WisBusiness: Organic Farming Conference could draw 2000

By Gregg Hoffmann

LA CROSSE – If you need any evidence of how far the organic farming movement has come, go to the La Crosse Center Feb. 23-25.

An estimated 2,000 people are expected to attend the 17th annual Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference at the center. This year’s conference theme is “Growing More Organic.”

“During the fall and winter of 1989-90, a few farmers in southwest Wisconsin first planted and nurtured the seed for the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference,” said Faye Jones, executive director of the conference host, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES).

“Indeed, it was more a scion than a seed, growing out of intensely fruitful activities already taking place at that time.”

Western Wisconsin Technical College provided a $500 start-up donation in 1990. A group of volunteers worked on planning the conference and CROPP/ Organic Valley provided crucial registration support the first few years, Jones said.

In the 16 years since its first meeting, the UMOFC has gone from 90 attendees in 1990 to 1800 in 2005.

More than 45 workshop topics will be addressed during this year’s conference, including specialty crops, marketing issues, crop production, certification and others. More than 130 exhibitors will have booths and presentations in the exhibit hall.

This year’s event is expected to draw a record crowd, in part because of growth in the general public’s interest in organic food.

“We’ve always had tremendous workshops and keynote presentations for farmers,” Jones. “But, this year, we’re adding some additional programs for the general public as well, as interest in local an organic food continues to expand even beyond our own expectations.”

Southwest Wisconsin is considered a hotbed for organic farming. Nearby Vernon County has one of the highest concentrations of organic farms in the country. La Farge-based CROPP, the cooperative producer of Organic Valley products, has become one of the largest organic dairy coops in the world.

Michael Ableman, executive director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, is a keynote speaker. Fairview Gardens is near Santa Barbara, California. Ableman is the author of “From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World.”

Additional keynote speakers include Michael Sligh of the Seeds & Breeds Conference and Leslie Duram, professor of Geography and Environmental Management at South Illinois University.

The Organic University will be held on the first day of the conference, Feb. 23. All day seminars will address topics such as organic poultry on grass, organic dairy and beef, advanced weed management, transitioning to organic and medicinal herbs and others.

A new feature for the general public will be “Coulee Region Chefs Cook Organic,” hosted by Chef Monique Hooker of DeSoto. From 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, area restaurateurs will offer fine cooking with local organic food.

Trained in Europe, Hooker has worked in New York and Chicago and currently is the consulting chef for Organic Valley. Participating chefs will include Richard Klindworth from Hackberry’s Bistro in La Crosse, Joshua Bratz of the La Crosse Country Club, and Kristen Hansen of Organic Valley.

Three films also will be shown at the conference. “Back to the Land Again:” by Gretta Miller focuses on Wisconsin organic farmers. “The Future of Food” investigates food ingredients in mainstream grocery stores. “What Will We Eat?” looks at Sweetwater Local Foods Market in Muskegon, Michigan.

MOSES education director Jody Padgham said, “The conference is renowned as the premier educational event for farmers and others.”

At the 2005 conference, MOSES kicked off a new public education campaign called “Help Wanted: Organic Farmers.” The campaign is designed to draw attention to the need to expand organic production and increase the number of organic farmers in order to satisfy the rapidly growing consumer demand for organically produced food.

Jones said the purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness in the farm community that there is a genuine consumer-driven need for more organic food production, especially dairy, beef, poultry and cash grain.

“Consumers have been driving retail sales of organic food up and up and up. . . . vegetables, fruit, milk, cheese, chicken, beef, pork, you name it,” Jones said. “Now is the time for the farm community to step up and meet this demand. We need to realize that there are some important economic opportunities here in the Midwest, particularly for organic livestock producers and for those that raise the certified organic grain that these animals eat.”

Retail sales of organic foods have grown at 20% per year since 1990. Industry projections by the Nutrition Business Journal call for 2004-2008 annual growth to be 15.6% for organic dairy, 39% for organic beef, and 48% for organic poultry.

At a campaign kick-off news conference in 2005, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Rod Nilsestuen, noted that the Mississippi River Valley region has been at the center of the organic and sustainable agriculture community.

“It’s clear that we need more people producing organically,” he said. “What is hopeful is that you don’t have to learn the lessons of organic farming on your own anymore. The infrastructure and network are out there to get you the resources you need.”