Farmers talk purity and purpose at Organic Farming Conference

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Fred speaks at organic conference
Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow with the Leopold Center, spoke during the Organic Farming Conference Nov. 11.

MOUNT HOPE, Ohio — Two leaders in the organic and sustainable agriculture industry helped explain what it means to farm with “purity” and “purpose” during the second annual Organic Farming Conference, held Nov. 11 in Mount Hope.

Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and distinguished fellow with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and Phil Nabors, founder of Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, both spoke about the growth and opportunity with organic agriculture.

Marketing foods

Nabors and his family own a network of retail businesses in northeast Ohio that has marketed what they consider natural or sustainable foods for more than 30 years. That includes such things as no artificial food flavorings and colorings, free of aspartame and free of routine antibiotics in meat.

“We started this because we had a purpose and wanted to bring this mission of wellness through food,” said Nabors, whose family also operates an organic blueberry farm near Loudonville.

And people apparently want the kind of food Nabors and others are marketing. The Organic Trade Association reported an 11 percent increase in sales this past year, at $43.3 billion, more growth than the overall food market, which grew by 3 percent.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic products are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores.

Getting hooked

Nabors said that once people start buying organic — they have a tendency to continue.
“Once they get on that train, they stay on it,” he said. “This is a strong trend and you can count on it continuing to grow.”

Related: Organic field day touts benefits of less inputs

And it’s not just the health benefits — real or perceived — that is driving growth.

It’s also the opportunity for farmers to save money by using fewer inputs, and commanding a higher market premium. The economic benefits have helped many smaller farmers, including those in the Plain communities, continue to be competitive.

Fewer choices

But as Kirschenmann pointed out, there could be a time coming when more farmers will have to farm organically, out of necessity and because of depleted resources.

He explained the theory of an ending “neocaloric era,” where we burn through the remainder of our fossil fuels, clean water, and sources of manufactured fertilizer, and essentially have no choice but to return to an organic form of farming.

He said for years, farmers have relied on the law of the minimum, trying to figure out the least amount of synthetic inputs into the soil, to generate the maximum return. That led to the use of three main nutrients found in today’s fertilizer: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.

But more recently, he said farmers have turned their focus to what else they can return to the soil — including manure and more cover crops.

Farming with nature. The central question, he explained, is “how would Mother Nature farm if she were farming.”

And the answer, he said, is very efficiently.

“There is no waste in nature — everything gets reused. It’s re-incorporated back into the system,” he said.

Kirschenmann quoted from a variety of soil conservationists and authors who apparently see the same trend.

He noted that “Mother Nature never attempts to farm without livestock,” or animals, she always raises a mixed crop or diversity of species, and she develops ways of reducing erosion and soil loss.

Diverse diets

Nabors said the diversity of crops is also good for people’s diet, because we benefit from eating diverse foods. He sees a lot of opportunity in the area of specialty crops, because they give smaller producers and beginning farmers some opportunity to set themselves apart.

“Get out of the commodity train wreck of corn and soybeans and dairy, and get into specialty crops that are unique and have a unique competitive advantage in the marketplace,” he said.

Corn and soybeans are the most widely grown crops in the U.S., but the cost to grow those crops, and the low sale price per bushel — have made it hard for most farmers to be profitable.

Multiple topics

The conference included about a dozen speakers total, 40 vendors and 475 participants.

Various sessions focussed on the cooking and preparing of organic foods, and ways that families can cook and eat together.

Phil’s son, Abe Nabors, talked about how consumers are driving demand for the kinds of food organic farmers grow, and Charlene Stoller, of Stollers Organic Dairy in Sterling, talked about organic in the home.

To learn more about the conference and next year’s event, follow www.organicfarmingconf.com.

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