In fact, most of the conversation at Eco Farm was focused on the power of the organic movement to change the way the country treats its roots -- which is food, and people -- and yet the delicious local farm-donated meals we were eating were forked from the same plates that serve garbage to the incarcerated, a paradox that seemed fitting considering the theme of the conference itself: Where the Future is Planted. Because, folks, it may be planted in the produce aisles of the Wal-Mart that put your family feed store out of business. It's about exclusion masked as inclusion.
It was appropriate then, for the closing plenary session of the conference to be focused on the future of food. And the question up for debate was: Is small the only beautiful? And who better to speak on this subject than Eliot Coleman, farmer, author, and proponent of small-scale organic farming; Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside Organics, California's largest organic farm; and Gary Hirshberg, self-described "CE-Yo" (that's everyman terminology for CEO) of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt.
The hottest part of the debate sparked between Coleman and Hirshberg -- two East Coasters on opposite ends of the farming spectrum. And whoa nelly, did sparks fly.
Eliot Coleman, first of all, pretty much stole the show of the conference with his season-extension small-scale farming techniques and devotion to old-world organic practices he learned outside of the U.S. that go "deeper than just bottom-line certification." He talked about how small farms are relentlessly subversive and keep big corporations nervous because of the possibility consumers will become farmers, and won't need to buy a product. And while his idyllic farm in Maine may not be the reality of every one of our futures, it represents a counter-corporate model that needs more support in order to make change in a world that is far, far, far from sustainable.
Gary Hirshberg, in contrast, sells his certified organic yogurt in Wal-Mart. In fact, he's a big supporter of Wal-Mart. He's a big supporter of big business, and has perfected a rap on how BIG is going to change the world. Hirshberg's speech was successful in that he's basically a politician. He wooed the audience with his charm, his humor, and constant affirmation about all of his heroes -- the small farmers out there. He aligned himself with the entire movement around organic by using the classic stats that prove healthy food is better for everyone. He talked a lot about "our children" and "poor people" and "carbon footprint." It all sounded legit until you realize this guy's company is owned by the same corporation who owns Dannon and Evian (how can he be "for" the health of the environment when he's in bed with bottled water?) He kept talking about his friend Tom Vilsack and how they were just in the oval office talking to Obama about healthcare. He came across as a real leader, and agent of legitimate legal change. There were frequent smatterings of applause after he pressed each progressive talk-button.
But wait a minute. We had just spent the last three days talking about how to get more people farming, more farms in urban areas, healthy food to low-income communities, and how to decrease the negative impact of large scale agriculture (as Wes Jackson put it: The biggest enemy of the environment.) Now there's a bigwig on the podium telling us it's not farming, but buying that's going to save the world. Now, I'm not saying we have to choose one or the other -- big or small -- but what's the model we're striving for? What kind of society do we see ourselves becoming in the future? Big businesses and their CE-Whatevers bloating the economy? Or a culture of self sufficiency, ownership, and access?