Upper Sandusky, Ohio
For the second year in a row, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) conference, which takes place at the end of next week, (Feb. 19-20) is sold out. It is so sold out that it can’t even take walk-in registrations unfortunately. The fact that record numbers of people are coming to the meetings of insurgent garden-farm groups all over is sweet music to those of us who have been part of this revolution from the beginning. The music that OEFFA faced 32 years ago when it started was not so sweet. We were a scruffy lot back then, mostly people who knew little about the realities of farming but who wanted to take back their ability to raise their own food and start a local food economy that just might be profitable someday over the rainbow. I must confess that I was embarrassed sometimes to be part of the group. I didn’t even become a bonafide member at first. Early members were likely to say something rather naïve about farming and I didn’t want to be around when commercial farmers made fun of them. But more significantly, those early members embarrassed me by bringing up really great ideas that I hadn’t thought of. They may have been naïve but they were not stupid.
In the beginning, being part of new food and farm movements like OEFFA could also be exceedingly stressful for a writer who tried to support them. It was a little perilous in those days to criticize tendencies in farming that I thought were destructive because agriculture as an institution was not used to being criticized. It was like criticizing motherhood or football. I was ridiculed and disdained by commercial agribusiness, industrial farmers, the colleges of agriculture, and the Farm Bureau. Still am, but not nearly as much now.
And that is the point. Farming that is “organic,” “innovative,” “new,” “ecological”, “natural”, I don’t care which term you want to use, is now accepted by society, more or less. Or at least the critics within the industrial farming landscape will in public act conciliatory toward us. The college of agriculture at Ohio State, (which significantly isn’t called that anymore), now has all kinds of programs for making farming more environmentally sane. The Farm Bureau has a new program to draw in members from the ranks of small and part time farmers. Their language sounds remarkably like the language OEFFA used to gain members 32 years ago.
OEFFA and its sometimes competitor, Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) and many other like-minded garden and farm organizations all over the United States, have been a great comfort to me in another way. My generation has had to watch the rural culture we grew up in fade away and die. Well, almost die. But while that was happening, these new organizations were coming along to replace that old way of life. Sometimes without knowing it, they saved what was good about that older culture and discarded what was not so good about it. For example, rather than being isolated out in the countryside like we were 70 years ago, the new farmers are farming EVERYWHERE. They are growing food from inner city to outer banks. It is just so exciting and reassuring. There is hope for the future and the best sign of that is a cranky old pessimist like me saying there is.
While the ranks of the new farm culture swell, the price of industrial grain swells even more. Wheat is selling as I write on Feb. 8, 2011, at $8.50 a bushel. This is an historical high. This is crazy. Or I can just as easily argue that in a world where cell phones are selling for a couple hundred bucks and manufacturers can’t make them fast enough, maybe wheat is worth more than $8.50 a bushel. Cell phones may do everything imaginable but they don’t make food.
Whether grain prices are too high or not, one thing is certain. We are going to have to get more people in more different places to do the work of producing them. Surely that is a fact beyond argument. Our ranks must swell even more. We can’t make cell phones in our back yards but we sure can grow wheat there.