Ohio sustainable agriculture conference feeds many appetites

The Cleveland Plain Dealer
By Debbi Snook
2/16/2014

The definition of organic food may be food grown without pesticides, herbicides and other controversial chemicals, but talking about organic food involves a whole stew of additional issues.

That was the case Saturday in Granville, where the first of Ohio’s two-day sustainable agriculture conference took place.

More than 1,000 farmers, shop owners, consumers, chefs and university educators confronted food issues relating to job losses, fracking, government policy, creativity and health. The news of drought situations in California, where many plantings are on hold for a lack of water, seemed to heighten the purpose of the event inextricably tied to the concept of raising food locally.

But the overriding issue was knowledge as keynote speaker Atina Diffley petitioned farmers to take their status as heroes among local food lovers and become leaders  educating consumers about land stewardship and working for policy change.

Her own court victory against an oil pipeline planned to run through her organic farm – augmented by thousands of letters from her consumers – led to a change in language in Minnesota law that declared an organic farm could be seen as equal to a “sensitive environmental area.”

“Now Wisconsin and New York are looking at it,” she said of the language.

Preceding Diffley’s talk, a stewardship award program opened the door to an anti-fracking statement including a roll-out banner calling for an end to pushing natural gas out of the ground with deep chemical injections. In the audience was one of last year’s stewardship award recipients, Mardy Townsend, a grassfed beef farmer from Ashtabula who has been fighting fracking waste wells in her county where she fears it may affect the groundwater she uses to feed her animals.

Saturday’s and Sunday’s schedules are packed with at least a dozen choices per session, including growing Shiitake mushrooms, learning food safety regulations and starting honeybee colonies.

Members of Our Harvest, the Cincinnati food hub, talked about building a worker-owned local food distribution system based on a model in Mondragon, Spain.

“There are so many farmers markets, we thought, ‘Why not grow enough food for schools, universities and hospitals, where people really need it,” said Ellen Vera, one of the founders. The group has secured more than $500,000 in local loans and started a farm subscription program that has grown over three years to include 200 customers. They hope to build a coterie of local farmers to supply larger accounts.

Annie Warmke, who lives in a classy looking house built from recycled trash and depends on water supplied from rainwater off the roof, led a session about living a sustainable life. Stressing family, friends and community, she asked attendees to think less about shopping as therapy, and more about nature. Once she and her husband Jay chose a lifestyle without traditional jobs, they turned their home near Zanesville into a teaching lab for raising goats and solar power installation classes.

Marissa Kruthaup of Morrow, a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky, outlined  the experiment she did with a $5,574 federal sustainable agriculture grant, comparing eight types of sweet corn varieties through organic and conventional methods.

Her results showed that consumers could not taste the difference, but that using the organic chicken manure fertilizer gave her higher yields and produced less pollution than conventional fertilizer.

Urban farm consultant Brad Masi of Oberlin screened his new film, “Network Theory,” an affectionate look at the growth of the local food movement in Athens, southeast Ohio. Principals of the town’s local food web – which includes a commercial kitchen, worker-owned restaurant Casa Nueva, and grain and bean growers’ cooperative, Shagbark Mill – talked about the necessary sense of community in local food. Food naturally brings everyone to the table, said one. Weaving a network from that, “doesn’t mean you have to love each other or hang out together all the time . . . It just means that by working together you can do something bigger and more fabulous than working alone.”

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