tofga 2018 conference summary

Scholarship winner: Morgan Ehmling

On the eve of its 25th anniversary, members of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA) gathered in Georgetown, Texas with the hopes of providing a space for education and continued community support for producers of organic and sustainable food in Texas. The conference, led by 2018 TOFGA President Emily Erikson and her Board of Directors, provided dozens of workshops, farm tours, featured speakers, information sessions and professional vendors to educate and engage attendees over the course of three days. Unlike any conference I’ve been to, suits and ties were replaced by blue jeans and work boots, cowboy hats and impeccable politeness. An overwhelming sense of community emerged in the earliest moments of our gathering even though many, myself included, were not intimately engaged in farming as a profession. Over locally sourced breakfast tacos I would come to meet the unique individuals that compose this world I yearned to learn more about. One man, an empty-nester father of three, armed with only the knowledge he had gained from YouTube videos, had decided only a month prior to change his entire life and begin the journey to build a self-sustainable farm. In contrast, older members aged and worn from years in the sun would tell me about the earliest days of TOFGA (back when it was still TOGA) and the radical food politics of decades past. By far the most promising and diverse population at the conference was the hundred or so young people who have taken up the fight for responsible and sustainable food production.

Every introduction was started with, “So, are you a grower?” and after my first full day of workshops covering detailed technical farming information, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed as to how I fit into this system as “non-grower”. What could I, a suburb-living, 20 something, possibly do that could positively impact the world in the same way these farmers and gardeners already were? Kirby Fry’s workshop on permaculture assured everyone, farmers and non-farmers alike, that respecting the Earth and making efforts to create sustainable ecosystems could be achieved by anyone. Whether you own a 200-acre farm or have 200 square feet in a backyard in Austin, simple steps like collecting rainwater, buying from or being a local farmer or recycling and composting can contribute to a larger movement that I truly believe encompasses the Slow Food Motto: Good, Clean, Fair. The Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has already taken the largest step in creating a community that cares deeply about propagating an organic system of agriculture. Workshops like ‘Food Access’ and ‘Local Activism’ connected policy-makers, food producers, students and consumers in a fight for fair and accessible food, often in the most underserved communities in our state. Ty Wolosin’s workshop covering the ethical raising of lamb and goats revealed the immense benefits of introducing sustainable, responsibly grown, healthy lean meats back into a system that has been bogged down for years by the industrial meat complex.  

The Friday night banquet was keynoted by Michael Abelman, co-founder and director of Sole Food Street Farms, a man largely known in the TOFGA community as the “Grandfather of Urban Agriculture”, though he’s more like the cool uncle. Michael’s vivid storytelling of his urban farming community in Toronto was combined with stunning photographs pulled from his books detailing over 40 years of working intimately with resilient people, marginalized communities and the notion that any urban corner or abandoned parking lot can be transformed into a place that can feed people and change lives.

From this conference and my interactions with its participants, I’ve learned that we are no longer in an environmental epoch of simply giving back what we take from the Earth, but rather, we find ourselves in a crucial international moment that implores each of us to find ways to push past this cycle of give and take and begin to create regenerative systems of agriculture. Sustainability in the simplest sense is about maintenance, but the human forces acting upon the land and seas of this planet have historically extracted much more than we have given back. The farmers and gardeners I met during my time at TOFGA are using innovative collaborations between humans, machines and nature to not only decrease the carbon footprint of organic agriculture in Texas, but to provide resilient agricultural structures that work to give back so much more than they take.