I attended the Guelph Organic Conference at the University of Guelph on Saturday February 1, 2014. Jodi Koberinski, executive director of the Organic Council of Ontario, asked for my observations on the conference. Here are some:
1. Based on the large attendance (500+) and large number of exhibitors (170) this event must be judged a major success. If the weather had not been so nasty on the Saturday of the conference, the attendance would undoubtedly have been even higher.
2. In some ways it resembles the Ontario Plowing Match with many exhibitors selling/promoting just about anything and everything. However, the speaking program is much more important at the Guelph Organic Conference.
3. Both the audience and the exhibitors were highly diverse and included: profit-oriented farmers (a distinct minority, I believe), farm suppliers and farm produce buyers, organic food wholesalers and retailers, organic farm certifiers, book and publication marketers, educational/research institutions, advocacy and farm groups, some snake oil and trinket sales people, students, and a large number of gardeners and homeowners. My guess is that gardeners, homeowners and the exhibitors themselves represented the largest percentage of the conference attendees.
4. I could only attend a few of the speaker presentations since several of these occurred simultaneously. I am relying on written summaries of presentations I did not attend for some of my observations. In my opinion, the presentations ranged from outstanding to really weird – at least from a perspective of someone like me with a science and farm background. At one extreme was Essex County organic farmer, Roger Rivest, presenting excellent information on how to control pests (chiefly weeds) in organic farming. On the other hand, there was an organic consultant recommending phosphate soil fertility levels which were extremely (irresponsibly high in my view, 100 ppm phosphate if I heard him right) and telling the audience that 1) the sugar from GM sugar beets is less healthy than that from non-GM beets (100% sucrose in both cases) and 2) they should promote unpasteurized milk.
There was an excellent session on organic certification standards in Canada, the US and Europe, one of the best I’ve ever attended. And a hokey one on soil quality telling the audience how to tell soil pH by its physical appearance. There was a good session on the organic dairy research program at U of Guelph’s Alfred campus. But another speaker told listeners that plants derived using radiation mutagenesis are radioactive, and that corn evolved pretty much naturally up until the 19th century. (She’s probably never heard of teosinte.)
5. I felt sorry for attendees lacking backgrounds in science and agriculture but genuinely seeking good information on how to farm organically profitably, or be better gardeners, or on how to feed their families. The conference provided a mish-mash of information and misinformation – with no guidebook for telling one from the other. Better quality control in choosing speakers for the conference in 2015 might help – if indeed that’s possible. It may not be: The organic industry seems to be a marriage of convenience between those truly wanting to produce food in a sustainable way (i.e., sustainability as defined by the original Bruntland Commission), and those who are more interested in anti-corporate/anti-modern-agriculture advocacy. The two are not the same, and the conference seems to be designed to appeal to both.
5. The conference has obviously outgrown its space availability for exhibitors, jamming 170 exhibits into two moderate-sized rooms plus corridors – and with everyone squeezed together like sardines. By contrast, the speaker sessions did not seem to be that full – though, as noted above, bad weather was a factor. With better weather, the U of Guelph facility would have been completely swamped.
6. I think the organizers need to do a better job in organizing that portion of the conference (program and exhibitor formatting) designed for serious organic farmers. In fairness, one section of the Saturday speakers’ program was more dedicated to farmers (done very well in 2013, not so well in 2014), but exhibits related to farmer needs are all mixed in with the other retail and consumer-interest displays, and sort of get lost. Maybe they need a dedicated space for farmer-oriented displays, ideally linked to a setting where serious farmers could meet each other and talk about common problems and solutions.
Or maybe there needs to be an entirely different event for organic farmers – perhaps like the Innovative Farmers of Ontario convention.
At one ‘farmer oriented’ session on February 1, the speaker quizzed his audience as to the size of their farming/gardening operations. The majority were under 2 acres in size. Probably less than 12 were over 400 acres. I know that high gross and net returns are possible for very specialized production on very small acreages (eg., greenhouses), but for this audience, I believe that under 2 acres mostly meant gardeners.
Organic farming is difficult. If profitability was easier and there was more of it, the province would not be such a large importer of organic foods and food-ingredients. Better catering to farmer needs would be a good thing.