organic and that others are in place to pick up and carry on his work after he’s gone. He received a standing ovation from the audience. The award was presented to Gregg by Ed Snavely, who said Gregg was his mentor and inspiration for getting involved in organic farming.
The conference was the 29th annual one which OEFFA has held. It featured two days of seminars and workshops, as well as an array of information booths. Also joining OEFFA on Saturday was a conference of the Innovative Farmers of Ohio, which co-sponsored several of the events taking place. IFO presented its annual Ben Steiner Award to Ohio Farmers Union president Joe Logan of Trumbull County.