Arriving last week in Austin at the state’s biggest gathering of organic Texas farmers and ranchers started out like usual; like “old home week”. The TOFGA (Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc.), conference attracts veteran farmers and ranchers of all acreage sizes, wanna-be ranchers, backyard home gardeners and supporters of the entire Texas organic food chain. Many see each other but once a year for this annual conference. As stewards of nature, vacations are few, so many look forward to this event for more reasons than one. A newly born piglet even got to come along for the trip as he was a bottle baby – not to be left at the local kennel.
Thursday was filled with mini-workshops both at the hotel and off-site. The hands on how-to butchering demo might have been a bit much for the Hilton clean up staff. After these pre-conference classes, folks mingled in the atrium with more old friends arriving in a constant stream of coolers and suitcases. You can always tell that the TOFGA conference is in the house when you see more food coolers than suitcases on the luggage racks. When you grow and raise such high quality, flavorful foods, often hotel food is disappointing. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to read in the hotel restaurant menu about the support of local farm sourcing of food. But then again, we were in Austin where locavore is a household word.
Pre-Saturday night banquet dinners were enjoyed at local haunts that feature local farmer fare like Whip-In’s sliders featuring Windy Hill goat meat, Kerby Lane Cafe that served late night mimosas with breakfast dishes and I counted at least ten local producers’ products. Polvos, a unique Mexican food eatery where I had possibly the first and best Fajita al Guajillo ever, may not have been locally sourced, but sun dried peppers sautéed with pecans, raisins and peanuts – oh my!
A very wide awake and spunky Betsy Ross speaking on the soil food web made sure we were all awake Friday morning for the conference and paying attention to nature on our farms back home. “Nothing bad in Momma nature!!” she exclaims, explaining that every “problem” in nature is a signal to something needing attention – even “weeds”. There are 3 other breakout sessions going on simultaneously, and the cycle is repeated all day for the next two days, culminating on Saturday evening with banquet and key note speaker Jim Hightower and closing out with two farms visited on Sunday morning. Then, the hands who feed their communities return to their land and love’s work for what is the busiest time of a farmer’s year.
The mood was delightful and the energy positive the entire weekend as hundreds scurried from classes to vendor booths to snack islands where the familiar Veldhuizen cheeses, South Texas Organics citrus and Rockwall Brewers, Fresh Life Foods freshly brewed java were featured – and scarfed down.
Topics offered for the taking included holistic animal husbandry, soil restoration, alternative food distribution systems, as well as a run down by FARFA of proposed food laws that affect each and every one of us who eat. On the “take action” list right now is HB46 that would make consumer access to licensed raw milk easier by allowing farmers to deliver and sell it at markets or other drop points. (Currently, a customer has to drive to the dairy, sometimes hours away, in order to purchase un-pasteurized dairy product.)
Probably the most eye opening and chilling lecture, came at the end of the day on Saturday, when Canadian scientist Gerald Wiebe spoke of the impacts on humans, animals and plants by the massive increase of foods consumed that have been raised using glyphosfates, (you know it as Round Up), and genetically modified organisms. I won’t go into details here, but it ain’t pretty. It’s all the more reason to personally know who produces your food and how they grow it. Know your farmers!
This set us up to really appreciate the organic, locally sourced banquet that was every bit as seasonal as it was tasty. Chef Shahnaz Baday of EnnerWay Foods International served up a delicious dinner including roasted root vegetables, fresh salad greens, corn bread muffins, a breaded baked chicken and fruit cobbler. A hungry farmer’s feast for sure.
Congratulations and awards for founding and life-time members of TOFGA, such as pictured owners of Boggy Creek Farm, precluded populist, radio host, syndicated author and public (out) speaker, as well as former TDA commissioner, Jim Hightower. Mr. Hightower was in usual sarcastic form, spunky and critical of CAFO’s and today’s organic certification program. Although he was on the forefront of the work of our state’s organic certification program that was designed to help the very farmers he was speaking to, he asked, “What has become of that (program), anyway?” referring to the face-lifted federal program many in the room, who do grow organically, shun for various reasons.
After two farm tours Sunday morning, one is featuring an incubator farm program designed to help new organic farmers by taking them under the wings of veteran farmers and loaning land for them, to get them started. It was then time for farmers and ranchers to return to their farms full of ideas and recharged by their colleagues – to grow more of the delicious, non-GMO, free of synthetic pesticides and synthetic chemicals, local food for you to enjoy. For ways to get in touch with and support local farms near you, check out their website.
Marie Tedei is an organic farmer and owner of Eden’s Organic Garden Center and CSA in Balch Springs, and runs a true farmer’s market on the first and third Saturdays in April through December.