The EcoFarm conference tackles cultural problems in the agriculture industry.

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Adding “eco” to most anything these days is a signifier, a means of letting you know that you’re about to encounter something friendly to the planet and the people who inhabit it. There’s Eco Carmel, for example, a home goods store offering a variety of environmentally friendly products, from cleaning supplies to organic mattresses. (I like the wool dryer balls). There’s the Monterey County government and its efforts to build the region into a bastion of “eco-recreation” by positioning the county as a “recognized sustainable and wellness destination” via its $2 billion tourism industry. (Ignore the giant cruise ships parked in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary – God knows the rest of us try to). There’s even a game called Eco, a “global survival game” in which players collaborate to create a civilization in a world where everything they do affects the environment. (Sounds like real life, minus the collaboration part.)

And in Monterey County, there’s the grandaddy/mommy of them all, the EcoFarm conference hosted by the Ecological Farming Association, now in its 40th year and happening this week at Asilomar Conference Center. Looking at this year’s conference schedule, staff writer Marielle Argueza asked, “When did EcoFarm get so woke?”

The woke has always been there, says Sam Earnshaw, a Watsonville resident, former farmer (along with his wife, they farmed for two decades), agriculture adviser and member of the EcoFarm Committee. Maybe it’s just that now, the rest of the world is waking up to it.

“Every year we strive for diversity. It’s an important thing, in our society and in our agriculture,” Earnshaw says, “but I don’t think it’s greater in the conference this year than it’s been in previous years. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in our times.”

Farming, Earnshaw says, is a different reality and the issues farmers face are universal.

“You work really hard and your money comes from the soil, instead of being a number on a check,” Earnshaw says. At EcoFarm, “we’re organic, we believe in sustainable, we present alternatives and we try to find solutions.”

Here’s what alternatives and solutions look like in this year’s conference. Coming from Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, farmer and writer Leah Penniman will present on what farming practices used today – including raised beds, polycropping, rotation grazing and the community-supported agriculture model – have roots in black agrarianism. Penniman is the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. Soul Fire also advocates for reparations to black and indigenous farmers, on the premise that the food system was built on the stolen land and stolen labor of black, indigenous, Latinx and Asian people. Penniman’s keynote speech takes place as the conference starts at 8pm on Jan. 22, unfortunately before this issue publishes.

Also speaking, on Jan. 25 at 10:30am, is Dr. Vandana Shiva, who trained as a physicist but focuses her research on science, technology and the environment, and crusades for economic, food and gender justice (Time magazine named her an environmental hero in 2003). She also founded Navdanya, a movement to protect the diversity of living resources, especially native seeds.

There’s much more – too much to list here – but things that caught my eye are panels titled “The Farmer-Driven Ethical Diet,” “Food Equity and Access Through Community Garden Programs” and “Organic Farmers and The Green New Deal.” The entire conference is targeted to those who work in agriculture, but there’s information in here that can benefit everyone.

I asked farmer Dick Peixoto, whose Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville is the largest family-owned and operated, solely organic vegetable grower and shipper in the country, about the inclusionary bent. Lakeside Organics is part of the pre-conference bus tour this year. He says the inclusivity has been EcoFarm’s mission since the beginning.

“They’ve always reached out to minorities and I remember even 10 years ago us sending people to them to take classes offered in Spanish for things we’re trying to teach on the farm,” Peixoto says. “It’s real valuable.”

And it’s real real.

MARY DUAN writes Local Spin for the Weekly. Reach her atmary@mcweekly.com or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan
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