By Tara Pettit, Dayton City Paper, 1/31/17
Collaboration, ideation, and innovation on statewide practices in sustainable food and farming practices will be “homegrown” this year at the 38th annual Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) Conference, “Growing Today, Transforming Tomorrow.” For the first time, Ohio’s largest sustainable food and farm conference will be hosted on Dayton soil, transforming the Dayton Convention Center into what will become the new “brainstorming headquarters” of OEFFA’s kick-off food and farming event of the year.
Previously held in Licking County’s Granville school building for 11 years, OEFFA’s continuously growing conference prompted leaders to seek a larger space to accommodate increased participation and diversify programs, speakers, workshops, and banquets. OEFFA is excited that conference attendance continues to increase as a result of the nation’s growing awareness and interest in sustainable farming and food production.
“The local and organic audience is very different than what it was 38 years ago when we first started,” says Lauren Ketcham, OEFFA Communications Coordinator. “When we first started holding the conference, ‘the O-word’ [‘organic’] was a dirty word. Since then, our work has become much more mainstream and the demand from consumers for organic foods has grown tremendously.”
As the conference has grown since its inception in the early ’80s, OEFFA has tailored programs for multiple audiences, incorporating a wider variety of workshops and sessions that appeal to both the agriculturalist and the food enthusiast. OEFFA designed many sessions to stimulate public discussion on food and farming issues, policies, and best practices—with current-focus topics at the community and state level. As these legislatures address issues around food production and farming practices, OEFFA has continued to play an influential advocacy role.
Work for the farm, you
Since its establishment in 1979, OEFFA has used education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote local and organic food systems, help farmers and consumers reconnect, and work to build a sustainable food system. The organization aims to bring prosperity to family farmers, meet the growing consumer demand for local food, create economic opportunities for rural communities, and safeguard the environment in Ohio and beyond. The organization also supports several key initiatives that have made a real difference in Ohio’s local and organic food systems: an investment fund to create access to affordable capital for local farmers, direct assistance for small farmers through promotion and support of their businesses and products, diligent state and federal policy advocacy, annual free public farm tours and workshops, and publicly accessible local food and farm resources.
Additionally, OEFFA operates one of the oldest and most respected organic certification programs in the nation. The annual conference serves as the culminating event where results from OEFFA’s past year of activities are featured, directly connecting individuals from the Ohio communities in which it invests.
Responding to the expanding interest and involvement in food and farm policy, OEFFA has restructured the conference’s programs to accommodate a wide spectrum of agricultural knowledge and expertise, even for the non-farmer.
“We have really designed this year’s conference to have something for everyone,” Ketcham says. “If you are a farmer, gardener, participate in a community garden, or just like to shop at the local farmer’s market and care about local food, the conference has a lot to offer.”
With Dayton hosting this year, several local OEFFA members and organizations will lead a variety of workshops and sessions to educate the community on innovations and best practices in the sustainable food and farming field. Local workshop and session leaders include Krista Magaw of Tecumseh Land Trust leading “Farmland Access 101: Options for Landowners and Growers”; Lisa Helm of former Garden Station co-op leading “Low-Tech Farm Hacks and DIY Infrastructure”; Mary Lou Shaw of Milk and Honey Farm leading “Chemical-Free Home Orchards”; and Ben Jackle of Mile Creek Farm leading “Old MacGyver Had a Farm: A Forum for Sharing On Farm Innovations.” In addition, OEFFA Stewardship Award winners Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia of Peach Mountain Organics will engage in a live interview as part of the Ohio Humanities’ newly launched OEFFA multi-media oral history project.
As key players in Dayton’s sustainable food and farming efforts, each local leader involved in this year’s conference will share her or his own expertise and lessons to educate and engage participants on ways they can contribute to a local sustainable movement.
Shaw points out that OEFFA’s conference “gives attendees the information they need for a changing future… the tools and resiliency to survive a changing climate, weakening global food system, and threatened water sources.” She advocates for personal food production beyond the U.S. population’s 2 percent of industrial farmers, stating, “It is for all of us, wherever we live, including urban areas like Dayton. Nothing is more healthful and satisfying as growing our own food.”
Each workshop leader is excited to be part of this statewide event and to bring OEFFA members from all over Ohio to Dayton for a weekend dedicated to what they are most passionate about and to present a diverse, but united, farming community right here in our city.
“The conference serves as an open community space to allow people with a shared passion for food and sustainable agriculture to come together,” Magaw says. “It will expose more newcomers to OEFFA and the great local food resources we already have in the Dayton region. Our hope is that people leave with a greater connection to the larger community working on these issues that, hopefully, continues beyond the conference to help throughout the year.”
This year, in addition to the traditional lineup of innovative food and farming key note talks, brainstorming sessions, open discussions, and do-it-yourself (DIY) workshops, OEFFA has scheduled several additional special programs to boost the conference’s renown as an intimate setting for networking, learning, and fellowship. With the conference’s new home in Dayton, these events will also allow participants to become more intimate with Dayton’s local food culture.
On Thursday evening, in remembrance of Ohio’s “Contrary Farmer” Gene Logsden, a brand new Contrary Farmers Social will be held at 2nd Street Market for a special, small plate sampling provided by market vendors. The social will also feature a fine assortment of Ohio and other domestic cheeses and craft beer as conference-goers gather to remember Logsden and reflect on where agriculture was in 1995 when his seminal book (“The Contrary Farmer”) was published.
Also new is the Cream of the Crop Banquet, held on Friday evening, a specially prepared meal comprised of local and organic food coupled with a program featuring insights from Ohio Senator Steve Maurer, former Ohio Department of Agriculture director and executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency in Ohio from 2009-2017.
With a greater focus on free events to increase exposure of the conference across the city, this year’s event will introduce morning yoga and Chi Kung exercise, open to the public, as well as free extended trade show hours on Thursday, from 4-7 p.m. and Friday, from 5-6:30 p.m.
“We have been heartened by how welcoming the Greater Dayton community has been to implement some of these community events,” Ketcham says. “We have been lucky to have received such a warm embrace by local organizations and look forward to building on those relationships in the future.”
Each year, OEFFA invites recognized leaders to present lectures on key topics in sustainable agriculture and food. This year, the organization brings two nationally-renowned individuals whose work has transformed standard practices within the larger food and farming industry.
Jim Riddle, former chair of the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board and founding chair of Winona Farmers’ Market in Minnesota, and the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA), will present his lecture titled “Transform Organic Today, Grow with Integrity Tomorrow” on Friday afternoon. Riddle will speak to the group about making “personal, societal, and political transformations during challenging times, in order to preserve human life on earth by transforming our agricultural systems to support life at every level,” as he tells Dayton City Paper. Riddle will focus on the role we all must play to advance sustainability and protect America’s future in farming and agriculture.
“I hope that audience members will hear my wake-up call, combined with suggestions for positive change, and leave with a sense of empowerment and concrete ideas they can incorporate in their daily lives,” Riddle says.
Saturday’s keynote will feature former financial and food industry analyst, Robyn O’Brien, who has been considered “food’s Erin Brockovich” for her work focused on transforming our food system and calling out how our foods have been manipulated with additives that can cause allergies, cancer, and other health problems. Her talk, “Building the 21st Century Food System: Capitalizing on the New Food Economy,” reviews the state of our country in terms of health care costs associated with consumption of unhealthy foods, explores the challenges of the organic industry’s lack of support, and poses the larger question of how we would rebuild our food system to promote smarter consumer decisions.
“Progressing the sustainable food production movement is going to require all hands on deck,” O’Brien says in an interview with Dayton City Paper. “It is initiated at the local level with locally-focused individuals who understand the local issues. To be at an event like this where you not only have access to keynotes, workshops, data, but access to network with the local farming community, is so important. It’s the most valuable information you can gather for yourself and your family.”
As in previous years, this year’s conference will continue to promote family-participation. Child and teen conferences will be held, which engage youth in age-appropriate food and farming activities and programs. Childcare is available for children under the age of 6.
With the conference’s expansion comes a need for a larger space and accommodations, which spurred OEFFA’s hunt for a larger, more conference-friendly venue.
“We have actually spent years looking into our site options around the state…” Ketcham says. “Many conference venues were just not going to be a good fit for us.”
Dayton was officially chosen as OEFFA’s appointed gathering grounds for the conference, becoming this year’s epicenter for transformative food and farm ideation.
However, what’s most curious about Dayton’s hosting this statewide food and farming event is that it holds a not-so-remarkable ranking as one of the nation’s top 10 worst cities—and worst city in the state—for food access.
Last year, WHIO reported that since Kroger closed its Gettysburg Avenue store in Dayton eight years ago, thousands in the area now lack access to a full-service grocery store. Nearly every urban area in the Miami Valley contains food deserts (areas where there is limited access to both affordable and nutritious food) and local urban farming initiatives, often with the help of OEFFA, have attempted to fill the gaps with their dedicated work. The issue, however, is far too large for small groups to tackle and requires full-on citywide support.
“Maybe this year OEFFA’s presence can have a greater impact on influencing our local government to take sustainable food production more seriously… the city should be supporting efforts like ours, not undermining them,” Helm says.
Despite the obvious need for improvement in the city’s plan for food and farm sustainability reform, the decision to host in Dayton was strategic, nonetheless. In fact, the reason OEFFA decided on Dayton may point to the city’s growing alignment with the organization’s values, its conference, and the aspirations of those who are a part of it.
It was only in Dayton that OEFFA found a willing partner with the Dayton Convention Center to support its goal—nearly impossible to find elsewhere.
OEFFA “walks the talk,” as Ketcham puts it, ensuring the conference provides quality, made from scratch, all locally-sourced meals for its attendees; Dayton Convention Center rose to the call, agreeing to OEFFA’s request.
“We have worked to make sure our chicken and pork are local, but also even down to the butter and individual ingredients in our carrot cake… and that meals are prepared from scratch,” Ketcham emphasizes. “The Dayton Convention Center has been really generous in working with us to accommodate our needs.”
Sherry Chen of Adelain Fields has donated her free-range, slow-growth, and organic-fed chickens to the OEFFA conference for the past four years. She understands how important providing locally-sourced, made-from-scratch meals is to the organization and the statement it makes about the conference, which is why she readily contributes each year.
“I so believe in this organization… not only what they’re doing, but how they do it,” Chen says.
Helm remains hopeful that community sustainability efforts may be reaffirmed and even increase with OEFFA’s local presence in Dayton this year.
“Hopefully, having the conference in our area will encourage more people who have never attended from our area to make the commitment to go and ramp up their production,” Helm says. “We need more than ever to support local and sustainable food production. I would like to see Dayton’s OEFFA partnership bring more credibility and awareness to the sustainable food production efforts in our area.”
Perhaps the choice to host in Dayton is the motivation our city needs to actively join OEFFA in transforming the state’s food and farming system while addressing food security issues here at home. Regardless, it will be more important than ever, at both the state and local level, to build and support a locally focused system that improves access to wholesome foods t a time when homegrown quality is imperative.
OEFFA’s 38th Annual Conference takes place Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11 at Dayton Convention Center, 22 E. Fifth St. in Dayton. The Exhibit Hall is open to the public Thursday, 4-7 p.m. and Friday, 5-6:30 p.m. All other conference events require paid registration. Registration will only be accepted at the door, not online. Thursday’s pre-conferences, as well as all meals, are sold out. Adult member registration weekend tickets cost $165 and non-member registration costs $225. Day passes, student discounts, and teen and kids’ registration will be available at the door. For more information, please visit