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Organic farmers chow down on good food and information.

Byline: Matt Kane

WORCESTER - Invite hundreds of organic farmers to lunch, tell each of them to bring food, and what do you get?

One heck of a healthy potluck, according to several people eating lunch at the winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts, held yesterday at Bancroft School on Shore Drive.

Besides chowing down at the pesticide-free potluck, farmers, gardeners, landscapers and agriculture enthusiasts of all ages attended workshops, browsed vendor booths and listened to speeches by Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner Douglas W. Petersen and Elizabeth Henderson, the first president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts.

"I came to be a part of a large group of people who are doing good work and have a vision for the future," said Ivan Ussach as he finished eating a walnut multigrain cookie at lunch. He said he recently decided to start growing herbs with his wife at their Petersham home, and he planned to attend an afternoon workshop on "Herb Gardening in New England."

The Northeast Organic Farming Association is a nonprofit organization of more than 4,000 farmers, landscapers and consumers committed to promoting organic farming, healthy food, and a clean environment. The organization also has chapters in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Farmers at Mr. Ussach's table ate organic coleslaw, three-bean salad, hummus, pumpkin soup - and meatballs.

"I don't know if they had meat in them or not, but they were yummy," said Mr. Ussach.

Earlier that morning, Ms. Henderson spoke about the challenges of being an organic farmer today and her vision for the future of the organic movement.

"It's still much too difficult to become a farmer," said Ms. Henderson, emphasizing the need for small farms and calling many industrial-scale organic suppliers "just barely organic."

She said she hopes to someday see fairer, long-term contracts for farmers, fairer wholesale prices for crops, better working conditions for farm laborers, and more recognition of indigenous people's rights.

"Very soft-spoken, but powerful," said Annette Dupon, describing Ms. Henderson, after listening to the speech.

Erika Nauda, a friend of Ms. Dupon, was also impressed by the keynote address. Ms. Nauda, a beekeeper in Ipswich and Wakefield, attended a morning workshop on improving honey yield, given by Daniel P. Conlon, president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association.

Other workshops covered topics ranging from making maple syrup and growing organic raspberries to "Feng Shui in the Garden" and "Organic Farming and Social Justice: Part of the Same Movement?"

In one room, Cheryl Lekstrom, contractor for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, answered questions about agricultural commissions, which are town committees that serve as local voices for farm interests.

"This is a fairly new movement," said Ms. Lekstrom, adding that the movement "came from the farmers up," rather than from a state program.

According to Ms. Lekstrom, Rutland and Sturbridge already have agricultural commissions, while Lancaster, Westminster, and Boxboro plan to form similar committees.

Across the hall, Jack Kittredge, policy coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association, talked about how individuals can promote the organic approach through education and advocacy, in his workshop on "Applying Organic Solutions to Social Problems."

Mr. Kittredge, an operator of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, later said the high cost of land is one of the primary challenges for organic farmers.

He said organic farmers in Massachusetts are increasingly selling their products directly through farmers markets since low wholesale prices often do not cover production costs.

Katie Martin, who farms at the Windham Area Interfaith Ministry community garden in Willimantic, Conn., said she thought another farmer at the workshop used an apt analogy when expressing how to educate others about organic farming.

"You've gotta plant seeds instead of stones," said Ms. Martin, partially quoting the farmer.

"You gotta plant your agenda in places you think that will grow, and then nourish that growth for change," she said. "And that means a lot of constant advocacy."


CUTLINE: Gabrielle Meyerowitz of Great Barrington, left, takes some clover sprouts from her father, Steve Meyerowitz, at their booth at the winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts, held yesterday at Bancroft School. Mr. Meyerowitz, who goes by the name "Sproutman," promotes year-round indoor hydroponic growing of sprouts and microgreens.

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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 20, 2008
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