AN OCCASIONAL SERIES ON WOMEN IN FARMING

Faye Jones grows with MOSES
UMOFC organizer charts the history of the Upper Midwest’s largest sustainable ag conference—a history inextricably intertwined with her own.

By Erika Jensen

 

Faye’s Top
UMOFC Picks

Keynote Address with Chuck Benbrook entitled “A Bill of Goods: Agricultural Policy and Technology Innovation Since the mid-1990s.” The talk will address current agriculture policy and its impact on organic farmers.
New classes at the Organic University. (These are one-day classes focused on a single topic, held on the Thursday before the conference.) New topics include Wind Energy on the Farm, Organic Poultry on Pasture, Organic Dairy Production, and Organic Seed Production with John Novazio. OU classes are on February 26.
Organic Farmer-of-the-Year Award. New in 2003, the award celebrates a certified organic farmer who has made a significant contribution to the organic community.

This year’s conference takes place Feb. 26-28 at the Lacrosse Center in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. For more information, visit the MOSES website at www.mosesorganic.org.

February 17, 2004: If you’ve ever been to the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference (UMOFC), you might wonder just how such a vast and successful undertaking began. The annual gathering represents the largest sustainable agriculture conference in the Upper Midwest—growing in the past 15 years from just 90 attendees to about 1,400 in 2003. Conference-goers are typically positive, inspired and enthusiastic, making this granddaddy of all conferences a memorable experience. It’s the perfect place to recapture some of the energy that motivates us to begin farming in the first place, to make new friends and to catch up with old ones. Behind this wonderful event is Faye Jones, the conference organizer. Learning more about her life and work provides insight into the UMOFC and the world of organic education.

Faye first became interested in organic farming at the age of 19, when she visited her boyfriend’s family dairy farm. Although she grew up in the St. Paul, Minnesota suburbs, as soon as she set foot on the rural farm “I knew I was home,” she recalls. “It was a wonderful, magical experience—with cows, pastures, barns.” That first morning on the farm, she rose early and went down to the barn, where her boyfriend’s father was milking cows, and tentatively asked if she could “just watch.” Permission was granted, but she was soon enlisted as a gofer.

Inspired by the experience, Faye enrolled in agriculture courses at school but quickly became disappointed in their focus on heavy input, high-impact conventional agriculture. In fact, there was no information covering what she wanted to focus on—organic vegetable farming. Dropping out of college, Faye decided to “learn by doing” instead, undertaking two apprenticeships, one with Martin Diffley of Gardens of Eagan, originally located in Eagan, Minn., and another with Richard DeWilde of Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, Wis. She also attended a conference in Germany sponsored by the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) and spent three months touring and working on farms in Germany and Switzerland. After this “formal” education, she rented five acres of land from Martin Diffley and got busy growing vegetables, which she sold to farmers markets and co-ops in the Twin Cities area.

At the same time, Faye began to get more involved with conferences. She attended the 1983 Organic Growers and Buyers Association (OGBA) conference and was shocked to learn they did not incorporate any organic foods into conference meals. True to her nature, she spoke right up about it. “I have this wonderfully non-shy personality,” says Faye. The response was typical—she was invited to put her energy where her mouth was and get on the committee for organizing conference meals. She did just that, and with characteristic gusto. The next year, she worked on food and planning, successfully sourcing organic food for the conference. This early advocacy for organic conference meals has carried over to the present. Almost all the foods served at the UMOFC today are organic, mostly donated from such organizations as Organic Valley Family of Farms and Peace Coffee. As anyone who has ever attended and sampled the cuisine can attest, the food is one of the high points of the conference. The meals are simple but tasty and healthy, and there are delicious snacks at every turn.

After a couple of years, Wisconsin started its own conference, which eventually became the UMOFC. The conference was originally funded and organized by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) Chapter #1, which later became the Midwest Organic and Services Association (MOSA). During the first year, 90 people attended. Growing by 100-200 each year, the conference is now up to an attendance of 1400. For the first several years, Faye served on the food and planning committee for the conference. Then, eight years ago, she transitioned into planning the workshops and presentations.

Meanwhile, Faye’s personal life was moving right along. She got married, had a daughter (Nina) and got divorced. In 1989, she moved to Wisconsin and purchased a farm in Spring Valley. Along with motherhood came a decision to scale back to flower production. Faye marketed her flowers to grocery stores in the Twin Cities area, creating mixed bouquets to effectively use everything she produced. She became certified organic through MOSA and maintained her business for many years. Two years ago, she eliminated the flower business since the conference was taking more and more of her time. Faye still maintains a huge flower and vegetable garden at home and especially enjoys giving away flowers to family and friends.

In 1999, MOSA decided to form a separate nonprofit to handle the conference and other educational programs. The new organization was named MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services) and Faye became its executive director. In addition to the conference, MOSES is involved in other educational activities, such as publishing the Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory and the Organic Broadcaster. The Organic Broadcaster is a bimonthly newspaper serving organic farmers, highlighting news, information and innovations in organic agriculture. The recently revised Organic Resource Directory has listings of educational programs, businesses, and organizations involved in organic farming. It is so popular that the most recent reprinting is almost sold out. The online, most up-to-date version can be viewed on MOSES’ website at www.mosesorganic.org/directory.htm.

A year-and-a-half ago, Jody Padgham was hired to be the MOSES education director. Jody has developed some new educational programs, including classes about organic agriculture designed for education professionals, fact sheets, and expansion of the Organic University classes (see box for details). She’s also helped develop a series of classes entitled “Organic Basic”. Sponsored by the USDA Risk Management Agency, this series of 6 to 8 one-day classes provides Wisconsin farmers with detailed instruction about various organic production methods. MOSES is partnering with several other organizations to provide input and promote these classes. The series will start in late March and continue through summer. Contact MOSES after March 1 for more information. Another exciting project is a revision and reprinting of the book Organic Dairy Production. Because the book had become quite out of date, Jody has been coordinating substantial revisions, with 15 to 20 writers from around the country contributing new sections. The finished book will be about 150 pages long and available for purchase in early summer.

As the conference has grown over the years, the business of running it has understandably become more complex. The MOSES office started out as a hallway in a mobile home, was moved to Faye’s new house when she completed it, and finally settled in a newer mobile home. The staff has grown to include eight employees working a combination of full- and part-time. Faye is enthusiastic about how the organization has developed. “I have a wonderful, wonderful staff and great equipment.” The staff members provide support to farmers calling for information. “You can call and a real live person answers,” says Faye. Indeed, it’s a refreshing change in a world of voicemails and computerized phone systems with endless options to nowhere. Amazingly, Faye even takes time to talk to farmers during the busy pre-conference weeks. (Of course, callers get much better service after the conference, when the office has calmed down a bit.)

Faye has watched the organic community in the Upper Midwest flourish over the past 25 years. “If you’d asked me back then, I never would have imagined that the organic movement would come so far so fast. Twenty-five years ago, the organic movement was viewed as a joke—something only ‘hippies’ were interested in.” Now there are university programs that focus on organic agriculture, and extension agents distribute information about farming organically. “I’m excited about what I see,” says Faye. “We are just as hot an area for organic farming as the east and west coasts. It used to be that people thought of the east and west coasts as the places where things happened, and the Midwest as a great inland desert. Now we are just as cutting-edge as the rest of the country.”

Although Wisconsin doesn’t have the university infrastructure and state governmental support for organics more prevalent in Minnesota and Iowa, says Faye, the state does have more farmers who are interested in organic agriculture. “We’ve got CROPP (Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools—the farmers of Organic Valley), MOSES, the UMOFC and tons of farmers. Visitors to the conference are frequently amazed at the number of participants and their enthusiasm.”

The theme for this year’s conference is “Growing Our Roots”, celebrating 15 years of UMOFC and the strong foundation of the organic community in the Midwest. For Faye, the conference is a busy time of shifting into high gear. Working with staff members, hundreds of volunteers and 1400 conference attendees, she is in her element. During 12- to 16-hour days, she zips from place to place giving instructions, troubleshooting, and putting people to work, all in a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm. After 15 years, the conference has become not only a place to learn about organic agriculture, but also a place to celebrate community. See you there!