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Reflections on the 2015 EcoFarm Conference

The EcoFarm Conference is a revered winter tradition for thousands of farmers—one of few good excuses to leave the lonely farm behind and join the larger community of allies in sustainable agriculture. This year’s conference, in January 2015, marked EcoFarm’s 35th year of bringing together farmers, ranchers, educators, researchers, and other food system stakeholders for education, networking and celebration.

With spring around the corner and a handful of new apprentices arriving shortly, it’s never easy to leave the mountain of tasks in the Esalen Farm and Garden for a few days of conference attendance, but we never regret it. EcoFarm always delivers in inspiration, renewal and connection to charge us up for another season of growing good food and people at Esalen.

With workshops ranging in topics from the veteran farmer movement, to the emergent organic Chinese herb market, to native food sovereignty, EcoFarm exposed our crew members to some fascinating and inspiring manifestations of sustainable agriculture. Here we share what touched each of us most.

Anna Pierce-Slive, Garden Supervisor

“The most touching moment for me at EcoFarm was witnessing the panel of speakers from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a network of veterans who are transforming their lives through growing plants. Many veterans spoke of the healing potential of working in agriculture—shifting from modes of destruction and violence in combat (and often living with PTSD) to tending for the land and the people on it in a nurturing way. Several of our Farm and Garden crew members attended the veterans’ session, likely because our experience of Relational Agriculture at Esalen affirms the healing potential of being with the soil, the crops and each other. 

Witnessing people share how agriculture has changed their lives re-sparked my deepest motivation for my job; striving to simultaneously do the best by the land while working with our human wounds towards wholeness.”

Landon Berger, Apprentice

“I was excited to attend a workshop about growing organic Chinese herbs in the United States. The expanding use of herbal medicine has greatly increased U.S. consumption of traditional Chinese herbs. Yet shockingly, one speaker had tested Chinese herbs from herb pharmacies throughout the United States and found dangerous levels of pesticides, heavy metals and human pathogens in them—making organic chinese herbs a potentially exciting new market.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the nightlife - including social hours for beginning farmers and dances. EcoFarm was a great place to meet people and network. Everyone knows farmers work hard, but it turns out they know how to have a good time too!”

Noël Vietor, Education Program Coordinator

“I was incredibly moved by a workshop about ‘Food Sovereignty in Tribal Communities’. Having been forced to assimilate into Western culture and industrialized foods over the last century, American Indian communities today have the highest prevalence (16%) of diabetes among U.S. racial and ethnic groups. Going back to pre-colonial self-sufficiency isn’t easy: many native foods and crops are now endangered or extinct, inaccessible to Indian communities due to land loss, or the traditional knowledge of how to grow or utilize them has been greatly diminished. [This is not just a native problem: as industrialized monoculture swallows our food system and concentrates on a very small number of crop varieties, global food security becomes a major issue.]

Some great organizations such as the The Cultural Conservancy are working to restore the health and well-being of native communities by increasing direct access to healthy food (via partnerships with local farms), reintroducing traditional, biodiverse food ways, and promoting indigenous land stewardship practices.

We as modern organic farmers have so much to learn from indigenous models of agriculture and kinship with the environment. This EcoFarm workshop reminded me what a profound honor it is to grow and share food on land that was stewarded by the Esselen people for over 6,000 years. Now I’m looking for ways that Esalen can support this important legacy and movement in return: growing more indigenous cultivars, saving biodiverse seeds, and promoting dialogue about these issues.”

Thomas Strickland, Farm Supervisor

“I walked away from two EcoFarm workshops feeling particularly inspired and stimulated: ‘Soil Fertility for Organic Vineyards and Orchards,’ and surprisingly, ‘Record-Keeping to Achieve Personal and Financial Goals.’ The soil fertility class has me thinking about how I can better respond to our annual soil tests at Esalen, maximizing the availability of fertility already in the field and applying compost more accurately. The record keeping class has me fired up about evaluating our systems in the Farm and Garden so that we can implement appropriate strategies in the coming months and years to meet our own personal, financial and community wide goals.”

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