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Reflection on the Farm Viability Convergence

Published: Mar 2023
By: Lori Stern & Alex Bagwajinini Kmett , Marbleseed Executive Director and Farmer Education Manager respectively (Photo Credit: Justine Bursoni)

Leading up to Marbleseed’s 2023 Organic Farming Conference, our “farmer-led, rooted in organic” tagline felt more critical to our rebrand than our new name. It told the story of who we remain to be in the shifting space of organic agriculture. Our organizational beginnings as a gathering of farmers engaged in organic production, fighting for a national standard are reflected in that tagline. For many farmers that were there, organic is a movement.

According to Everyday Activism, movements go through phases. Some of the discussions and sessions at this year’s Organic Farming Conference reflected this shift into what they label “mainstreaming.” They define this phase as when ideas that were once considered fringe become mainstream, and warn that “in this phase, movements become more vulnerable to co-option” in the form of “corporate profiteering that uses the movement for marketing versus committing to changing harmful practices.”

Embracing our new name, and this tension between a successful organic market versus organic as a movement, we wanted to create opportunities at the 2023 conference for conversation and leadership among a community of farmers. We received a SARE grant that built upon our work with farmer-led communities of practice.

This funding enabled us to create and host training for farmer educators (many farmers themselves) on learner-centered education like popular education. It also offered the opportunity to work with a skilled facilitator in Open Space Technology, who also had ties to agriculture. Called the “Convergence” at the conference, Open Space Technology provided a method and container for leadership to emerge around a theme of “Farm Viability” as the convening group understood it. Open Space would provide a tool to inspire leadership and creativity, empowering the farmers in attendance to envision a positive future.

According to organizers, the common result of an Open Space event is “a powerful, effective connecting and strengthening of what’s already happening in the organization: planning and action, learning and doing, passion and responsibility, participation and performance.” This resonated with our tagline and presented a continuation of the arc of growing as an organic movement that will be required.

Upon first meeting the facilitator and learning more about the Open Space Technology method of facilitation, our new Farmer Education Manager, Alex Kmett, immediately recognized parallels between Open Space Technology and research methodologies such as CBPR (Community-Based Participatory Research) and CLBR (Community-Based Language Research), which he’d become familiar with in his academic and professional career. In his opinion, each of these methods honors the expertise and empowers the voices of all participants to shape a final product, while enabling reciprocal opportunities to teach and learn from one another throughout the process.

According to our Facilitator, Owen Hablutzel, an Open Space event should last at least a full day, and we all agreed that the best approach would be to invite as broad of an audience as possible to ensure cross-cutting discussions between our constituents, and to draw on their wide range of experiences as we work to unpack what our theme of “Farm Viability Today, Tomorrow, Forever” means with respect to the lived experiences of our communities. Therein laid the challenges of balancing an appropriate amount of communication, estimating attendance levels and proportionately preparing materials, and planning the room setup. As the time until the conference dwindled, we realized that there wasn’t the capacity to draft the more personalized invitations which target various segments of our constituency that we’d hoped to send, and instead drafted a more general invitation. To not further complicate the conference registration process, an RSVP system was set up to estimate Convergence attendance after conference registration had closed, which provided attendees with a “ticket” to remind them to attend.

In retrospect, however, the RSVP/ticketing process for this event, which was included with basic conference registration, caused some confusion about whether pre-registration was required or if there was a cost, similar to the pre-conference Organic University sessions, and likely impacted attendance.

Despite lower-than-expected attendance, those that gathered for the final four hours of the conference convened a total of 22 discussions on topics that included: infrastructure needs, farmer wellness, the Rural-Urban Divide, a New Homesteaders Act, land access, tribal harvesting, Land Back, economic models that promote community-based food access & profit, and alternatives to capitalism. Perhaps due to the impact of a historic blizzard hitting the region, only a handful of participants were on the original RSVP list. Of those who did attend, many reported that they felt it was a safe space, that they were truly listened to about topics they were passionate about, and that they’d like to continue these conversations. Transcriptions from the Convergence will be included in a Book of Proceedings, which will be made available later this Spring via the Ag Solidarity Network.

The Farm Viability Convergence was funded by an NCR-SARE Professional Development Program Grant, “Educational Methods for Farmer Self-Organizing.” Project #ENC22-209.