Sustainable Farming Education and Advocacy for the Future
August 1, 2011 | Rebecca Glaser
In its quest to empower the movement for sustainable agriculture in Pennsylvania and beyond, the Farming for the Future Conference came first. In 1992, despite the small number of community supported agriculture (CSA) and organic farms operating in the state, the first Farming for the Future Conference unexpectedly drew 500 participants. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA, has been organizing the conference as an annual event ever since.
To fulfill its stated mission of promoting profitable farms that produce healthy food for all people while respecting the natural environment, PASA uses its annual conference along with other year round educational programs to provide farmers with practical training and workshops related to such sustainable agriculture practices as organic, biodynamic and grass-based farming.
This past February marked the twentieth anniversary of the Farming for the Future Conference and over 2,000 participants ranging from farmers, processors, and businesses to students and environmentalists traveled from around Pennsylvania, thirty-nine other states, and eight countries to attend. They participated in workshops that focused on such areas as sustainable poultry production, raw milk marketing and organic certification. Keynote speakers at the conference included such notable as ag economist John Ikerd, humanitarian Vandana Shiva and Native American activist Winona LaDuke.
In addition to its annual conference, PASA runs year-round Farm-Based Education (FBE) program for farmers and consumers interested in learning firsthand about sustainable farming practices. Rebecca Robertson, the Farm-Based Education Coordinator, says the goal of FBE is to “facilitate opportunities for farmers to learn from each other.” Teachers are chosen for their expertise in a particular topic such as using specialized farm equipment, growing heritage grains, or culturing cheeses.
One of the few repeating course offerings, the cheese-making course, exemplifies the way PASA provides value to its members. Don’t be fooled, though; its popularity is not based simply on the desire to taste freshly made mozzarella. In terms of gross receipts, dairy is the dominant segment of Pennsylvania’s massive agricultural economy. Rather than encouraging dairy farmers to take the conventional approach to making more money by increasing the size of the herd that often results in increased costs and damage to the environment, PASA focuses on ways to help farmers increase profitability with resources that they already have. And making cheese is a simple way to increase the value of a dairy without increasing the environmental impact.
Dairy has also been an arena for legislative triumphs by the organization. “When our state declared it illegal a few years ago to label dairy products as ‘free of artificial growth hormones’, it was our community that helped to drive the governor’s repeal that eventually came,” explains Brian Snyder, Executive Director of PASA.
PASA in its efforts to influence government policy also advocates for the elimination of commodity crop subsidies, which it says serve only to reinforce the existing conventional agriculture system. “A truly sustainable system of agriculture cannot by its very nature be dependent on outside, government financial support in order to succeed,” says Snyder.
While today five out of every six members of PASA reside in Pennsylvania, the organization expects membership beyond the state’s borders to grow markedly in the coming years as it takes on more of a national leadership role. According to Snyder, plans are already underway to reshape the organization’s internal structure in order to devote more attention to influencing agricultural policy.
Twenty years ago, the Farming for the Future Conference revealed the surprising strength of the movement for sustainable agriculture in Pennsylvania. Today, the geographical diversity of participants demonstrates that the goals of PASA are shared across the nation and around the world. The next two decades will contain as many changes and discoveries in the field of sustainable agriculture as the past two, and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture will work tirelessly to provide sustainable agriculture education programs and policy advocacy so that small farms are able to sustain themselves long into the future.