Picture of Lex Horan

Lex Horan

Who’s building the new food system? Farmers.

When more than 3,000 sustainable and organic farmers get together in one place, amazing things can happen.

I spent last weekend at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service conference — aka MOSES. From its quiet beginnings in 1990, the MOSES event has grown into the largest organic farming conference in the country. The annual gathering in La Crosse, Wisconsin has become a mainstay of Midwest sustainable ag innovation, skill-sharing and community-building.

PAN has been coming to MOSES since we opened our Midwest office in 2012 — and compared to the farmers who have been coming for 26 years, we’re the new kids on the block. But everyone, newbies and experienced farmers alike, seems to leave the conference feeling nourished and energized. I know I did.  

Drift on the agenda

Sitting behind our PAN table, I chatted with dozens of farmers about PAN’s work to change pesticide policy in the Midwest. Many of those conversations turned, sooner or later, to pesticide drift. When one farmer started to tell me about his concerns about drift, I asked him the same question I asked in many of these conversations: “Are you surrounded by conventional ag?” He paused and tilted his head curiously at me before he said, “Who isn’t?”

With the controversial approval of new herbicide-resistant GE crops from Dow and Monsanto, farmers who grow fruits, vegetables or non-GMO crops in the Corn Belt are more concerned than ever about drifting pesticides. The newly approved seeds are designed to be paired with 2,4-D and dicamba, two old and drift-prone herbicides whose usage will skyrocket in the coming years as these crops go into the ground. These new GE crops are a major problem on the horizon, and while our federal decisionmakers have kept their heads in the sand, Midwest farmers who grow sensitive crops have wasted no time educating themselves on the issue.

On the third day of the conference, I led a workshop on pesticide drift together with Paul Dietmann of Badgerland Financial. Paul is a farm finance expert who has helped farmers document financial damages caused by drift. I talked about PAN’s efforts to stop USDA and EPA from approving new GE crops, and shared tips for how farmers can respond if drift happens.

As I talked with farmers and other rural residents who live near pesticide-intensive agriculture, the commonalities in their stories stand out. I heard time and again that pesticide drift is a fact of life — unacceptable, but not unexpected. And speaking out about drift can lead to backlash and isolation in local communities.

Breaking the silence about drift is serious business, and it’s powerful when farmers who are concerned about drift connect with each other — like they did during our workshop at MOSES. Questions and ideas bounced around quickly: Do buffers do enough to protect my crops? Even if I get compensated for a drift incident, what about the long-term effects on soil and biodiversity? How do we stop playing defense with bad USDA decisions and move towards the food and farming system we really want?

There were more questions than answers, but the questions pave the way for progress, as people realize that they aren’t alone and that together they can speak up and call for better protections from drift.

A whirlwind of solutions

MosesIn addition to drift, soil health was front and center at MOSES. It’s only fitting, since 2015 is the International Year of Soils. From the pre-conference “Organic University” to informal conversations over lunch, the benefits of building soil health were on everyone’s minds.

I’ve learned from PAN’s staff scientists that healthy soil is one of the building blocks of agroecology. Agroecology is the science behind sustainable agriculture, and is rooted in the idea that farming systems are more resilient when they work with on-farm ecosystems instead of against them.

For sustainable and organic farmers, this is common sense. At MOSES, the question isn’t whether or not to focus on soil health, but how to do it most effectively — and the ideas flowed freely.

Farmers are investing in below-ground biodiversity to reduce soil erosion, crowd out pests and disease, and increase overall resilience to crises like droughts, floods and climate change. The farmer-centered research and experimentation that was on display at MOSES is just what policy-makers should be supporting with funding for research and on-farm implementation.

One conference presenter joked at MOSES that here in the Midwest we have four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and farm conference season. I’ve made the rounds to a handful of farmer gatherings in the past month, including the Immigrant and Minority Farmer’s Conference, the Sustainable Farming Association’s annual meeting and the Indigenous Farming Conference. At each of these events, I’ve been reminded of something we know for sure at PAN: small-scale, sustainable and organic farmers are paving the way to a new food system.

Leaving MOSES, I’m feeling hopeful about our work to build a better food system — because when we come together, our solutions are more powerful than the false promises of the Big 6. 

Picture of Lex Horan

Lex Horan

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