Group was at forefront of early “organic” movement

By Kevin Parks

This Week in Clintonville

Photo Credit: Chris Parker, This Week
Photo Credit: Chris Parker, This Week

January 5, 2010

Two decades before the federal government created standards for labeling food as “organic,” the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association came into being.

The OEFFA is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1979 “by farmers, gardeners and conscientious eaters who committed to work together to create and promote a sustainable and healthful food and farming system,” according to its Web site.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted the first standards for the labeling and processing of organic foods in December 2000.

As the organization, with offices on Croswell Road in Clintonville, was finishing celebrating its 30th year of existence and looking ahead to a major annual conference in February, executive director Carol Goland said that members of the small staff were reaching out to founders to understand just how it got going.

“It was very grass roots, and that flavor of the organization has stayed over the 30 years,” Goland said. “These folks were visionaries and they were pioneers, and like all pioneers they took their share of arrows.”

While consumers concerned about what was in their food and home gardeners were part of the movement that led to OEFFA’s creation, Goland said that an especially important element came from the growing number of farmers committed to using what were variously called ecological or biological or organic methods. The latter term finally caught on.

That puts Ohio in the vanguard of a movement that seems to be catching on in a big way, according to a 2001 article in the online magazine Organica.

“These innovators offered the technical and philosophical backdrop for the mainstreaming of organic foods and farming that occurred when the flower children’s ‘back to nature’ movement converged with the broader, anti-pesticide, anti-war, anti-agribusiness sentiment so characteristic of the youth movement of the 1960s and ’70s,” the story states.

“Today it’s hard to imagine that back then you would say the ‘O’ word, organic,” said Renee Hunt, the association’s program director. “The ‘O’ word was almost heresy.”

But not anymore, Hunt said. These days, products bearing the label organic are where growth is taking place in the food industry and with OEFFA.

“The OEFFA membership is very diverse,” its Web site states. “It includes farmers, consumers, gardeners, chefs, political activists, teachers, researchers, retailers and students. What members have in common is an interest in creating and maintaining a food system that is good for people, good for the earth and good for the future.”

To that end, the OEFFA offers members a consumers guide to organic and ecological farms and gardens, a directory and a bimonthly newsletter.

“OEFFA is also involved in research and development, farm and farmer preservation, policy making and product promotion,” the Web site states.

A separate wing of the OEFFA is a USDA National Organic Program Accredited Certifier, and has been since 2002. The certification territory includes Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.

OEFFA organic certification is one of 55 accredited around the country, Goland said, and was one of the very first certifying agencies, according to Hunt.

Group goes to bat for farmers

The main thrust of the association’s work, Goland said, is supporting its member farmers who are growing produce for local markets and helping consumers to find them. The OEFFA seeks to let food producers know that being responsible and “doing the right thing” for human health and the ecology can still be profitable, Goland said.

“It’s a different mindset,” she said.

All of this, Goland added, has brought greater visibility to the issue of sustainable farming and, in turn, made it easier for other farmers and consumers to follow in the footsteps of those already part of the movement.

“There are broader social trends that we are working in concert with,” Goland said.

“All of our work revolves around working with volunteers,” Hunt said. “We do not operate in a vacuum.”

“We have members in almost every county (in Ohio),” said Lauren Ketcham, membership services and communications coordinator for OEFFA.

The northwest part of the state and also central-eastern Ohio are somewhat underrepresented, Goland said.

Some members are in Indiana, which has no similar organization, according to Hunt.

The OEFFA is not formally involved in traditional efforts to preserve agricultural lands, Goland said, believing that the best way to preserve farms is to preserve farmers. Ohio is unique, however, in that it boasts many substantial metropolitan areas surrounded by farmland, giving those farmers a ready market for what they grow, which is an aspect of the fresh, organic food effort.

“Whether we’re taking full advantage of that or not is another question,” Goland said.

OEFFA has, in the past, had a somewhat prickly relationship with state government agencies involved with agriculture, the executive director said.

Things have improved somewhat under Gov. Ted Strickland, she said.

She pointed to the creation of a Food Policy Advisory Council, which Strickland announced at the Ohio State Fair in 2007, and the first sustainable agricultural program as major steps toward bridging the gap between government programs and the ideals of the OEFFA.

“These are really positive signs,” Goland said.

Annual conference to be held in Granville

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s 31st annual conference, “Growing with Integrity, Eating with Intention,” will take place Feb. 13-14 in Granville.

The conference, to be held in the town’s middle and high schools, will feature keynote speakers Joel Salatin and Ann Cooper, as well as hands-on workshops, exhibitors, a separate educational conference for children, locally sourced meals, a child-care area and Saturday evening entertainment.

Online registration for the conference is ongoing at www.oeffa.org.

“More and more people are beginning to realize that the food they can get from local farmers is fresher and better tasting than what is available in grocery stores,” OEFFA executive director Carol Goland said in a prepared statement announcing the conference. “The OEFFA conference is an ideal place for local farmers and consumers to network and plan how best to improve Ohio’s food production system.”
Salatin is called one of the best-known farmers of the sustainable food movement. His family farm in Swoope, Va., serves more than 1,500 families, 10 retail outlets and 30 restaurants with grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, eggs, pork, forage-based rabbits and pastured turkey.

In his Saturday evening talk, “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal,” Salatin “will get to the heart of the local food movement challenge,” according to the announcement.

“From zoning to food safety to insurance, local food systems face regulatory hurdles designed and implemented to benefit industrial food models,” the announcement stated. “Joel will call for guerrilla marketing and other solutions.”

Salatin also will be speaking at an all-day pre-conference event, “Ballet in the Pasture,” on Friday, Feb. 12. He will discuss how his farm’s choreographed plant-animal symbiosis heals the landscape, the community and the eater.

An author, chef, educator and self-proclaimed “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Cooper is an advocate for better food for children. Her mission is to “transform the National School Lunch Program through lunch menus emphasizing regional, organic, fresh foods and nutritional education, helping students build a connection between where their food comes from and personal health and wellness,” according to the OEFFA announcement.

In her Sunday evening keynote address, Cooper will detail the importance of changing the way children eat and why parents, schools, farmers, food service providers and governments must work together.

In addition, the conference will feature more than 60 hands-on educational workshops with topics including: cheese-making, becoming a successful farmers market vendor, off-grid energy production, goat husbandry, organic certification, weed control, farmers market management, social networking, green building, organic dairying, urban gardening, fruit production,  organic grain production, pastured poultry, sustainable agriculture policy and grassroots organizing, soil testing, rain water harvesting, pruning, pork production, community kitchens, on-farm record-keeping, tree grafting, healthy lunch programs, green cleaning products, drip irrigation, worm composting, farming with horses, beekeeping, renewable energy and cover crops.

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