Organic Farmers Share Ideas, Expertise at NOFA Conference

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 16th, 2015, by Dave Eisenstadter

For Northeast Organic Farming Association Executive Director Julie Rawson, the organization’s summer conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is about doing what organic farmers do best — sharing their knowledge.

Among dozens of farmers and related vendors at the conference Saturday, Rawson, of Barre, said the event is the one thing her organization’s seven chapters all do together apart from publishing a newsletter. The conference took place from Friday to Sunday at the campus center and pond lawn at UMass.

“Everybody gets together and we, across the region, try to share best practices and improve our knowledge base and move forward into the new challenges that are upon us,” she said of the conference, which was the 41st of its kind.

Surrounding her and the large vendor tent next to the campus duck pond were exhibits of exactly the knowledge sharing she spoke of. On the far edge of the lawn, horses from Blue Star Equiculture of Palmer could be seen and touched. Heather Wenimont of Real Pickles of Greenfield discussed how to preserve beets in brine. The Expandable Brass Band performed under the shade of a nearby tree, while another festival participant — Jill Horton-Lyons — demonstrated how her herding dog could move a group of ducks.

Kathy Leavey of Arlington said this year’s conference was her second.
“I farmed when I was younger and moved to the city, and I have an 11–old daughter, and I wanted to take her to learn something about farming and working with the Earth, and taking care of ourselves,” she said.

She said she was pleased to attend a workshop by event keynote speaker Natasha Campbell-McBride, a neurologist and nutritionist who spoke about how the digestive system may be responsible for increasingly common epidemics, including autism, depression, asthma and others. Leavey said what stayed with her most was that people should avoid processed foods and eat a natural diet.

Bill MacKentley, of St. Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, N.Y., could not agree more. He has been coming to the NOFA conferences for nearly 40 years, and gives workshops on fruits and nuts for northern climates.

“People are understanding that organic food is the only real food,” he said. “The stuff that we are served by the ag-industrial economy is not food, it’s not healthy, and it’s not doing us any good.”

He said he believed that the association had the power to change agriculture in the United States.

“This has basically led to a lot of young people coming in, learning about growing different things, and going out and growing them,” he said. “This has really spurred the entire organic movement in the northeastern United States.”

He said that attendance has remained steady over the years, but that the depth of understanding has grown over the years and decades.

Pamela Rickenbach of Blue Star Equiculture called the conference the best in the country because it brings together so much knowledge about organic practices.

She and her staff spoke to people about using animals rather than machines to do farmwork.

“We like to share about what we know about restoring the practice of using animal power on soil and why that’s a better choice than the mechanized power with petrochemicals and such,” she said.
Rickenbach teaches at UMass through the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, and heads courses in draft horse husbandry and draft horse driving.

“We like to remind people that horses built America and they are the original prime movers of America and America is rooted in horse power,” she said.

Putting horses back to work, particularly on organic farms, would help the soil with their manure and the farms themselves by reproducing to make more draft horses to continue the farmwork.

Ruth diBuono of Worcester, who works for Rickenbach, said that informing farmers is the goal of participating in the conference.

“It is about making it accessible for farmers so they know that this can be a way that they can make their farm even more organic, sustainable and restorative,” she said.

Jack Kittredge, who is Rawson’s husband, is policy director for NOFA Massachusetts. That means he works to change government policy to promote organic farming practices, he said.

“There’s a huge amount of money that goes into supporting conventional agriculture, and we think conventional agriculture is destructive to soils and not a wise policy for the federal government to be supporting,” he said.

During the conference, Kittredge displayed a video that NOFA produced about how farmers can affect climate change. Through the process of carbon sequestration, carbon can be brought out of the atmosphere and into the soil through the process of photosynthesis, he said.

Jade Alicandro Mace of Shutesbury, a presenter at the conference, taught a session about common weeds that heal and one about making incense from plants. An herbalist, she said she also connected with Campbell-McBride.

“As a health care practitioner myself, everything she had to say was so relevant to everything I see in my clients,” she said.

She described coming to the event as a “recharge,” and said the conference encouraged the exchange of ideas, networking, connection and community.

“I think people want to be with like-minded individuals and get inspiration,” she said. “I love a good NOFA conference.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at