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Richmond VABF organic farming conference draws large crowd

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Virginia's annual conference on Biological Farming, co-sponsored by Virginia State University and the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) , held January 31-February 1 this year in Richmond, Virginia, brought together over 500 farmers, workers, interns and others involved in organic farming and food distribution. The conference is an institution in Virginia; it and VABF have been around for about 3 decades.

Virginia State University (VSU) is one of Virginia’s two land grant college institutions. Its agricultural program emphasizes support for small producers and sustainable farming. VSU works closely with the Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

The term “biological farming" is an alternative term for organic farming more easily accepted in the early years of the organic farming movement. By choosing a focus on “biological,” farmers and advocates place emphasis on environmental health and farm productivity, rather than the more politicized arena of organic food. Activities at the Virginia Biological Farming conference were in keeping with this focus.

While many excellent presentations/presenters were given to many enthusiastic participants, making tangible the growth in interest in organic food production, only three are noted in detail here: Atina Diffley’s presentation on food safety, Gunter Hauk’s keynote speech, and a closing panel discussion on women in farming.

Diffley, of Gardens of Eagan fame, presented a Family Farmed workshop on Food Safety, based on the comprehensive guide to organic food safety that she co-authored: Wholesale Success: A Farmer’s Guide to Food Safety, Selling, Postharvest Handling and Packing Produce.

Food safety isn’t an exciting topic, but in today’s climate, with the Food Safety Modernization Act looming, and with a new food safety regulatory structure just a few approvals away from implementation, the workshop was timely and helpful to farmers looking for guidance in this area. Diffley’s presentation was all-business, focused on food safety protocols, but also included advice and strategies for beginning organic farmers.

Gunther Hauk, internationally known for his 2002 book Toward Saving the Honeybee, spoke about the environmental and ethical concerns of our modern food supply, passionately advocating continued organic and non-industrial farming practices that recognize and support the connection between human health and environment.

The conference ended with a relaxed panel discussion on women in farming, moderated by Janet Aardema, VABF Executive Director. Panel participants included Amy Hicks of Amy’s Garden, Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm, Elaine Nolt of Woods Edge Farm, and Rachel Bynum of Waterpenny Farm, all Virginia farms, except for Broadturn, located in Maine. Discussion focused on farm roles, division of work, and integration of family life; interestingly only one of the presenters was single, but she too discussed the role and important contribution of family members.

A recent market survey by PiperJaffray reports that 39% of American teens buy only organic foods. That’s a startling percentage and suggestive of growth to come in organic food markets.

As organic farming matures, so do professional organizations, with many state and regional conferences held annually in the winter months of January and February. Coming up shortly is one of the largest and best known: MOSES, the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The conference is held in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on February 27-March 1. Keynotes will include Anna Lappe of Small Planet Institute. Registration is sold out.

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