Category Archives: Annual Conference

Organic activist Atina Diffley to speak at Ohio food and farm conference

By Debbi Snook
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Old MacDonald had a farm, and a whopping good story to go with it. Atina Diffley had a farm, and she believes that every organic farmer needs to find his or her own stories and sing them aloud.

Here’s one of hers: When plants in her Minnesota greenhouse became infested with damaging aphids, she noticed one of her field crops was covered with ladybugs, the aphids’ natural enemies. She trucked her aphid-infested plants out to the ladybug area and let them sit overnight. In the morning, the aphids had been devoured.

It’s the classic story of integrated pest management, she says, one of the hallmarks of organic solutions. No pesticides were necessary.

Diffley wants organic farmers to use stories like this to help make the world healthier and less chemical-dependent.

Diffley, 54, will be the keynote speaker Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-16 at the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, or OEFFA, the state’s leading organic advocacy group and one of its major farm certifying agents. The conference draws hundreds of attendees to Granville, southeast of Columbus, with nearly 100 talks and workshops with topics that range from growing and marketing to making a living from small-scale organic farms and gardens.

Diffley spent decades as a farmer and wrote books about it, including “Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works” (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) — part romance (with her husband and co-farmer, Martin), part war (legally, with a utility trying to run a pipeline through her land) and part organic creed. She has since left farming for work as a consultant and advocate.

The organic movement is a small part of agricultural America, but its sales are growing much faster than sales from conventional farms. Even the supermarket industry is predicting organics will have a 14 percent growth over the next five years.

Diffley spoke by phone about the optimism – and proper storytelling — necessary for the organic movement to pick up greater speed and meet what she calls greater needs.

She misses farming, she says, “but I wanted to be feeding people through their minds.”

Why do farmers need to be organic advocates?

I really want farmers to recognize their role as a connection between the land and the people who eat their food. They really have this opportunity to activate the people they’re feeding toward making policy changes. We are a hero culture and eaters are interested in what the farmers are doing.

The way we eat is really important, and we need to take the next step. Agriculture is 40 percent of our planet and the leading cause of habitat degradation, species extinction and greenhouse gases that lead to climate change. When you change agriculture, you make all the difference in the world.

How so, exactly?

Organic farms, statistically, sequester 15 percent to 28 percent more carbon than conventional farms. That’s significant. That’s equal to hundreds of thousands of cars off the road. Instead of bringing in fertilizer from off the farm, you’re growing it on the farm by building soil health. Organic farms change the hydrology of their soil, and they change where the water runoff goes. If you add 1 percent of organic matter to the soil, an acre can hold an extra 16,500 gallons of water. That also will get you through six weeks of drought. The service provided to the community by an organic farm goes beyond food. Another is the practice of biological diversity on a farm, which supports pest and disease management and the protection of native pollinators. We take trees and wildlife for granted, but we cannot survive without them. We can survive without our computers but not without nature.

Who should farm?

It’s not for everyone. You have to like being outside. You have to have some tolerance for physical discomfort, and you have to have good stress-management skills. I encourage anyone to take a look. When we were farming, people would show up every year, wanting to work for us. One said he definitely wanted to have a farm, but never did. Other people said they were doing it because they didn’t know what else they wanted [to do]. And they became farmers. People should just go and try it. They should go work for someone else’s farm, or multiple farms, and at places bigger than they ever want to be. If you’re going to make it, you have to learn systems of economy. I’ve seen high-quality farms not make it because they couldn’t figure out that when they said they’d be at a meeting at 7 a.m., they needed to be there at 7. You’ve got to know how to be in a business relationship, and how to repair those relationships. I see people with a marketing background thriving as farmers, and growing more quickly than those who don’t have that background.

You’ve talked in your book about running away from home at 17, being in an abusive marriage and finally “stepping out of the victim role.”

I was caught in a situation where I let other people define me. But you can’t be 50 and living as a 2-year-old would see the world. When I see people acting irrationally, I think that what they’re doing is going back to their hurt 2-year-old self. It’s nice if you can get professional help or find friends to catch you when you’re stepping out of reality, thinking you’re not smart enough, strong enough or good enough. One of my best gifts was being able to write my “Turn Here” book. I had to say what happened, how I felt about it, and what I know to be true now. In that process I learned a lot of things.

You’ve said cities need to plan for their food futures.

If you took out the bridges to cities, most of them would run out of food in three or four days. It’s important to decentralize food for stability. If you have a drought, you need another system to move to.

I like to think regionally. The word “local” food is not clear enough. It’s an abused word. There was a summer in the 1880s when summer never really came. There was massive starvation in Europe and America. Now we have the luxury of shipping food long distances, but just because we have the capacity, doesn’t mean that’s what we should always do to be economically viable and environmentally sound. That will take a maturation of growers’ skills and it will bring the price of food up.

But it’s worth it. When abolitionists were fighting slavery they faced the argument that without slaves there would be an economic disaster in agriculture and its economy. That’s the same argument we’re facing today. Basically, when you look at the fruit and vegetable-growing world, you’re looking at institutional slavery. These people are not making a living wage, not getting health care, can’t afford homes.

But people don’t want organics to cost more.

It has to cost more because smaller farms don’t have the same economic advantage. But that will get better as organics grow. I’m upset at people who think of organic food as bourgeoisie. I bought a solar-power system once and a friend remarked that if I had waited two years, it would be cheaper. My response was that it would never get cheaper if nobody bought them now. It takes somebody to make change happen. Gradually, prices will come down. Right now we need to do what it takes to keep these farmers going. Glory be to the people who put their money where their mouth is.

You see the food movement as a social movement?

Absolutely. It took women 70 years to get the right to vote. There were women who didn’t live long enough to see that happen. But it was worth their efforts. Today we wonder, ‘What was the world thinking when they believed that women were too emotional to vote?’ So today we have an agricultural system that’s destructive of the environment. We cannot survive without that environment, cannot replace it. Look at the composition of the body. Essentially, we’re made of the same stuff plants and insects are made of, and soil is made of. And we eat those plants and they become our bodies. Yet we are so fundamentally removed from that realization.

Sustainable Farming Conference Features 17 Ohio State Presenters, Feb. 14-16

OSU College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences
By Tracy Turner

COLUMBUS, Ohio – From stink bug and weed management to recruiting farm labor and agricultural marketing trends, researchers and industry experts from Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) will present the latest information on some of the key issues in organic and sustainable agriculture next month during Ohio’s largest sustainable food and farm conference.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) 35th annual conference, “Affirming Our Roots, Breaking New Ground,” is Feb. 15-16 in Granville, Ohio. With 13 workshops and a full-day pre-conference event featuring Ohio State scientists, specialists and students, participants will get an updated look at some of the key issues facing growers in organic and sustainable agriculture, organizers said.

“This conference will be rich with information and networking opportunities, drawing on the expertise of both nationally recognized agricultural professionals and local farmers and educators,” said OEFFA Program Director Renee Hunt. “Whether you’re a full-time farmer, backyard gardener or local food enthusiast, this conference has much to offer you.”

The Ohio State presenters are from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and Ohio State University Extension, which are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of the college.

[In all, the conference features more than 100 workshops plus a trade show; activities for children and teens; locally sourced and organic homemade meals; and keynote talks by Atina Diffley, an organic farmer and writer, and Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.

The conference will also feature a daylong pre-conference workshop, “Eco-Farming, Biodiversity and Soil Health: A Systems Approach to Enhancing Productivity,” presented by  CFAES experts Rafiq Islam, Randall Reeder, Jim Hoorman, Brad Bergefurd, Harit Kaur Bal, Alan Sundermeier and Vinayak Shedekar.

Other workshops offered by CFAES experts include:

  • Celeste Welty, entomologist with OARDC and OSU Extension, “Stink Bug Management in Peppers, Berries and Other Organic Crops,” Saturday, 9:30-10:25 a.m.
  • Brian McSpadden Gardener, plant pathologist with OARDC and OSU Extension and director of OARDC’s Organic Food and Farming Education and Research Program, “Biofertilizers for Organic Production,” Saturday, 9:30-10:25 a.m.
  • Doug Doohan, weed management expert with OARDC and OSU Extension, and Dave Campbell of Lily Lake Organic Farm, Illinois, “Weed Management Practices for Organic Field Crops,” Saturday, 9:30-10:25 a.m.
  • Francisco A. Espinoza, program coordinator for OSU Extension’s Agricultural and Horticultural Labor Education program, “Recruiting and Retaining Farm Labor,” Saturday, 9:30-10:25 a.m.
  • Mike Hogan, OSU Extension, “Top Ten Food and Agriculture Marketing Trends,” Saturday, 9:30-10:25 a.m.
  • Brad Bergefurd, educator and specialist with OSU Extension and OARDC based at the Ohio State University South Centers, “Hops: A New Specialty Crop for Ohio,” Saturday, 10:35-11:30 a.m.
  • Rafiq Islam, also with OSU Extension and OARDC based at the OSU South Centers, “Use of Cover Crop Cocktail Mix to Sustain Organic Production,” Saturday, 10:35-11:30 a.m.
  • Gustavo Schuenemann, assistant professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, “Dairy Herd Health: Risk Factors and Transition Cow Management,” Saturday, 10:35-11:30 a.m.
  • Jeff Suchy, Ohio State lecturer, and Dee Jepsen, OSU Extension state safety leader, “Small Farm and Garden Safety,” Saturday, 10:35-11:30 a.m.
  • Jim Jasinski, OSU Extension’s Integrated Pest Management program, “Good Bugs and Bad Bugs in the Home Garden,” Saturday, 10:35-11:30 a.m.
  • Alan Sundermeier, OSU Extension, and organic grain farmers Dave Shively and Jake Schmitz of Organic Valley, “Organic Corn Production: Guidelines for Success,” Sunday, 9:30-11:30 a.m.
  • Shirron LeShure, Ohio Statedoctoral student, “Using Grape Pomace as a Natural De-wormer in Sheep,” Sunday, 1:30-2:30 p.m.
  • Mike Hogan, “Utilizing SARE Grants and Resources to Achieve Your Farm Goals,” Sunday, 1:30-2:30 p.m.

Early bird registration ranges from the $65 one-day student member rate to $205 for both days for an adult nonmember of OEFFA. Early bird registration ends Jan. 31, after which rates increase. Meals, the kids’ conference and the pre-conference workshops are purchased separately. Register online at

The soil health pre-conference workshop will be held Feb. 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Cherry Valley Lodge, 2299 Cherry Valley Road SE, Newark, Ohio. Pre-registration is required and costs $60 for OEFFA members and $70 for nonmembers.

Editor: Members of the press can attend some or all of the conference free of charge, but limited spots are available. To arrange a press pass, contact Lauren Ketcham at or 614-421-2022, ext. 203.

Atina Diffley: Ohio Farmers as Leaders of Social Change

Mary Kuhlman
January 14, 2014

PHOTO: An organic-farming expert says Ohio farmers can be role models for social change and the environment. Photo courtesy of OEFFA.COLUMBUS, Ohio – Organic farmers in Ohio face many struggles, including the impacts of agricultural policies, urban sprawl and pollution on their land.

But one expert in the field says as stewards of soil and water, organic farmers can be powerful advocates for the environment.

Atina Diffley ran one of the Midwest’s first certified organic produce farms and led a successful legal and citizen action campaign to reroute a crude-oil pipeline to protect organic farmland in Minnesota.

She says it wouldn’t have happened without efforts to educate policy leaders about how organic farming works.

“We ended up not only accomplishing all our goals, but the judge understood organic systems well enough, and the Department of Agriculture then understood organic systems well enough that they made recommendations that supported organic farms and non-organic farms beyond what we had even asked for,” she explains.

Diffley says organic farmers have a responsibility to protect the land, and it’s crucial for them to stand together and work on policy matters that can create social change.

She adds as the link between the land and the food, organic farmers need to reach out and engage the customer as well.

Diffley says in her case, by educating her customers, more than 4,600 people wrote letters to the pipeline company, which resulted in the creation of a statewide organic mitigation plan.

Diffley points out organic farmers manage soil, water and habitat on a daily basis and understand the balance needed to keep an ecosystem thriving.

She says organic farmers can be role models and leaders for the community.

“Organic, it’s not just a way to make money or a day job,” she maintains. “We live in these relationships so it’s really crucial that we stand for them and take that information and that knowledge that we are gaining through our work beyond the property lines of our own farms.”

Diffley will speak at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) 35th annual conference, Feb. 14 and 15 in Granville.

A ‘climate’ of ecological farmers meet in Granville

Farm and Dairy
February 19, 2013
By Chris Kick

GRANVILLE, Ohio — More than 1,100 people filled the Granville Middle School Feb. 16-17 to hear about the latest climate in organics and local foods production.

Climate was a literal part of the discussion, as multiple speakers spoke about the ways that cover crops and crop rotation can help reduce global climate change. They gathered for the 34th annual Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference — a statewide event.

Jim Hoorman, OSU assistant professor and extension educator, gave a compelling talk about all the different ways climate change could affect agriculture at all levels.

On the plus side, he sees a longer growing season. But it will likely come with increased precipitation events, more insects, heat and heat damage.

More time

A longer growing season means farmers can plant and harvest later. But a better solution, he explained, is to plant and harvest as they’re doing now, while adding more cover crops during the off-season.

Cover crops are a proven way to keep soil and nutrients in place, loosen soil and reduce compaction, and they also are known to absorb and sequester a substantial amount of greenhouse gases — one of the causes of climate change.“We have a tremendous ability to help moderate some of these climate events,” he said.

Hoorman said rain events are going to be more intense. Instead of 1-inch rains, he said to expect 2- to 3-inch rains.He also predicted a continuous shrinking of the planting window, which means farmers will have fewer suitable days to get in and out of fields. He expects advanced tractor technology will help get things done quicker, including robotically operated tractors.

More organic

Hoorman said organic agriculture and cover crops has shown a “tremendous decrease in the amount of fertilizer and herbicides needed,” and predicted the nation will become “more and more organic as time goes on.”

In the afternoon, keynote speaker and Organic Valley CEO George Siemon discussed the success of CROPP — one of the nation’s largest organic farming cooperatives — which he helped to found in 1988.He also talked about the challenges he still sees in the food industry.

“The world needs changed very badly,” he said. “If you don’t acknowledge something, you can never fix it.  We’ve got lots of problems in the food world and we need to address them.”

Siemon said he and his partners started the parent company — Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools — to provide some market security for organic producers.

“We really felt that if we were going to have organic food, we needed to have a fair price for farmers,” he said, so they could “know” what they were getting paid, and avoid the ups and downs of the market.

Under attack

He said he’s concerned that genetically modified organisms — GMOs — have gone too far and pose a threat to organic interests.

Siemon also challenged what he called were “measured attacks” on the organic industry, including the claim that conventional farming feeds the world.

According to Siemon, more people are fed by peasants and gardeners than modern, conventional agriculture.

“The peasants of the world and the gardeners of the world feed us,” he said.

He also questioned whether conventional food can really be considered safe, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration approve chemicals based on risk level — not safety.

“It’s not ‘safe,’” he said. “They never will use the word ‘safe.’”

Siemon said he’s seeing more and more land go into large agribusiness use, which he also criticized.“They’re (industrial farmers) pushing people off the land in bringing in 12-row corn planters,” he said.

From a health perspective, Siemon reminded the audience of the rising rate of obesity and life-threatening diseases — and the potential for good eating to lead to good health.

Healthy living

In a separate talk, Jay and Annie Warmke talked about the health and life benefits they experience from sustainable living, at their Blue Rock Station — a sustainable living center that encourages participants to experience a month of living without energy and money.

Participants cook their own meals in wood ovens, learn to reuse, repurpose and recycle as much as possible.The Warmkes also store up food during good times, so they can be prepared during difficult times.“It’s just amazing what a sense of security it gives you,” Annie Warmke said.

(Read about the service and stewardship award recipients.)

Innovation, cooperation on display at OEFFA conference

Buckeye Farm News
February 19, 2013
By Seth Teter

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s recent annual conference highlighted dozens of innovative ways to grow food and bring products to market. Many of these efforts emphasized the value of increased coordination among both farmers and consumers.

I talked with a few of this year’s presenters and attendees.

Here’s what they had to say:  

Organic Valley CEO George Siemon described how farmers have found success working together through the producer-owned cooperative.

“The dream of every family farm is to have it to go to the next generation.  And so we know who we want to be, we want to serve the next generation of family farms.  And that’s the beauty of a cooperative, is that it does represent or serve the community.”

Hear more from Siemon about Organic Valley’s approach.

Bob Cohen of the Cooperative Development Center at Kent State University shared his thoughts on the feasibility of the cooperative model in today’s business climate.

“Particularly small and medium scale farmers often can’t compete in the marketplace on their own and so they’re finding that by banding together they’re able to negotiate a better price and sometimes create the mechanisms and infrastructure that enable them to be competitive and more profitable.”

Hear more Cohen.

Another example of farmers cultivating unique business models came from Marissa Kruthaup of Kruthaup Family Farm. The farm has a Community Supported Agriculture program where each year customers buy a share of the farm’s products.

“People who are especially concerned about how their food is being grown, they can come to the farm and see where it’s grown and see how it’s grown and interact with us.”

Hear Kruthaup explain how the program works.

No matter the model, Richard Stewart of Carriage House Farm showed how farmers are always pursuing new opportunities. In addition to growing a wide variety of crops, Stewart is working to convert a former gravel mine into productive farmland.

Hear more about Stewart’s unique farm and his progress on this project.

Organic Valley’s George Siemon — a Living Legend in Sustainable Agriculture

The Huffington Post
February 26, 2013
By Stefanie Penn Spear

While attending Ohio’s largest food and farming conference last weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down with Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Siemon was the featured keynote speaker at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association‘s (OEFFA) 34th annual conference in Granville, Ohio.

I’m inspired by Siemon’s ability to engage in food advocacy and policy while at the helm of this highly successful business. Organic Valley is an exemplary nearly billion dollar company that shows prioritizing human health and the environment is not only smart business, but vital to creating a sustainable planet for future generations.

SS: How did you get involved in farming and what did you do prior to the formation of the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) in 1988?

GS: I was your classic back-to-the-lander. I moved to the country and lived close to the land. I got pulled into being a farmer and really enjoyed the traditional wisdom of the older farmers. Then I discovered organic farming. I wasn’t raised on a farm, so I was very excited for something new. I milked cows for about 10 years, but then got increasingly frustrated by the marketing system. It wasn’t rewarding, it wasn’t reasonable and commodity prices didn’t make any sense, so the economic part of it wasn’t satisfying.

At the same time, the 1985 Farm Bill was the last hurrah of what you call a populous farm movement. There was the unloading of manure on the steps of the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and the different American radical ag groups, and there was a group in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Farm Unity. After the 1985 Farm Bill had very disappointing results, they felt that they would not get the kind of help they needed from the government. They needed to find ways to help themselves, and the Wisconsin Farm Unity had the idea of starting value-added co-ops which was very pioneering at that time. It just so happened that one of the board members was in our region and he wanted to start an organic produce co-op, vegetable co-op. So, it was really a political activist group that had the idea to start a co-op that would help do what the government was unwilling to do, which was trying to provide farmers with a viable market.

It was a do-gooder concept that started taking root. We started our co-op in 1988. We had tremendous community support from the beggining.

SS: You were a big part of designing the original organic standards. What can you share on how and why they were formed?

GS: Organics is a unique industry in that they actually want more regulations. There were starting to be state laws on the definition of organic and they were conflicting and it was getting to be a mess, so in 1989 we started the process of a national bill. We passed an organic labeling law in 1990 and right away we noticed that organics was a fairly neutral political issue and crosses many stakeholder groups. It was a unique law in that it has the only congressional empowered advisory group in the whole United States government called the National Organic Standards Board. That took a while to get going. Between 1990 and 2002 there was a long period of time to get the standard up and out. It was very challenging to have a program that covered all the commodities.

We have the strictest standard in the world and we should be proud of that.

SS: Local vs. organic, what do you think?

GS: First off, organics is part of the movement of people reconnecting to their food and that’s the good news. Seeing how it affects their lives and so naturally local is part of that same reconnecting to your food. I could never comprehend the local vs. organic because it would seem that if you’re reconnecting with your food and concerned about your food and your local community that you would be concerned about farming organically in your local community and not polluting your watershed. To me it’s a way over played conversation.

There are farmers that farm organically that don’t get certified. That’s a different story. They are still organic, they just can’t use the USDA seal. So to me supporting local chemical farmers vs. an organic farmer, I’m pretty sure that if you look for a local organic farmer you’d find one. You should always support your local people because that’s your local community.

Local is a value that needs to be built on top of organics, not a value instead of organics. It should be organics plus other values because organics only go so far on its value model. It tells you how food is produced. It doesn’t tell you that it was produced locally. It doesn’t tell you if it was produced on a small farm or a big farm, or all the things that you as a consumer may choose to think is important. It’s a consumer choice issue.

SS: What are your hopes for the next five years?

GS: My hope is always about educating the consumer. I’m all for everything we do in Congress and politics but its been a little disillusioning to say the least. Educating consumers and getting them to make choices is to me still our biggest hope going forward. Unfortunately, the economy, the recession or whatever you want to call it, just drove us to this numbing conversation about jobs, jobs, jobs and it has really set us back. I am very excited about the web and how it educates people. I’m very excited about educating young mothers, which is really what drives our business. You can really see a very positive movement out there that keeps going despite all the challenges.

SS: What about the connection between human health and the environment?

GS: Part of my talk today is to at least acknowledge that we have some very serious health issues and we are not connecting it to food enough or the environment, and they are obviously connected. Health has got to take on a preventative basis. We have to start preventing health [problems] versus coming up with these health crisises and part of that is through food. We are not addressing food related health issues near enough.

SS: What are your thoughts on genetically engineered (GE) food?

GS: GE foods have never been regulated. There’s a lack of regulation and there’s a grip of control by the GE community in D.C. that’s pushing bills through. They tried to get a bill passed recently to make it faster yet to get these products through. They are basically being railroaded through. There’s a lot of investment money on the line that hasn’t come to bear yet, so there’s a lot of pressure to get these products out there.

I don’t have much confidence in the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] doing good due process. First thing they should have real regulation and they don’t. Second, we should at least label it. Number one, organic farms need to know they are buying input that is not GE. Number two consumers should know as well.

We started the labeling effort and it has been a very good educational tool. We’ve gone from ground zero to a very impressive position. We are going to have a hard time ever getting through in D.C. But the state label initiatives started up. I don’t think that California was necessarily the best state to start with, but we had a good fight in California and we did really well. The truth is now that one of these states is going to pass a law and it’s going to be disruptive. We’ve actually made big strides, very big strides. I’m very pleased. It looks like Washington state will pass and that will rock the boat because no food processor, me or otherwise, supports state by state laws, because it’s a nightmare for packaging. So we’ve actually gone from no hope to a pretty amazing position in just two years. It’s really exciting seeing us reverse the trend.


SS: So you’re close to becoming a billion dollar company. Where do you see Organic Valley in 10 years?

GS: What’s nice about working for a family farm cooperative is you’ll know where you’ll be in 50 years, which hopefully will be an honest marketing vehicle for their children’s children. It’s kind of neat to know who you want to be in 50 years. Not many businesses can actually say that, but we can. As far as in 10 years, we’ve always been very thrifty and modest but we have to now face the reality that we might have a 19 percent growth rate this year, and that if we were to grow 10 percent starting in 2014, by 2020 we’ll be a $2 billion company. So we’re having to put a different set of glasses on now and look at our reality which has been a fantastic success.

Thanks to Siemon for his hard work and dedication in the sustainable agriculture industry and to OEFFA for their long-standing mission to build a healthy food system that brings prosperity to family farmers, meets the growing consumer demand for local food, creates economic opportunities for our rural communities and safeguards the environment.

Ohio’s organic farmers opt for biology over chemistry

WKSU Quick Bites
Friday, March 15, 2013
By Vivian Goodman

Having a bite to eat could get scary… very soon.

Among potential impacts of the sequester: reduced food safety when federal inspectors are sent home.

But food worries are nothing new.  Consumers learning about the harmful effects of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms have long been demanding healthier, seasonal and local food. To meet that demand, many of our region’s small farmers use biological rather than chemical methods to keep crops healthy and bug-free. For today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman looks at the future for organic farming.

When the federal government first set national standards for organic farms in 1990, there wasn’t all that much consumer demand for fruits, vegetables and grains grown without synthetic fertilizers and insecticides, and meat from animals that don’t do hormones.

Finding new non-chemical methods
Today organic farmers are rotating crops, composting, finding new ways to make pesticides passé, and doing about $55 billion in annual business.

But big agribusiness still rules. Only 1 percent of America’s cropland is organically farmed.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s annual conference drew about 1,100 participants last month, about 100 more than last year’s event. They came on a snowy mid- February weekend from all over Ohio and neighboring states and included farmers, research scientists, food producers, distributors, backyard gardeners and foodies of all kinds.

The root of the matter

Kitty Leathem led a workshop on root vegetables.“I’m known around here as the green chef.”

That’s what they call her at Granville’s farmers market, where it’s easy to find her. Just follow the bee-line to her turnip and rutabaga pies.

The Green Chef calls her workshop “Out of the Dirt and On to Your Plate”

“Because where do root vegetables live?”

In the dirt.

“And of course if you put chemicals on, where’s it going to go?”

Into the plants.

“Right into the plants. Try and eat organic root vegetables.”

There are 90 workshops at the conference; 10 have the word “organic” in the title.

Willing to pay for healthier choices
On average, eating organic costs about 20 percent more. But consumers who have read the works of Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin and seen the movie Food, Inc. don’t mind paying the difference.

“There’s a better environment for organic foods, which is a big part of it,” says George Siemon. He runs the largest organic farm cooperative in the nation. Organic Valley represents farmers in 31 states including 174 in Ohio.

A food system that needs organics

Siemon’s keynote speech at the ecological food conference is titled, “Organic: Changing a Broken System.”

“Part of the broken food system is the amount of control that certain parties have in D.C. So I don’t feel the farm bill is really an honest process that serves our bigger community. … Organics just got hurt badly in the recent farm bill. Anything that was extra, like research on organic farming and other things. got cut to zero.

“Of course we get very little anyway, but that’s the beauty of organics. It’s been very self-starting. … It’s a grass-roots movement, and we’ve done well without the government’s help.”

Siemon’s organic cooperative is in its 25th year. It recently reached $1 billion in annual sales.

Improving but still needs fixing
But he says the system remains broken.

“We have a lot of food-related illnesses and environmental issues and cultural issues that are related to our agricultural practices, and I think it needs to have a better conversation than we have. Organic farming is a wonderful answer for financial viability and care for the land and producing healthy food, … so it’s a real solution.”

But Stanford University came out in September with a report that said organic doesn’t make a real health difference.

“I could challenge that study all day long,” says Siemon. “And of course, we have people who are opposed to us.”

More funding in the pipeline for organic farmers
He believes more financial organizations are willing now to fund organic farms, because of demand from consumers.

“And one of the things our coop has taken great pride in is trying to  provide a stable price to farmers and a stable marketplace and bankers recognize that there’s a future here.”

Mike Storer of Columbus-based DNO Distributors couldn’t agree more. He’s in the food conference’s exhibit hall because the grocers and restaurants he serves want more organic food.

In search of Ohio organic farmers
 “At this show, what we’re trying to do … is we’re trying to locate some more farmers, specifically Ohio organic farmers. We have a lot more demand than supply right now. It’s really picked up in the last three years.”

Three years ago, he says, “We would … get maybe one or two calls. Last year we started to get dozens and dozens, and this year (there’s) so much demand for organic that we’ve exhausted almost everybody who currently grows for us.”

Another hopeful sign for the future of organic farming: OEFFA last year launched a “farmer’s bank” to provide capital for sustainable agriculture in Ohio. It now has $500,000 going to build the supply of farm-fresh local food for our tables.

And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next Friday, we’ll learn the business secrets of a veteran quality grocer.

George Siemon wants to fix America’s food system

February 12, 2013
By Dan Neman
The Toledo Blade

When George Siemon looks at the food system in America, from the soil to the way we eat, he sees problems.

The soil is contaminated with chemicals, he said in an interview last week. Farmers are trying to survive on the smallest of margins. Far too much food is wasted. And too many Americans suffer from food-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.

The food system is broken, he said, though “a lot of people would not agree with me.”

Siemon, 60, is CEO and one of the founders of the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, an agriculture co-op that produces dairy products, eggs, and similar foods under the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie brands. It is the largest organic farming co-operative in North America.

On Saturday, he will be in Columbus at a conference sponsored by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. He will deliver the day’s keynote address, “Organic: Changing a Broken Food System.”

His co-op is made up of more than 1,800 organic farmers in 31 states; each farmer owns a share of the company and receives a portion of the profits. They produce food they consider to be better for the environment than from conventional farms, and possibly healthier for consumers.

Though the number of people eating organic food is rapidly growing, they are still bucking a national trend. Conventionally grown foods are cheaper than organic, and some government policies — Mr. Siemon specifically cited the push for ethanol — seem to favor using chemicals in farming, he said.

“If you get involved in food, you very quickly learn that farm politics are controlled by big corporations whose main concerns are the the same as the people’s,” the Wisconsin-based former dairy farmer said on the phone from Florida, where he was taking a vacation.

“Food is a complicated subject, and a lot of our policies are very simplistic,” he said.

One of the perceived problems with organic farming is that the farmers’ yield is often thought to be smaller than that of conventional farmers, who use chemicals and pesticides specifically formulated to help boost the farms’ output. Mr. Siemon countered that organic farmers actually can match the average yield of conventional farmers in some produce such as corn, though not every year.

Instead of pumping nutrients into the soil, organic farmers have to rotate their crops in the traditional manner, for instance planting corn, alfalfa hay, small grains, and soybeans in successive years.

“Ideally, you have livestock involved, and you have manure,” he said.

Pastures are not just an important way to rest the soil, it is also good for the health of livestock, he said. It gives them exercise and allows them to eat something other than corn feed.

While last year’s drought affected farmers everywhere, he said that organic farmers actually made it through better than conventional farmers.

“There is no question that organic farmers do better during a drought because we have more diversity in crops. The more diversity you have, the more options you have for rain helping you,” he said, explaining that rain generally helps the crops that need it most.

“We have a loose, viable soil. Because it is not a chemical agriculture, it encourages more roots. And roots are a big part of organic farming,” he said.

The more roots a plant has, the more able it is to absorb moisture in the ground.

“It’s kind of like if a human got spoon-fed food, they wouldn’t be very fit, as opposed to a human who has to go out and hunt for his food.”

Ohio Food and Farming Conference Draws Near

By Jerry Kenney

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) is a statewide, grassroots, nonprofit group that  was founded in the late 90’s.  Farmers, gardeners, and folks who were thinking more about the foods they were  eating began working together to create and promote a sustainable and healthful food and farming system.

On February 16-17, Granville, Ohio, in the heart of the state, will be home to OEFFA’s 34th annual conference,  Growing Opportunities, Cultivating Change.  It’s Ohio’s largest sustainable agriculture conference, an event  which draws more than a thousand attendees from across Ohio and the Midwest.

Renee Hunt is the Education Director at the Ohio Food and Farm Association. We talk with briefly about the OEFFA and the conference.

One of the keynote speakers at this year’s conference is Nicholette Hahn Nieman, she’s an Attorney and rancher who writes and speaks about improving our food and farming system.  She also spoke to us by phone from her home in Northern California.

Listen to the interviews here.

The Intersection of Food and Public Health

All Sides with Ann Fisher

We live in a world where one billion people are undernourished while another billion are overweight. On this hour, we’ll hear about the role of public health in achieving both local and global food security. Can we change how we make our food?


  • Nicolette Hahn Niman, a rancher, attorney, and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms
  • Lynne Genter, co-founder of the Clintonville Farmers Market, practicing nurse and serves on the OSU Wexner Medical Center Food Advisory Council

Listen to the podcast here.