Fair Food at PASA

Thinking Big About the (Really) Little Things at PASA's Farming for the Future Conference

Emily Kohlhas, Fair Fooder

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While a lot of us at Fair Food may be country folk at heart, geography has a way of defining our reality without much in the way of discussion. And we're definitely city dwellers. Luckily, though, Fair Food has carved out some wiggle room around the rural-urban divide, forging a meaningful connection between us urbanites and the farmers who make metropolitan life possible. That connection makes it even more exciting when we have the chance to fully bridge the physical gap - and there is no opportunity we look forward to more than the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's (PASA) Annual Farming for the Future Conference.

This year, three Farmstand staff - myself included - and one alumnus set off through the sparkling ice forests of Eastern Pennsylvania for the magical (albeit powerless) journey to the 23rd Annual PASA conference in State College. The focus: "Letting Nature Lead." A harrowing suggestion amidst one of the harshest winters our region has seen in decades.

This was my first PASA experience and let me say...you learn fast that this is not a typical corporate symposium. There's more plaid than pinstripe, the only leather is in work boots, and while acumen has its place, common sense instead takes center stage. And where else will the family who raised the pigs that became the weisswurst entrée stand up for a round of applause at a banquet dinner for 2,000? Now this is my kind of place.

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A bevvy of workshops are the core of the conference. So many that I spent hours agonizing over whether "Cheese Rind Microbes" or "Growing Quality Vegetables Biodynamically" in the morning would be the better compliment to "Co-Marketing Strategies for Working with a Retailer" in the afternoon. Luckily, though, between the four of us we were able to divide and conquer, tackling topics from "Multispecies Rotational Grazing" to "Growing Organic Apples" to "Farm Bill 2014."

It could have been easy to get lost in the nitty-gritty of one's chosen concentration, but two superb main speakers established an underlying theme that formed the foundation for each and every workshop: BIODIVERSITY. And not just of flora and fauna.

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Dr. Daphne Miller, a family-physician-turned-ecologist, shared her journey from the sterile halls of med school to the crud-dusted barns of farms across the country. After years of treating patients with allergies, asthma, and other preventable conditions, she has synthesized research from across disciplines to develop a holistic theory of farm as medicine. Why farms? Well...long story short: farms are "dirty!"

This dirt is a living - if not breathing - thing. In fact, there are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth. But it's not just the quantity of microbes that make farms and farming so powerful, she explains. It's their diversity that has such a profound effect on human and environmental health (urban grime need not apply). By living with, not against, the taxonomy of "germs" that occupy our natural world, we are able to take advantage of coevolved mutualisms that support our immune system, prevent obesity, render allergies and asthma null and void, and so much more. There are studies. It's true.

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Looking from the top down, Miguel Altieri, our second plenary speaker, explored the significance of biodiversity from the perspective of ecological and community health. The loss of diversity in industrial farming, he explains, has decimated ecosystems and exposed our food systems to extreme risk of climate-related failure.

There is hope, Altieri consoled, in not what is new, but what is proven right by time. He suggests that we look to traditional family farms around the world for advice. Their systems of agroecology take advantage of natural biodiversity instead of squashing it with a genetically modified hammer - and often experience greater yields, better soil health, and increased climactic resilience because of it.

At the end of the day - or, rather, two very long days of local cheese tastings, networking, workshops, shopping, and more - one thing was eminently clear. As Farmstand alumnus Seth so eloquently summed: "Microbes, microbes, microbes!" If farming for the future means "letting nature lead," than we had better face the fact that nature knows no boundaries - especially not when it comes to size.

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As you can tell, PASA was a thrilling experience from big to small. There is nothing more inspiring than being amongst hundreds of small farmers that deeply and passionately care for the sustainability of their craft, knowing that the health of their business, unlike most, is inextricably intertwined with the health of people, communities, and the planet.

Fair Food is honored to be a part of the PASA community and is so thrilled to have a role in helping our region's sustainable farmers succeed. Needless to say, we can't wait for next year! Here's to #PASA2015!

Thank you to AgConnect for providing the scholarship that made Fair Food's trip to PASA possible.

Photo credit: PASA