Virtual Iowa Organic Conference ushers in new connections

By Kathleen Delate–Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Organic squash used in virtual cooking demo as part of the Iowa Organic Conference.

AMES, Iowa — Producers, students, and agency staff from 15 states, ranging from California to Pennsylvania, logged on for the 20th Annual Iowa Organic Conference to discuss the future of organic agriculture in Iowa and the U.S.

157 people registered for the Nov. 23 virtual event, said conference chair Kathleen Delate, organic agriculture specialist with Iowa State University. The conference, a partnership between the ISU Organic Ag Program and the University of Iowa, is usually held each year in Iowa City. This year the virtual conference included a half-day of synchronous presentations and interactions with industry experts.

Lead speaker Tom Harding, an international expert in organic marketing and trade, encouraged organic transition to help meet the burgeoning demand for organic feed and food ingredients. “We have worked with USDA in preventing fraud in foreign shipments of so-called organic product. Now we must fill that demand with domestic product,” he urged.

Both Harding and Joseph Heckman, soil scientist from Rutgers University, addressed the soil benefits documented from organic farm sites around the country, including at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and at the ISU Neely-Kinyon research farm in Greenfield.

“Building carbon in your soil through crop rotations, compost and manure, and livestock integration will lead to healthier soil and better crops,” Heckman said.

A discussion on the growing industry around supporting farmers for these practices through carbon credits brought to light the nuances of this trade issue. Organic vegetable farmers Whitney and Jordan Clasen of Grade A Gardens, in Johnston, brought a message of hope for surviving pandemic restrictions by pivoting to a smaller Farmers Market and safe pick-up of CSA boxes. They discussed giving the customer options through contactless pick-up, market shares, a la carte items, farm pick-up or market pick-up, and offering online ordering.

Tim Daley, organic processor from Stonebridge Ltd. and a farmer from New Hartford, declared the conference a success. “We were happy to support the conference as a sponsor, and I learned a good deal, including how the organic industry has been growing during the pandemic, as people value the source of their food on an even greater level than before.” A virtual show of exhibitors and sponsors, including organic grain buyers, organic seed purveyors, local food system nonprofits, government offices working with transitioning, and certified organic farmers substituted for the usual trade show of vendors.

Rounding out the conference was a virtual cooking demonstration, using local and organic produce, prepared by award-winning UI executive chef Barry Greenberg and banquet chef Anne Watson. Two recipes for organic ‘Delicata’ squash risotto and Butternut squash crème brulée were shared with conference-goers just in time for Thanksgiving.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the virtual format could be so positive,” Delate said. “Viewers were able to ask questions of the presenters and receive instant feedback – something that in-person events often don’t provide. Despite the tremendous challenges from COVID-19, the drought and the derecho this year, the ability to share experiences and learn from each other was something everyone enjoyed.”

For additional information on conference speakers and sponsors, visit the conference webpage, https://www.regcytes.extension.iastate.edu/iowaorganic/, or contact Kathleen Delate at [email protected] or 515-294-5116.