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MOSES conference gears up organic producers for next farming season

The 33rd Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference was held at the La Crosse Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Feb. 24-26.

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Lori Stern, executive director of MOSES, at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference on Feb. 24-26 in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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LA CROSSE, Wis. ― Every winter, the MOSES Conference brings together farmers and ag professionals to learn the latest organic and sustainable farming methods.

At the 33rd Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference, held at the La Crosse Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Feb. 24-26, attendees ranged from longtime certified organic producers to farmers just starting organic or considering the switch.

The event held every year on the Mississippi River shares the latest information on organic while giving a space for organic producers to connect with each other and to others in the supply chain.

"Forty three of this year’s almost 60 workshops were developed through conversations with affinity groups led by farmers," said Lori Stern, executive director of MOSES. "They identified skills and knowledge related to their operations, but also gave voice to cross cutting issues that affect all production areas."

MOSES serves the upper Midwest where most of its board members come from, but Stern said the staff now encompasses individuals from across the country.

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"I guess one of the benefits of the pandemic is the recognition that we can do this remotely, and hire folks from other places than where the office is," she said of the organization's making a broader call out for staff positions available.

Stern said the three-day event is the largest organic farming conference in the country.
"If you're doing vegetables, and you think it might be interesting to integrate some livestock, or integrate conservation practices — there's expertise for all of those things in this building," said Stern. "And I think that the other benefit of having so many people across different production methods is interest in cross cutting topics that matter to all farmers — whether it's business planning or some policy pieces."

That extends to cultural and social issues, said Stern, to inclusivity of organic certification programs and solidarity economy principles.

"So as we think about equity and parity across the entire supply chain in the food system, are farmers getting their fair share as well as everybody along that supply chain?" said Stern. "Those conversations are what the organic movement was kind built to forward along — what is the food system that we want to see? How do we center people and the planet in what we do in farming and food systems?"

A focal point for the organic movement

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The trade show floor at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference on Feb. 24-26 in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Noah Fish / Agweek

Wisconsin is second in the nation in organic production

"So even though we're small, we're mighty in that way," said Stern.

Stern said Vernon County, where Organic Valley started, has always been a "front runner" in getting the organic movement going. The Driftless area which Stern called an "amazing place to farm" has a diverse collection of small-to-medium scale farms and organic dairies as well. That's part of the reason MOSES is held every year less than an hour away from the county.

"I live on kind of the edge of the Driftless, and the rolling hills is what attracted me," said Stern, who is from Wisconsin originally but lived out in Washington state for a while. "I knew I just couldn't go back to something flat after being somewhere with mountains, and Mount Rainier — and that area of Wisconsin is just extremely compelling and so beautiful.

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"It lends itself to more diversified production methods, because it's not flat and monoculture is not as easy."

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is the president and CEO of Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, vice president of MOSES.

"I moved to the United States in 1992, and soon after I started attending the regional meetings," he said of MOSES.

Haslett-Marroquin remained active in MOSES through the tenure of Faye Jones, MOSES executive director from 1999-2016, and has been presenting on regenerative poultry at the conference for the last five or six years.

He described the annual conference as a "large neighborhood gathering."

"I would say you would have everything from agroforestry all the way to row cropping," he said of the MOSES conference. "I am assuming even some conventional farmers come here, because a lot of conventional farmers are starting to think about organic practices, and this is the place to come and learn about organic, sustainable, regenerative way of thinking."

Haslett-Marroquin said MOSES is a place where multiple backgrounds are represented and everyone is welcome.

"You got everybody from multiple colors of people is, multicolor people — you get a lot of older farmers, newer farmers, and you will see some kids walking around too," he said. "This is a neighborhood gathering, and more like a convergence of people with different backgrounds trying to define the future of agriculture."

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For producers thinking about switching to organic on their operations, Haslett-Marroquin said MOSES is the place to start their education.

"If you are thinking of a different way of of doing agriculture, yes, this is the premier, probably the only event in the country at this scale that brings this kind of ecosystem together," he said.

He said he wanted to be on the board for MOSES because it is a critical piece of institutional infrastructure for the Midwest.

"My vision was that we can start a new conversation about how MOSES can move into becoming an ecosystem management institution, and where we actually focus on gathering the multitude of expressions that are out there in the landscape across the Midwest, and then we then serve as an organizing pivot point for affinity groups within the larger context of agriculture," he said. "And then establish governance systems and more representation consoles, and so on, so that we can build governance at a scale that can actually represent this new movement."

"Until we organize, we are just simply a whole bunch of people doing cool stuff," he said. "It's time to actually get into the organized as an actual industry sector that is leading the future of agriculture in this country."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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