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What I Learned at EcoFarm 2017

"Every issue that's out there is your opportunity to step up," shared Amigo Bob Cantisano, one of the founders of the EcoFarm Conference, in his welcome address at EcoFarm 2017 on Wednesday evening. I was in the audience as a first-time attendee of EcoFarm, an annual conference celebrating its 37th year this past week at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, across the road from the glorious Pacific Ocean. The Ecological Farming Association that hosts this conference has a mission "to nurture healthy, just, and ecologically sustainable farms, food systems, and communities by bringing people together for education, alliance building, advocacy, and celebration." I am so grateful I had the opportunity to participate in the conference this year!

I was able to do so with the help of my good friend David Shaw, who recently started a permaculture business called Santa Cruz Permaculture. He invited me to table with him for his business in the exhibitor tent, and this invitation included a conference pass for the entire week. I love tabling, and I'm in the Permaculture Design Certificate course (PDC) through Santa Cruz Permaculture right now, so it was a perfect combination. I'm particularly glad I attended EcoFarm in this role because by being at the table during breaks, meals, and the beer and cheese tasting fair, I was able to meet and have discussions about permaculture with some pretty inspiring people, from Central Coast farmers, urban farmers, and folks farming land all along the west coast, to farm educators, food policy advocates, and students and young people just getting into farming (like me!). As someone new to farming, it made it a lot easier for me to have discussions with folks because I was tabling and had something to share with them. It also helped that David knew practically every other person who walked by since he's been attending EcoFarm for years and involved with sustainable farming since the early 2000s.

In addition to talking with people about permaculture, the upcoming PDC that's starting in April, and the sweet and delicious Hoshigaki dried persimmons that David makes and sells (contact him if you're interested), I also attended a number of workshops and plenaries where I realized how vast the world of ecological farming really is. There is so much I didn't even know I didn't know about, and as one person I was speaking with this week reminded me, that is what makes farming and gardening so fun. There's always more to learn.

Here are some insightful quotes and highlights from my experience at EcoFarm 2017:

I was fortunate to hear Rowen White, an Indigenous Mohawk seed saver, speak twice during the conference. She shared about the beautiful journey she's taken to rediscover the seeds of her ancestors and bring that knowledge into not only her community but communities around "Turtle Island," as North America is known to her people. Her approach to storytelling is poetic, full of quotes that are like seeds of inspiration themselves. She reminded us that "each and every one of you descends from a long line of seed keepers." The history of human civilization and culture is inextricably rooted with agriculture and the cultivation of food plants for survival. Without seeds, particularly seeds that are resilient to environmental threats and biologically diverse, human survival on this planet would become much less secure. Think about how much of your diet is dependent upon seeds, either directly or indirectly through the animals you eat and what they ate. How many of us gather wild fruits and survive on wild plants that propagate themselves? Very few, and this is why seed saving and seed diversity are crucial to our existence as a species. Rowen also shared an example from her own people of how seeds and ancestral foods show up prominently in cultural songs, stories, and value systems, and there are many other examples of this throughout the world.

In addition to her work with Sierra Seeds, Rowen also participated in a panel with Tony Brown, Monty Bengochia, and Jen Schlaich focused on the Bishop Paiute Tribe Food Sovereignty Program in Bishop, California. This group is "working to increase access to and awareness of healthy, traditional, environmentally-responsible, community-grown food that sustains an independent and resilient program which acknowledges, preserves, and strengthens existing community food systems and tribal sovereignty." They have gardens, a farmers market, an aquaponics greenhouse, internships, free workshops, and student education and engagement programs. They are working to feed their community with healthy, local food, as well as work to "decolonize their taste buds" and re-learn the food ways of the Paiute people. As Rowen put it, "if a tribal nation wants to be truly sovereign, they must be able to feed and nourish themselves." This includes learning not only how to grow native foods but also how to cook them, bringing back together the act of cultivation and art of culinary knowledge. She reminded us that the segregation of cooking and growing food into separate disciplines with separate specialists is a result of colonization. By bringing these two back together as skills that everyone should have, it is an act of decolonization and food sovereignty.

I also heard inspiring stories, challenges, and creative solutions for urban farming from Kiel Schmidt of Tower Urban Family Farm & Food Commons in Fresno, and Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Farm in Sacramento. In the same session, I learned about the California Food Policy Council and their work to advocate for "healthy, equitable and resilient food system for the people, businesses and planet it nourishes." This session was full of information about how urban farms can work with local government to make changes that allow farming to not only exist but thrive in urban settings. Chanowk Yisrael also shared the story of why he started growing vegetables in his backyard in Oak Park near Sacramento, which is in the middle of a food desert. (According to the USDA, "Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers." Despite the prominence of agriculture in Sacramento and the Central Valley, many of the communities there are food deserts because agricultural products are exported to other parts of the state and country.) The Yisrael family homestead has become a place for community engagement, education, and food security.

In the session on Letters to a Young Farmer, I heard from farmer and writer Mas Masumoto, Wendy Millet of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia, and Jill Isenbarger of Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in New York (which produced the Letters to a Young Farmer book). The book is an "anthology of letters and essays addressed to beginning farmers, but with lessons for all who seek a new American food system." Jill posed the question to the audience and the panelists, "Is farming a political act?" Though each panelist and those in the audience had various reasons, the answer seemed overwhelmingly to be Yes. Mas Masumoto shared that his parents were placed in Japanese internment camps during World War II, and that after their release, his father "returned and bought land to farm, staking a political claim that said 'I am an American.'" Will Harris pointed out that "farming is always political" because it's so closely intertwined with civilizations throughout human history. There was discussion of farming as "restitution for the history of what's occurred on the land," bringing to mind the environmental degradation that has been occurring on farmland worldwide since the advent of pesticides, as well as the treatment of people on agricultural lands in our nation's history and present day, including slaves, sharecroppers, and migrant farmworkers. Agriculture has always been and will always be political for these and other reasons.

The final nugget of inspiration that I'll share from the conference speakers I heard from is the story of Paul Stamets' discovery that mushrooms may be able to save the honeybees. Rather than type out the long and beautiful journey that he shared in the closing plenary yesterday morning, I'll share a few links:
For more on this year's EcoFarm conference, search hashtag #EcoFarm2017 on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You can also visit my Instagram page (@greenbeangal) and Facebook page ( for updates I shared during the week. The EcoFarm website will also be updated within the next week with recordings of many workshops and plenaries.

Yesterday after the conference, Green Guy drove down to meet me in Pacific Grove, and we spent a few hours at Point Lobos State Reserve. We sat on a bench overlooking the sparking blue water crash in foamy white waves upon rocks. Whales breached close enough for us to see. Otters floated in the salty waves, elegantly balancing their heads and tails above water and tricking our eyes into thinking every bobbing log might be another otter. Seals sunbathed on rocks, making us envious of their marine lives in which they are blissfully unaware of the politics of human society. It was peaceful and inspiring--so inspiring, in fact, that we decided that for each month of 2017, we'll commit to going to at least one national, state, or regional park that we haven't been to before. If you have suggestions for wild or semi-wild places for hiking, biking, camping, or swimming within driving distance of San Jose or Santa Cruz, please leave a comment or send me a message.

Similar to what Amigo Bob shared at the beginning of the conference, I want to close with a reminder that in the face of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, disregard for the environment, rejection of science and fact, and the many other issues coming from the federal government in just the last week, we each have a role to play. Analysis paralysis is normal as we learn about the many different causes we could take up, but we must each move beyond the overwhelming options and choose one or two causes that speak most to us. In my previous blog post, I went into this in more depth, so if you're still feeling like you aren't sure what to do when you hear the news each morning, please (re)read this post and really reflect for yourself where you want to focus your beautiful, capable energies in these times.
"Every seed we plant is a tiny loving prayer in action." - Rowen White, Indigenous seed steward of the Mohawk and Haudenosaunee people.


  1. Wow! What a great review of EcoFarm 2017. I had never thought about the important link between seeds and the survival of humans. How wonderful that Rowen is keeping this knowledge alive and sharing it with others.

    I am also thrilled to read that honeybees have a chance of survival thanks to mushrooms!

    I also love the idea that local farming is a political act and that planting a seed is a tiny loving prayer in action.

    Finally, thank you for your poetic and descriptive writing about Point Lobos. Reading your words transported me to the coast.


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