The Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference is the largest gathering of its kind in the United States. We became aware of it in the early ’90s, when the organic farming movement was just beginning to expand beyond its narrow “counter-culture” niche. Today organic farming is big business, and some of the biggest food corporations are trying to muscle in on the fastest-growing sector of the food business.
UMOFC started out as a small annual gathering hosted by a convent in southwestern Winsconsin. When we met Faye Jones, long-time Executive Director of Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and chief organizer of this conference, it had just outgrown the convent and was moving to UW-La Crosse. Obbie spent a couple of days making the computers work in Faye’s fledgeling office, and RoZ served as food coordinator for UMOFC that year.
The conference quickly outgrew the facilities at UW-L and moved to the La Crosse Center. Each year it took over more and more space in that facility, and this year it seems to occupy every available square inch. It is now the largest annual conference for the La Crosse Center and it’s something the local hotel and convention business looks forward to every year.
If you have any interest in organic farming or market gardening, this is the place to be. If you’re a commercial farmer considering transitioning, this is where you can ask the questions, find the answers, and get the support you need to actually make the transition. If you are already farming organically, this is where you can learn about the newest techniques to improve productivity, efficiency and product quality. If you want more access to quality locally-grown foods, this is where you can find the people who can provide it.
For us, it’s a great occasion to meet and hobnob with a lot of our friends who are activists and farmers and farming activists. They all live out in the hills where the fertile soil is, and since we don’t own a car, it’s kinda hard for us to get to them. This is the one time each year that they come to us. We especially enjoyed having lunch with some of the region’s most dedicated champions for the integrity of the organic “brand” and for the protection of small family farms as we know them.
A serious issue this year is the possible impending introduction of GMO alfalfa. GMO organisms are NOT organic, so organic livestock (e.g. dairy cows) cannot be fed GMO feed (e.g. alfalfa). Alfalfa is a perennial, which means the plant grows on its own year after year without the need to be reseeded. It’s persistent in the environment, and its pollen will persistently contaminate any other alfalfa crops within miles, making “organic” alfalfa into GMO alfalfa that cannot be fed to organic herds. If this is approved, say good-bye to organic alfalfa, which means saying good-bye to organic dairy products.
An ongoing issue is the intrusion of corporate factory farming into the organic market. Multinational corporations such as General Mills, Cargill, Kellogg, Dean Foods, and many others now have organic “brands”, with labels portraying bucolic-looking farms. These products typically come from factory farms where the organic regulations are bent if not broken, and where the spirit of organic regulations are definitely broken.
Several years ago one of the nation’s largest organic dairy corporations was taken over by a multi-national food conglomerate. Since then this dairy has been regularly criticized for playing fast and loose with the rules. This year, when we entered the La Crosse Center we were greeted by banners for that very dairy.
I know that the conference organizers need a lot of money to put this thing together, and allowing the banners to be displayed was probably a small price to pay for the amount of funding the corporation provided. We just hope that their funding doesn’t temper the content of the discussions that take place at the conference… very important discussions about how certain corporations are destroying the meaning of “organic”.
Organic Valley is a farmer-owned co-op. They’re the Good Guys.
Organic Valley’s “Stop GMO Alfalfa” page.
Family Farm Defenders defends family farms.
Cornucopia Institute has been working hard to defend the integrity of the organic dairy industry.
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service does a lot more than organize UMOFC.
Here’s a podcast we did on the 2005 UMOFC.