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Monday, February 20, 2012

State of the Organic Union (Toronto)

Wilhelm and Barnhild Pfenning

It seems that every other year my spirit tells me it is time to check in on the world of organics via the Toronto conference organized by Canadian Organic Growers (COG) Toronto chapter. My first conference was four years ago in 2008 when I became inspired by the words of Hellge Hellberg of Marin Organic. I came away from the conference feeling as if I had arrived where I belonged – amongst organic growers and consumers empowered with a united vision of doing the right thing.

Two years later, in 2010, the ante was upped by a stellar array of speakers and true organic heroes. Bärbel Höhn, Germany’s first Green Party agricultural minister, related the incredible political foresight and achievement of Germany in embracing, promoting and implementing organic practices nationwide. Percy Schmeiser told his amazing account of his (one farmer’s) brave battle after being sued by Monsanto. Michael Schmidt brought along his passion for raw milk and came out pulling no punches. Wilhelm and Barnhild Pfenning (who in 1965 made the commitment to farm organically and never looked back) received a lifetime achievement award for their tireless work in growing and marketing organics in Ontario. And Wayne Roberts moderated with his usual mix of insight, passion and humour. My sense of belonging in the organic community deepened as I was inspired by the spirit and drive of these organic groundbreaking visionaries.

So it was that I went along in eager anticipation to this year’s conference, titled “The Value of Organic”. I should have known from this vague theme that I should lower my expectations. In 2008 it had been “Visionary Farmers and Consumers”; in 2010 “Grounds for Change.” This year’s keynote speaker was a farmer who did not even embrace organic certification, remarking in the closing session that she knew some very bad organic farmers and some very good conventional ones. Another speaker was a doctor advocating for an “organic” sleep remedy he had developed and patented which was not certified organic. Guy Dauncey raised the bar with his empassioned presentation, noting that organic certification was “an essential benchmark to prevent greenwashing”. Thank you, Mr. Dauncey, for this simple gem of truth. 

The theme of the closing panel session was “Is Organic too Extreme?”  Conference program notes were littered with organic in inverted commas, angst and soul-searching about the role and future of organics. In my view, whatever organic is and isn’t, whether its too extreme or not extreme enough, too big or too small, it is the only sane and sensible way to approach food and farming as we move forward, both locally and globally. The ever-growing appetite for organic produce and artisan food at farmers markets and farmgates, in health food stores and yes, even in supermarkets, is testament to this. There is much work is to be done on the farm; there is more food to be grown and brought to market for customers to appreciate. The organic movement continues to make waves, offer an alternative to the highly-processed (and now threatened) mainstream. Organic has legs; we should run with them. Missed was a Michael Schmidt or Percy Schmeiser or Helle Hellberg to reinforce Guy Dauncey’s passion to empower, inspire, and sustain us until next year’s conference.  

In the meantime, I have decided to supplement my membership of Canadian Organic Growers by supporting their important role with the donation of our annual farm registration fee of $195 to them. The Government of Ontario mandates that there is a choice only between contributing this fee to the National Farmers Union - Ontario, or the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, none of whom focus on organic farming. I resent this limited choice. However, I can request a refund after I have paid my fee, so this is what I shall do.