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PASA Conference in State College Biggest in its History

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State College (reported in Lancaster Farming, February 11, 2012):When Kim Seeley joined the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) more than a dozen years ago, the once conventional dairy farmer saw it as a life-changing experience.

As he bid a fond farewell to PASA members on Friday last week (he is serving out his last days as PASA board president) during the organization's annual conference at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, he encouraged the organization's members to continue the legacy of prior leaders and not forget the reasons the organization exists in the first place.  "Our member successes are being used as case studies worldwide. I am forever indebted to the teachers of PASA," Seeley said.

The conference, believed to be the largest of its kind in the nation, was held over four days at the conference center.  Brian Snyder, PASA's executive director, said this year's conference likely broke an all-time attendance record, with more than 2,200 people, including 650 people attending for the first time.  The organization's diverse membership, ranging from young college-age students, even high-schoolers, to the traditional farmers and owners of farm-related businesses, was reflected in the dozens of workshops, speakers and pre-conference tracks offered at this year's event, including all-day workshops on tractor operation and maintenance, sustainability in the food service industry and even a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) school.

Seeley, whose year was marred by a fire that destroyed his on-farm store and milk-processing plant, said he is confident the organization will continue its legacy of standing up for issues it believes promote sustainable farming practices, even as his term as board president expires.  "For PASA to have an impact, we must delve into well-chosen policy debates," he said, touching on hot-button issues such as raw milk and genetically modified (GM) plants. "PASA is a nationally recognized sustainable ag leader. We must all remember to stand together."

Snyder, who just celebrated his 11th year as the organization's executive director, said there are a lot of things the organization's members should be hopeful for, but also others to fear.  As in past years, Snyder did not hesitate to lob criticism at organizations and issues he feels go directly against PASA's own vision of farming and how it relates to the environment and the economy.  He described what he sees as a differing view on the role of nature in food production, mainly from what he described as "the dominant, industrial paradigm that now governs most of our food production."

According to that view, "nature always seems to get it wrong and must be supplemented with chemicals to do its job, also manipulated genetically," he said. But "we know that the tendency to diversify and adapt is exactly the thing that nature does right and that we would do well to emulate it in that regard."  He also criticized the "other side," mainly referring to groups such as Farm Bureau, as "getting more organized in their efforts to avoid change."

One example is the U.S. Farmers and Rancher Alliance, a group consisting of dozens of ag organizations including the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which was launched last year as a way to influence the discussion of agriculture and to unite farm groups under one message.  Snyder said the group burst onto the scene with a goal of raising $30 million to lead the dialogue on how food is grown and raised in America.  The alliance, according to its website, has raised $11 million thus far, 75 percent of which comes from farmers and ranchers, and 25 percent from industry partners.  He blasted efforts the alliance is taking to influence farmers, claiming he received a copy of a training presentation forwarded to him by friends, in which the alliance advised farmers to talk to the public, but to avoid references on how they farm.

Snyder said the presentation encouraged farmers to use words such as preventing, nurturing, resilient, healthy and better tasting when describing their farming practices but to no longer touch on big ideas such as "feeding the world."  "So here is the gist of the good advice for farmers from the USFRA ... don't talk to consumers about what you're doing on your farms; ask them how they feel about their food," he said.

In contrast, Snyder said PASA members have developed better connections with customers because of their willingness to talk about what they do on the farm.  "Now, isn't it nice that we belong to a community that likes to talk about their farming practices? At PASA, we realize that every conversation counts, and we encourage you to use process-oriented language whenever possible," he said.

Brian Halweil, author and editor of Edible magazines based in New York City, was Friday's keynote speaker.  He spoke of farming in a broad sense and encouraged members to push for more locally grown food systems as a way to fight hunger and food equality as well as preserve the environment.  He also criticized the efforts of USFRA, stating that it goes directly against a public that is getting more educated about where food comes from.  "That $30 million campaign is going to be a major flop. It's pushing against a giant wave of people who realize what makes food good and what makes food not so good," Halweil said.

Speaking one-on-one later in the day, Halweil said it was during a college lecture on food and agriculture that he recalls the lecturer saying, "agriculture was the single biggest way in which humanity touched the planet." And that was the inspiration for him getting involved in farming issues.  "I began to feel that, compared to being a doctor, where you touch a lot of lives, that if you really wanted to help people, you might instead focus on the food system which seemed to have a much greater impact," he said.  Halweil transferred from Stanford University to the University of California-Davis, where he took classes in soil science and plant pathology, and worked on the student-run farm.

He later took a job with Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, where he wrote papers on food systems and the environment. He found that unlike other rural areas of the world, where people were leaving and farms were disappearing, areas where farmers sold direct to customers through farmers markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) were thriving.  "That was the glimmer of hope that I seized on, and I started writing on the local food movement," he said.

It was around 2006, when he was approached by representatives of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to do work on whether sustainable practices such as cover-cropping and organic agriculture in areas such as Africa were better alternatives than investing in biotechnology.  Halweil and some colleagues traveled to about 30 African nations, searching for various innovative projects that helped solve hunger and equality issues.  He said he found that a lot of the issues impacting people in Africa, whether it be inequitable food distribution or waste, are the same issues found in other areas of the world, including the U.S.  "We produce much more calories worldwide than we would need to feed everyone, assuming it was distributed more equitably," he said, adding that he has seen estimates of the share of our harvest wasted that range between 25 and 50 percent.

"There is a tremendous amount of waste, that is food that never makes it to a mouth, whether it's livestock or a human mouth," he said. "And there is a tremendous amount of inequitable distribution, which I guess is also a form of waste."

Now living on the east end of Long Island, Halweil said the local food movement is thriving as people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from, which has expanded to schools focusing more on teaching kids the value of farming.

He said the key is building relationships between people and farming.  "The most effective way of feeding a population is nearby. So it might be domestically, it might be regionally," he said. "There is no question in my mind that organic farming, ecological farming, can feed us - that it can feed us in America, that it can feed people in Africa, that in total it can feed the world."

Halweil's message likely won't resonate with all farmers, but he thinks changes need to be made if farming is to be able to coexist with an ever-growing population and a changing environment.  "It really does need to be a diversity of solutions. You can't transition overnight," he said. "If a farmer conventionally farms and he would go cold turkey on chemicals, they would have a bunch of bad years."  "It takes a while to build up a system, whether you're talking about going to an organic system, a pasture-fed system or any system," he said. "But we know that we have to change. Just because making a shift is going to be difficult doesn't mean that we don't need to at least start down that track."

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