Grit Blogs > Transitional Traditions

Attending a Sustainable Agriculture and Organic Farmers Conference

A photo of the Sell family December 2009We are still decompressing from the MOSES Organic and Sustainable Farming Conference. On Wednesday of last week, we sent the kiddos over to Grandma's house and headed to La Crosse, about a 3 hour drive. We rented a room at a B&B about 45 minutes north of La Crosse. We got there just before 4 pm and checked in. It is a lovely little farmhouse out in the boonies owned and operated by a nice couple. If you follow the link, our room was the "English Country" room. We got a nice deal because it's the off season and took advantage of a stay away from the standard hotel.

The next day we had a wonderful homemade breakfast and headed off to La Crosse. We were going to a full day of a single class called Organic University. This is extra aside from the main conference itself and we each took a class that interested us. Andy went to Dairy Herd Nutrition and Rations. I went to Understanding the Biological Connection between Plants and Soil.

Andy at the MOSES Organic and Sustainable Farming Conference, looking studious with his GRIT Tote Bag.

Now, I could talk about what we learned, which was vast. But I'm going to focus on the people that we met and things that we learned from them. In my class, I happened to sit next to a man in his 60s from North Dakota. He and I got to talking about what brought us here and our farms. He is a certified organic crop farmer but wasn't always that way. I asked him why he decided to go organic back in the '80s.

He said it was a culmination of a lot of things, but one instance stood out for him. He had originally gone to school to be a chemist. He'd had to learn all the root words of a lot of the chemicals we use. One of them was the Latin word "cide." He asked me, "What do you think 'cide' means?"

I didn't know where he was going with this, so I said I didn't know. He continued, "Think ... homicide, suicide ..."

I chimed in, "Pesticide, herbicide ... does it mean death?"

He said. "Yes, 'cide' is Latin for kill. So after 20 years of farming, I suddenly remembered my schooling and asked myself, 'What am I doing, spreading death all over my farm?'"

I found that statement so profound, I had to write it down with my notes from the plant class.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After our daylong class ended, we had a dinner set up with all the 2010 MOSES Mentors/Mentees. You see, we applied for the opportunity to be set up with an existing organic farmer doing a lot of the same things we are doing and to learn from them over the following year. The cost is $200, but that includes one free ticket to Organic University ($150), a free ticket to the organic conference ($175), and a free ticket to the Organic Conference in 2011 ($175)! On top of that, you get free lunches/dinner each day and a whole year of applied mentor training as intensive as you need it. Unfortunately we applied late and missed the deadline in December. Because of that, we applied for a scholarship to help offset both of us attending (a potential $650, plus $300 for hotel, $50 for gas and $60 for help back at the farm).

In January we learned that we had been awarded a scholarship for Andy, taking care of his conference fees completely. I had been awarded a scholarship that covered half of my conference fees. It was a complete blessing and sign that we should go through with this. We still wanted to attend Organic University, but the extra $300 seemed a little daunting yet.

Then we got a call from one of the MOSES directors and she had good news. A few people dropped out of the mentoring program and they had a spot open just for us! And we were going to be paired with a farmer from Fond Du Lac that is part of our Local Foods Network, Robyn Calvey of Park Ridge Organics. Hooray! So after shuffling the money a little bit, we were both going to the conference and university on only $350. It was amazing.

And on Thursday evening, we got to meet all the other farmers lined up in the program. It was a good meal and we enjoyed hearing the experienced mentors' stories of years passed. Now we look forward to learning as much as we can from Robyn, who runs a 70 person CSA and does farmers' markets every week.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On Friday, we attended our first session together. It was about unconventional farmers and talked about some farming history as well as showcasing a farm family from North Dakota who buck the system and save seeds professionally. Theresa Podoll spoke for her family and was very inspiring with regards to her journey into organic life and being self sustaining. There is a book published about her and some other farmers bucking agribusiness called "Deeply Rooted."

She showed a plethora of photos, including a lot of the varieties of veggies she grows for various organic seeds companies. Many of them are named with the word Dakota in them.

One of these was a small popcorn variety called Dakota Black. I couldn't believe my eyes! WE had grown Dakota Black just last year! And we saved a bunch of seed for this year because it was such a good crop. I was giddy. It was a weird feeling. I mean, you order from a catalog and you never think about where the seed comes from. That it is individual growers who make the catalog possible. And I can admit that I've never thought about that even once before. Suddenly, right in front of me is a living, breathing person who had an intimate role in our garden last year...and I never even knew she existed before.

Andy and Becky met a seed provider of Dakota Black, a popcorn variety they grew on their farm last year.

I had to go up to her after the session ended and tell her about our popping corn. Am I a dork? I could hardly contain my joy! I walked up to Theresa and explained to her that we had grown that corn for the first time and even had a photo on my computer of a cob in the field. Her face just lit up and she asked a bunch of questions about the crop and our farm. She vigorously shook my hand and stated that it was so wonderful to hear feedback and meet the people planting the seeds she grew.

Isn't that funny? Here I was all star struck because I was about to meet the "author" of our corn seeds and she was just as excited to meet someone face to face who grew her precious seed "offspring." VERY cool.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In the trade show we ran into several friends from the Farm To Consumer Legal Defense Fund (of which we are card carrying members). It was great to meet these folks in person after months/years of email and phone conversations. We also met a young couple that started their own business helping farmers make websites.

Naturally we were drawn to the idea of a user friendly web builder, as we don't have one for ourselves just yet. We chatted with Simon and Melanie for quite awhile on the capabilities of SmallFarmCentral.com. They had an informal meeting set up for 6 that night after the last session and dinner. We decided to go check it out. More on that later.

After our lunch and two more sessions, we went into the large hall for dinner. We sat with a couple that we knew and a couple that we did not know. They were young and, we learned, still in college. Both had dreams of owning a farm and selling direct to consumers. We got on the subject of obtaining raw milk in Minnesota, where they live, and Andy and I remembered a wonderful store in the Twin Cities. This store is members only, like Sam's Club and brings in only locally produced food. Not just milk and eggs and meat. But produce, canned goods and homemade wines, jams and bread. Seriously, it's like the grocery store of old with everything locally sourced! Somehow the rules are different in MN and they can do this on a large scale.

This young pair had never heard of it, though they live in St. Paul. We happened to know that the owner of said store was at this very conference, manning a booth in the trade show. We quickly wrapped up our meals and headed to find Will Winters.

Will is a tall farmer/salesman, unashamedly wearing his greying hair unkempt beneath a black cowboy hat. His eyes sparkle with life and he dishes out jokes and down-home truth with every breath. We first met him about this time last year in Green Bay. He was giving an all day talk on alternative health. Andy and I attended his talk with a tiny Ethan attached, barely a month old. After the riveting lecture, we had a chance to talk more with him about his basic mod us operand us. This is when we first learned that he co-founded Thousand Hills Cattle Company and this Minneapolis buying club. At the time, it was not even 6 months old, but he said people were beating down his door looking for more.

We had not seen him since, but when we walked up to his booth, he showed a glint of recognition. He was selling products for his other company Agri-Dynamics which services beef and dairy herds with alternative nutrition options. As the four of us walked up, not at all looking like cattle ranchers, he kindly asked "What can I do for you?"

Andy wisely took the reins and explained that this couple from the Twin Cities was looking for a source of raw milk, but didn't know where to go. Without missing a beat, Will grabbed a flier for the store (which was cleverly hidden behind some product) and his card and began telling them all about the club and how it works. They hung on his every word, growing visibly more excited with each statement. By the end of the talk, we all knew they'd be at the front doors of that warehouse within days, signing up and basking in the loveliness of a true home town grocery. Will said that they don't advertise, and yet each day they get 3-5 new families seeking them out. They now source milk from over 10 dairies! That's incredible! I am not giving out the info on here publicly, but if you live in the area, contact us, and we'll hook you up as well.

I was actually envious because Wisconsin wouldn't stand for that sort of store. If someone cans tomato sauce in their own kitchen and tries to sell it, they are committing a crime. If they bake bread without an inspected kitchen, they could pay a fine. If they sell unpasteurized milk to the actual part owner of the animal from which the milk came, they could go to jail.

But I digress.

Friday evening we jetted upstairs to hear more about this web builder. Simon was serving free beer as an incentive and it was nice to kick back with a cold one after such an intensive day. After about an hour, the rest of the people had trickled out of the room, but Simon and his wife Melanie and us stayed in that little conference room talking and learning about each other's lives for the next few hours. Before we knew it, a band was playing from some ballroom nearby and there was a lot of loudness from the hallways. We decided to trek out at roughly 9:30pm and see what all the noise was about.

Now, I'll tell you. I was not at all expecting to see what we saw. Here we were, a bunch of hippies, farmers, students, teachers, USDA specialists; congregating all at once to learn and teach and make connections.

I had no idea that would mean, come night time, it's time for a regular HO DOWN! The band was a rock/bluegrass mix called The Pheromones. The drinks were being served cheap and even in some cases, free. The farmers were kickin' it really old school. I mean, this was a huge PARTY going on in the top floor of the conference center! Our jaws dropped at the scene, especially when we saw MOSA directors, keynote speakers, vendor reps and session facilitators completely loosened up and not nearly ready to hit the hay. Eventually we joined in the fun and the four of us hit the dance floor, gyrating like the white folks we were. We were amused by the tall, wild haired figure in a black cowboy hat kicking his heels up in the center of the ballroom. Those farmers sure know how to party!

At roughly 11pm, Andy and I called it quits, though it seemed the place had barely cleared out. We had a 50 minute drive just to get to the B&B, not to mention that we would have to be up by 6am in order to be packed up and down for breakfast in time. But it was worth it, no doubt.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Saturday came in a blink of our dreary eyes, but we pulled ourselves out of bed because, honestly, our customers helped donate money to get us there. We couldn't let them down. (Though I did have Andy drive and crashed almost the entire way to La Crosse). :-)

We took in another full day of conferences and hit the dusty trail to meet up at Andy's folks' house. There, we would find our babies playing in the living room, totally unaware of our entrance until ...

... Ethan caught sight of us from behind the couch. In a shrill, but ecstatic voice, he yelled "HI!!" and proceeded to toddler stomp all the way around the living room, past the couch, past Daddy, all the way into my waiting arms ... the entire time screeching "HI! HI! HI!"

We felt very welcomed home and had a wonderful meal made by Julie (Andy's mom). Then we packed up the kids again and drove the extra hour and half all the way home. We finally reached our own beds by 9:30 that night and slept soundly.

It was a great weekend for all!


Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on .

nebraska dave
3/23/2010 9:44:11 PM

Becky & Andy, Wow what a weekend. I’m sure you will be digesting all the content of the weekend for many weeks to come. Your experience with the popcorn was great. It’s always good to find out that the out there some where person that provides what you need isn’t really any different than you are. They are usually just ordinary people that provide a service or product. It was great to hear about how they let their hair down and had a great time after the duties of the day ended. More people need to do that. Laughter is a great medicine that keeps the heart young. It sounds like you are well on your way to becoming self sustaining. I’m closer than I used to be but still sustain myself at times with Walmart and Lowes. Baby steps toward self reliance will be the key for me. The project of the summer is to begin working on a gravity feed automatic watering system for my garden which will not only water the garden but house fish and be a backyard water feature. It may take more that one summer to complete all that but it will be an ongoing project. It was great to hear about your exciting weekend and how the scholarships helped to make it affordable.