Local agriculture conference — A growing green movement
- Published: March 14, 2019
Unless new farming practices are adopted, the world has only 60 years of harvests left, the United Nations announced a few years ago.
Here in Yellow Springs, the transition to more sustainable ways of growing food has at least two champions — Tecumseh Land Trust and Community Solutions — and the nonprofits are teaming up for the second year in a row on a conference that digs deep into organic farming, soil health and local food systems.
Last year’s event centered on “regenerative agriculture,” a new way of growing that enriches rather than depletes soil fertility while generating comparable yields, a theme that will be expanded this year, according to Krista Magaw, executive director of the land trust.
“We’re carrying forward the regenerating soil theme but we’re also adding what are the local economic opportunities for agriculture by improving your soils and lessening your inputs, by using cover crops and also by growing organic,” she said this week.
“Growing Green: Regenerating Soil and Local Agricultural Economies” runs Friday–Sunday, March 15–17, with sessions at Antioch College on Friday and Saturday and at Community Solutions’ 128-acre farm, Agraria, on Sunday.
In a free talk on Friday, March 15, at 7 p.m., in room 113 of McGregor Hall at Antioch College, farmer Renee Winner will detail her and her husband’s Logan County farm’s transition from conventional to organic farming and the many lessons learned along the way. The Winners have also preserved 1,300 acres of farmland and 65 acres of wetland.
To Magaw, Winner’s story is a valuable one that could help area conventional farmers make the switch and thus realize both environmental and economic benefits. That’s a message that local farmers might take to heart.
“If you like farming with big equipment on a big scale — like the Winners do — it turns out that converting may not be as hard as you think,” Magaw said.
As part of its Jacoby Partnership, the land trust is educating landowners and farm operators in the Jacoby and Yellow Springs Creek watersheds surrounding the village on the benefits of organic agriculture, one of the practices funded through the partnership.
Those benefits are clear, as organic food production is continuing to grow in popularity, Magaw said. In fact, there is more demand for organic products than can be met here, Magaw said, citing figures that only 30 to 40 percent of organic grain consumed in the U.S. is produced here.
“We are importing a lot of organic grain,” she said. “We are flying it from around the world — which is not very earth-friendly.”
At the same time, more work needs to be done on the greater local food system to provide those farmers a market for their local products, which the land trust and Community Solutions are working towards.
“We need to look at upgrading the food system as a region,” Magaw said, mentioning meat and grain aggregation and distribution as areas that need to grow.
Community Solutions Executive Director Susan Jennings sees a critical role for food consumers in the movement as well, and encourages them to come to the -conference.
“We want to spark a farmer-to-farmer conversation as well as a conversation among community members, who can support the transition with their willingness to buy local foods,” Jennings said.
Jennings is also looking forward to a conference session that will tap growing knowledge from the past. Led by Antioch College Associate Professor of History Kevin McGruder and Ohio State University Professor of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics Dr. Carl Zulauf, that Saturday morning session will look at the history of agriculture in Ohio.
“It’s basically looking at how agriculture in Ohio used to be much more diverse, in terms of farmers and food,” Jennings said.
For instance, the 1870 agriculture census showed a wide variety of products grown and raised at Agraria, the Dayton-Yellow Springs Road farm, which Community Solutions bought at auction two years ago and is working to transition to organic farming and natural areas.
Horses, cows, sheep, swine, wheat, rye, Indian corn, barley, wool, potatoes, butter, milk, hay, clover seed, flax, flax seed and honey were grown on the property 150 years ago, according to the census. That diversity shrunk to just two crops — corn and soybeans —in recent decades, which had a negative impact on both the soil and biodiversity, Jennings said.
But diversity in farming goes back even further, Jennings notes, to indigenous practices that left a lasting legacy.
“Indigenous people farmed sustainably for thousands of years and left a land that was rich and topsoil that was deep,” Jennings said.
Jennings frames regenerative agriculture as a concept that draws on ancient practices with new understandings provided by the latest soil science. On an optimistic note, Jennings, who is this week at a national meeting of land grant institutions as a citizen representative for Central State University, reported that regenerative agriculture is a new buzz word in the agricultural policy community.
That recent popularity has been due to high profile algal blooms in Lake Erie and the Mississippi River basin, the rise in degenerative diseases connected to diet and declines in agricultural productivity because of poor soil health, she said.
“They are flash points that are making people realize that we can’t continue on the way we have,” Jennings said.
While the solutions are not “cookie cutter,” they are simple, Jennings added, drawing on traditional practices, such as keeping soil covered, disturbing soil as little as possible, and diversity above and below soil and incorporating animal husbandry into land management.
“Farming is really an art form and it’s really regional,” she said, which is one reason she believes the upcoming conference has a lot to offer local -audiences.
There’s another reason the message about the organic transition may be resonant in early 2019 — last year’s exceptionally challenging year for area farmers, with hopes for a dramatic turnaround this year, according to organizers.
The imposition of tariffs on exports to China led to plummeting soybean prices among U.S. farmers last year, which was especially difficult after years of high prices led farmers to invest in production.
“It’s a hard time for farmers with the current margins — a discouraging time,” Magaw said. “Whenever you have a sudden spike up and sudden spike down, you will have to get more loans for operating.”
“It’s dicey,” she said of farm economics.
Farmers already only realize a small fraction of the money spent by consumers on food, Magaw added. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated farming received about 15 cents for every food dollar.
Farming organically could be a way to make a lot more profit, while restoring local soils and waterways, organizers believe.
“The conference is hopefully a next step for farmers to see their options,” Magaw said. “We want to talk about the possibilities.”
Other speakers are Julia Barton, sustainable agriculture educator from the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association; Jim Hoorman, regional soil health specialist at the Natural Resource Conservation Service; Bob Hendershot, a retired state conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service; Harold Wilken of Janie’s Farm, and carbon farmer David Brandt.
For more information or for tickets, visit http://www.communitysolution.org.