In the early days of organic farming, the movement grew, well, organically. Passionate pioneers who believed in the cause of clean food and responsible land stewardship planted, tended and marketed their harvest to equally passionate consumers. These early farmers learned by trial and error and picked up wisdom where they could—back then, the USDA and mainstream agriculture schools focused exclusively on large-scale farming with chemical inputs.
And then the rest of the country caught on. Since the early 1990s, consumer demand for organic foods has grown at double-digit rates, and it shows no sign of slowing. In fact, consumer demand in 2014 picked up so suddenly that it caused a nationwide shortage of organic foods. Some of these people come to organic food for health reasons; some for environmental concerns; others for the unmatched flavors of healthy, local foods when compared to typical grocery store fare.
Today, the USDA and mainstream universities are catching up to the trend—the USDA is slowly expanding its research and support for organic farmers, and a growing number of universities are offering organic curriculum. But most organic farmers still learn their trade by patching together a variety of sources, including other farmers.
Understanding this background helps to explain the vital role played by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). Founded in 1990, MOSES is best known as the sponsor of the country’s largest organic farming conference, held annually in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Originally named the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, it was originally intended to help organic farmers sort out federal rules and standards for organic certification. The first gathering had 90 farmers in attendance. The “Upper Midwest” dropped off its name as the Organic Farming Conference grew and became nationally known, and today more than 3,000 conferees from across the country attend. The schedule has expanded to include some of the most robust educational offerings on organic farming available.
The organization has also grown since its early days. In addition to the conference, MOSES, with a staff of 14 people at its headquarters in Spring Green, Wisconsin, offers a variety of programming designed to help new and existing farmers. Through field days, a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program, networking events, a pre-conference “Organic University” and much more, MOSES helps educate farmers on the day-to-day operations of organic production. The organization also serves as a research clearinghouse, helping farmers find the scientific studies that can help them improve their operations. “We are changing the way America farms —farm by farm,” says the organization’s executive director, Faye Jones.
New farmers and women farmers are a particular focus for MOSES. In 2014, the organization hosted its first New Farmer Summit, which included a farm tour and other educational events, as well as networking and entertainment. This kind of support is critical for beginning farmers, who often trade their rosy view of farm life for a steep learning curve. As one participant put it, “The three days were packed with new information, thought-provoking conversation, and lots of awesome people.” MOSES’s New Organic Stewards program extends the learning with curriculum and peer-learning specifically designed for new farmers.
The Rural Women’s Project offers support aimed at the fastest-growing segment of U.S. agriculture: the 30 percent of U.S. farmers who are women. The Rural Women’s Project is designed to provide education, opportunities for collaboration and networking for this underserved portion of the agricultural economy.
Resources like these are vital if farmers are to keep pace with the growing demand for organic foods, which is growing not only in countries like the U.S. and in Europe, but also in developing nations, where organic production can mean the difference between survival or famine. Given this reality, it seems likely that the MOSES mission will expand beyond U.S. farmland to also change how the world farms.
Organic Valley is committed to environmental and organic education for all and is proud to support Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).