Once a semi-stealth dirt farmer gathering, the Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove has blossomed into a full-blown organic-foodie-policy summit, bringing together food producers from across the country to advance regenerative agriculture. A farmer friend and I attended last year because we value farming that respects biological principles and moves us toward a safer and more equitable food system.
But after we heard “Are you staying for the meals?” for what felt like the 50th time, we wondered if we were going for the wrong reasons.
While we made it to several EcoFarm sessions in 2015 – including a mind-blowing presentation on biodynamic bees by Michael Thiele with Gaia Bees – we opted for local restaurant food and healthy snacks over the on-site institutional meals at the Asilomar Conference Grounds. Bad call, apparently. So many people encouraged us to experience the meal program, we had to know more about this 1,000-plus person seasonal and organic potluck that lasts four days.
One of the things that makes EcoFarm’s meal program so memorable is the organic produce donations.
“These collective meals lie at the heart of the evolution of the conference,” EcoFarm Executive Director Ken Dickerson says.
From EcoFarm’s Soquel office, he describes how the conference originally started in 1979 as an informal gathering of 40 who assembled at a firehouse in Winters, California, for a farmer-to-farmer exchange. Everyone brought their own produce for a shared meal.
The dinner and exchange of ideas were so good stakeholders continued to meet every winter – first at an old YMCA camp in La Honda and then at Asilomar – to explore best practices in ecological farming, with their edibles in tow.
Today, each meal comes with a who’s who list of sources. Strauss Family Creamery and Lundberg Rice first debuted new products to the public during EcoFarm’s donor meal program.
This year, pioneering sustainable food advocate, chef and caterer Dory Ford consults with Chef Danny Abbruzzese and the team at Asilomar’s institutional kitchen to ensure donations evolve into something exceptional yet achievable for the multi-day foodie marathon.
“All food is precious,” says Ford, who has been working with Asilomar since August to prepare food for hundreds and hundreds three times a day. “We just like to make delicious, healthy food. It doesn’t have to be tricked out to be wholesome.”
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When corporate facilities company Aramark took over at Asilomar more than 15 years ago, it took some time for the company to see better, fresher food as a competitive advantage, not a time-consuming liability. It took “a lot of adaptation on their part,” Dickerson says.
The result? A continually evolving food program Dickerson calls “a real showcase and a labor of love.” In fact, the EcoFarm-Asilomar-Aramark culinary relationship has helped shift the institutional food service system. Applying lessons learned from the EcoFarm group meals, Aramark promotes digital tools like FarmLogix to help institutional kitchens connect with seasonal produce from local farmers all over, especially in the Chicago area. Aramark corporate commitments include serving only crate-free pork and cage-free eggs within five years. From enhanced purchasing to reduced food waste, Aramark channels lessons learned from EcoFarm meals to their many institutional locations.
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I’m a foodie, not a farmer. I’m not a native Californian either, so my first year attending this conference resulted in my feeling rather out of place amid all those practical farming sessions and references to towering – but to me, unfamiliar – figures in the sustainable food movement. We found our EcoFarm footing, however, at educational sessions focused on political and consumer issues related to the U.S. food system, including a session led by Tom Philpott, a food politics writer for Mother Jones. He urged stakeholders to embrace that year’s theme – “Raising Eco Farmers’ Voices” – if organic farmers ever hoped to get more representation in Congress. He recommended getting involved with rural and urban food policy councils, as well as supporting alternative media that tell the story of the sustainable food movement. “Inject food into protest movements,” he urged.
This year’s EcoFarm theme is “Regenerating Our Lands and Water.” I’m intrigued by several sessions, including “Building a Socially Just Local Food System,” “Tools that Empower Women Farmers,” “Organic Seed Activism” and “Hemp and Cannabis as Part of a Diversified Farm Portfolio.” Other eyecatchers include “Aiming for Zero Waste,” “Love Your Body Like You Love Your Farm” and “Regenerative Agriculture’s Role in Reversing Climate Change.”
From the sessions to dinner table conversation, I look forward to fresh learning – and eating – at EcoFarm 2016.