In late January, 1,300 organics community members gathered for the Ecological Farming Association's 22nd annual Eco-Farm Conference in Pacific Grove, Calif. Organic farmers, activists, nongovernmental organizations, certifiers, retailers and processors exchanged ideas and debated about the farm economy, USDA's National Organic Program, GMOs and consumer education.
"More than ever we need this event, and this year we have had unprecedented participation," Conference Coordinator Zea Sonnabend said. "Conventional growers are looking for alternative ways to make money and stay in business. Organics is one of the only segments of the food economy that is growing. Our conference is one of few places that growers can get concrete information on growing organics, getting certified and reducing reliance on chemical inputs."
The economic recession and increased doubt about corporate agricultural practices may have attracted new attendees to this year's event. "Those of us who have attended [Eco-Farm] for 20 years noticed how many hundreds of new, young faces attended this year; there is a new generation growing," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif.
The conference featured numerous workshops, ranging from "The Current State of U.S. Agriculture" and "Irrigation for Beginners" to "The Ecological Consequences of GMOs." Two workshops focused on organics at the retail level.
Mark Mulcahy from Organic Options, an organic retail consulting company in Glen Ellen, Calif., presented "How to Become Your Community's Resource for Organic Education." He said, "During the last five to six years, I have noticed the information gap increase between store staff and consumers." Although Mulcahy believes education is a retailer's biggest challenge, he said, "You do not have to have a huge marketing budget to educate consumers and staff about organics. We cannot afford not to do this." Workshop participants recommended numerous educational resources, including the Organic Trade Association, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, the Journal of Pesticide Reform and the Organic Foods Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill, 2001) by Elaine Marie Lipson.
In the workshop "Going All-Organic in Your Produce Department," Janet Whalen Zeller, marketing manager for Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, said, "We wanted to walk our talk, and going all-organic in our produce department was doing just that." Before making the switch, the co-op consulted customers through one-on-one interviews, a survey and focus groups. During the first year after converting to an all-organic produce department, the co-op's produce sales increased 25 percent and overall store sales increased 14 percent. The Sacramento Co-op also began a new signage program that includes a commitment to listing the farms that provide their local produce.
Scott Silverman is the organic program manager for New Hope Natural Media. He can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 42