January 21, 2011
Thirty years ago, Bruce Springsteen wrote the lyric “from small things, mama, big things one day come.” In a sense, that was part of the message of Fred Kirschenmann’s keynote address at the 12th annual conference of Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, although his address had more of a positive twist than the song.
By way of encouraging the small-scale farmers who made up about 75 percent of his Jan. 15 audience, Kirschenmann alluded to their farms as incubators for ideas that could become mainstreamed in the not-so-distant future.
“We are going to be moving toward a food system that looks like what a lot of you are doing on a small scale now,” said Kirschenmann, himself an organic farmer and rancher in North Dakota.
In making the point that innovation can be a collective endeavor, rather than the solitary pursuit of a rare genius, Kirschenmann referenced a book by Richard Ogle entitled “Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas“. The book introduces the notion of “idea spaces” as a launching pad for innovation. The author, Richard Ogle, describes an idea space as:
“A domain or world viewed from the perspective of the intelligence embedded in it, intelligence that we can use – consciously or not – both to solve our everyday problems and to make the creative leaps that lead to breakthrough.”
Kirschenmann noted that an idea space has clearly been created around sustainable food and farming. “Ten years ago, it would not have been possible for Michael Pollan to write a book about food and have it be on the New York Times bestseller list for months.”
If this year’s Future Harvest Conference is any indication, the sustainable food idea space is growing. The event attracted 317 people – the largest turnout the organization has seen thus far. Until a couple of years ago, the conference typically attracted just over 200 attendees.
For the first time, the conference was held at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD. As in the past, though, much of the food at the conference was sourced from local farms.
The conference included workshops on raising rabbits, growing hydroponically year-round, safely preserving your harvest, and avoiding zoning pitfalls for urban agriculture. There was also a summary of the recently passed federal Food Safety Modernization Act, and a review of the scientific literature on the nutritional benefits of pasture-raised meats.
As one example of recent innovation in the food system, Kirschenmann offered up Shepherd’s Grain, a company founded by two wheat farmers in Washington State. Instead of the usual supply chain where a grain miller is trying to get wheat at the cheapest price from a farmer, and a baker trying to get the cheapest flour from a miller, the farmers at Shepherd’s Grain work with millers and bakers to set fair prices before the growing season. They agree on prices that will keep all elements of the supply chain profitable, and therefore economically sustainable.
Kirschenmann said the reaction from the various players in Shepherd’s Grain has been, “We can’t believe everyone doesn’t do business this way, because it makes sense.”
He cited this model as an example of an economics that is “working on the basis of cooperation instead of domination.”
In introducing Kirschenmann, fellow farmer Michael Heller of Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD, referred to the “bought wisdom” that farmers gain whenever they make a mistake that costs them money. But, rather than hoard that wisdom, the farmers who came out to this conference were eager to share it.