Organic farming conference at UMass focuses on climate change

Last modified: Monday, September 08, 2014
AMHERST — Climate change and how farmers can help head off bleak predictions for the future of the planet as carbon dioxide levels keep increasing in the atmosphere was a major theme at the 40th annual Northeast Organic Farming Association summer conference during the weekend.

There were nearly 200 lectures and workshops attended by the 1,200 people participating in the conference at the University of Massachusetts.

Benjamin Grosscup, the prime organizer of these conferences since 2011, said, “Many agricultural organizations focus on climate change and on the threats climate change poses to farmers.” He said organizers of this year’s conference were influenced by a growing number of people suggesting that farmers can have a positive influence on climate change by promoting practices that take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into organic matter.

“A light bulb went on for us,” said Julie Rawson, executive director of NOFA. That prompted the addition of a series of lectures and discussions under the heading of “Soil Carbon and Climate.”

The message is that “sustainable isn’t good enough anymore,” said Grosscup. “We need to be moving toward regenerative organic agriculture.”

The conference covered many other topics, including how to start a community-supported agriculture farm, the ins and outs of urban farming, how to brew your own hard cider, how to start a beekeeping operation and different ways to cook a pig.

A workshop led by Connor Stedman of Montague, who works as an agroforestry specialist for AppleSeed Permaculture LLC in Hudson, New York, focused on what he called “carbon farming.” Reducing carbon emissions is very important to addressing climate change, he said, but supporting research and large-scale programs to contain carbon in trees and soil is another tool for limiting global warming.

“The basic math of climate change is that we’ve got 250 billion surplus tons of carbon in the atmosphere right now above the historical normal that we’ve had since the ice age,” said Stedman. His talk centered on agroforestry practices that build soil and integrate perennial plants, especially trees, to trap carbon dioxide.

Several of the workshops were more political. One led by Nelson Carrasquillo, coordinator for CATA: The Farmworkers Support Committee, which was founded in 1979 by migrant farmworkers in New Jersey, examined human rights issues. Just because a farm practices organic agriculture does not mean that it necessarily uses fair labor practices, he said.

“Many people believe that farmworkers don’t work on organic farms,” Carrasquillo said. “It is important that organic farmers educate themselves and consumers that the product they are getting is not only safe to eat but that it has been produced under fair conditions. What’s the use of organic farming if you are exploiting the workers?”

Aiden Harper, 14, of Francestown, New Hampshire, who was attending workshops designed for teenagers, including ones on tie-dyeing and on reducing waste, said the conference gave him valuable information as he prepares for a career as an environmental lawyer.

His mother, Jennifer Byington, said her family runs a 100-acre farm in addition to her work as a computer software consultant. She comes to the conference as part of her efforts to make the farm more sustainable. This year she learned lessons about water management and slaughtering poultry.

Dylan Frazier, 31, who grew up on a horse farm in Ashfield and graduated from Smith Vocational High School in Northampton, is now a volunteer coordinator for the Boston Area Gleaners, an organization that seeks permission from farmers to reap crops left in the fields at the end of a growing cycle. Last year it donated almost 90,000 pounds of food to shelters and food pantries, he said.

Frazier said he attended his first NOFA conference to be part of a community that is passionate about sustainable agriculture. “Organic farming is the proxy for the environmental movement,” he said. “It’s a way to have a tangible impact on the environment and communities.”

One of the workshops was a presentation by a small Amherst business called Goat Girls. Emily Peterson, 23, who helped start the company after getting a degree in animal science from UMass, explained that it rents herds of seven goats along with a portable electric fence for $500 a week to people who want the animals to clear brush from their land. She also consults with people who want to start their own herd of goats.

Rawson, who lives on a farm in Barre, said she was excited about this year’s special attention to tying together organic agriculture and climate change. Workshops on scientific principles behind better composting and grazing practices that are aimed at taking carbon out of the atmosphere by building up soil are in keeping with long-standing goals of the organization to “work in harmony with nature.”

Now, said Rawson, “we are focusing our energies on teaching ourselves about sequestering carbon.”

Grosscup said one of his goals for this year’s conference is that “people go home and improve the management of their soils, so that they are sequestering more carbon and producing better-quality food.”

The message he wants to get across is that “food quality matters and soil quality matters whether we are operating on large acreages or whether we are operating on small, backyard gardens.”

Eric Goldscheider can be reached at eric.goldscheider@gmail.com.