Faye Jones of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service
We are pleased to bring you this conversation with Faye Jones, the executive director of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), as we head into one of the most exciting weekends of the year for an organic farmer – the 27th annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference. This conference is the largest event about organic and sustainable farming in the country, and hundreds of farmers from all over the country make the trek to La Crosse, Wisconsin, to participate in the workshops and connect with friends each year.
Faye has been the executive director at MOSES since it was formed in 1999, and she is planning to retire this year after a long career working in the organic world, as a market gardener and flower grower, an event organizer and community volunteer, and now as an organic community leader and activist. In November 2015, Faye was selected to receive an Honorary Recognition Award from the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences for her work with organic agriculture. She lives with her husband on a farm where they raise Highland cattle, chickens and hogs, and grow garlic and vegetables.
In this episode we hear from Faye about her experiences working in the organic movement for so many years and what she sees on the horizon for the movement and for MOSES.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I am hugely honored to be here with Faye Jones, who is the executive director of MOSES, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, but we all call it MOSES. Just a little bit about MOSES: MOSES is a conference for organic farmers, consumers, industry, the public in general who is interested in organic. It has actually been a conference every year for seventeen years under the name MOSES.
FAYE JONES: Twenty-seven years!
TM: Twenty-seven! I knew I was off a decade. Good grief, Faye, twenty-seven years—you are a trooper! So as I said, I’m so honored to welcome Faye Jones. Faye, welcome, and I know that, what is it, the twenty-seventh MOSES conference is next week. So what do you say, you ready?
FJ: Oh, you know, I’m as ready as I am ever going to be for the… You know, we jokingly like to say that we are the largest organic farming conference in the known galaxy, right here in this beautiful town of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Twenty-seven years we’ve been doing this, Theresa. Can you believe it?
TM: Yes and no. When I’m reading about the history of MOSES and how it started and how you started, and of course MOSES did start, didn’t it, not under the name of MOSES but it was called the Wisconsin OCIA Education Event?
FJ: Yeah, or we called it the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference. And now we like to call it the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. People often ask me, “What do you mean by Upper Midwest?” And you can’t say that as an acronym—try to, just try it. So we shortened it up to Organic Farming Conference, and then I could put that fun tagline about the largest in the known galaxy.
TM: Okay, so Faye, I have to, if you don’t mind, how about we go back like thirty years or so. Tell me, how did you get into this organic world?
FJ: You know, how I got in is a great story, because I’m a farmer at heart, and I love to tell people that. And I was a young, twenty-year-old person, like there are so many nowadays, and this was thirty-six years ago, by the way. I was just this young person who said, gee, you know, I want to learn about organic farming, and there has to be resources out there. And I found lots of people. And I started to learn that farmers learn best from farmers—that my best opportunity for learning about organic farming was from fellow organic farmers. And that’s people like Richard DeWilde and Martin Diffley, and you know, I certainly read all of Elliot Coleman’s books. And it got me inspired.
But why organic? I love to answer that question: because it’s the right thing to do!
TM: Well, you know, that was 1970, and wow, that was like—you know, organic wasn’t even on anyone’s mind. But I guess in the Midwest we had…you just named a whole bunch of folks there. A lot of folks in the Midwest were already diving in, weren’t they?
FJ: They were diving in and they were doing it. And I was learning from them, and I felt grateful. And how I, you know… So I was a farmer, like I said, at heart. So I was farming, while at the same time, you know, I had this activist side of me. And I said, well, I’m going to be involved in this conference in Minnesota. And I can’t remember who was organizing it then; it wasn’t the conference I’m with now. And I had a baby and moved to Wisconsin, and I was farming and continuing to believe this belief that farmers learn best from farmers. But I felt like we needed to come together, and so I was delighted to be a part of a group of volunteers who started this funky conference here in the state of Wisconsin, which has now grown, twenty-seven years later, to the largest organic farming conference.
TM: And I would definitely not call it funky!
FJ: Yeah, and it’s not funky anymore. It’s beautiful, we have so many activities. But I, my passion, and my commitment hasn’t changed, hasn’t wavered. I feel like organic farmers are my heroes. And I’m sure that until my last breath, my dream is to help change the way America farms.
We now know, just in my lifetime—I didn’t think this would happen—but we now know there is a direction with the food we put in our mouth and the health of our body. And that next connection that’s happening is the soil, the healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy people. It makes sense. That’s why I’m here.
TM: It’s just common sense, and I know that’s why you’re here. But really, way back then—I guess I’m going to say 1970—really, what are the things that were happening around you that kind of like drove you to this organic concept, this organic movement?
FJ: You know, a number of things happened, sort of at the same time, and one of them was I heard Frances Moore Lappé speak. I heard her speak about organic farming, and the room was full. I was sort of impressed, and I was taking some night courses, I was nineteen years old. But I heard her talk about it, and it made sense and it felt like it was the right thing to do. And I tried to approach college professors about this concept, and back then it was just not even heard of. But the idea of hearing someone like Frances Moore Lappé speak with a passion; about the same time I met Martin Diffley—I mean, he’s a passionate guy; Richard DeWilde was farming around the Twin Cities—he was passionate. And one thing led to another, and it’s a lifetime later.
TM: Well, I’m so glad I tried to probe, because that’s what you and I have in common. I have to credit Frances Lappé for bringing me into this Good Food movement. She inspired me and so many of us.
I’d just like to just keep going along this line. Wow, you are a pioneer. You’re a leader and a pioneer—1970, that’s a long time ago. I actually talk to some young people today, and I’ll name-drop Wendell Berry and they won’t know who he is. But tell me, you’ve seen a lot since then. I think I read that first conference maybe, MOSES conference in, was it 1999, had maybe less than a hundred people there.
FJ: Ninety people!
TM: Ninety people. And then today’s conference, how many are you going to get?
FJ: Over three thousand. There’s three thousand already registered and we get a lot of walk-ins, so…
TM: But so, Faye, what do you think—it sure is different, isn’t it, from that first one to now? For example, there wasn’t a whole lot of acceptance of organic then. How was it like then to be just such an outlier?
FJ: Well, back then it was different. You know, not only was I into organic, I was a woman, and that was… All of those things contributed back then to me being an outlier. But I also had this dream of changing the way America farms.
So a part of the emphasis at the conference is that we welcome everybody. And we have a lot of conventional farmers that just show up because they’ve decided they want to learn more about cover crops, or because they want to use less chemicals. And I think it’s great, and that is what I want to see. Because, you know, every inch that you push a farmer closer to organic, they’re that much closer. Maybe someday they make the leap. This is especially true with dairy farmers and especially true with other grain farmers who are like, “Boy, I just have to buy seed now, organic, and I can get certified.” And they make the leap.
TM: So I bet that conference, the MOSES conference, really is instrumental in probably converting farmers. Do you ever hear stories about farmers who got converted by going to the conference?
FJ: I do. I love those stories, I love those letters, I love those phone calls. They are certainly a great joy of me. And what sticks out in my mind is it’s couples who seem to have almost a religious experience. They’re at the conference and they realize that they can change their farming practices because they’re in a building with all these other people who do what maybe they thought they could do but they needed to just have lunch with someone doing it. And that’s enough for them to have the guts, as one of the people told me, the guts to go home and cancel their anhydrous order and they’ve never ordered it since. Anhydrous ammonia is a gassy chemical fertilizer, for those of you who maybe don’t know.
And so the conference is, for a lot of people, it is a tipping point. It helps them get the confidence they need to make that final leap. Or maybe it just gives them the tool to make another step towards improving agricultural production.
TM: And I remember going to a conventional soybean farm, and he basically was getting quite a significant increase in his beans from a Japanese buyer who just said, “You can use nitrogen fertilizer, but no sprays for weeds, and that if you do that and you ship to Japan”—and they were making, I don’t know whether it was miso or tofu or whatever—“we’ll give you a very good premium.” And we went and visited the farm, and there were a lot of weeds. In the Midwest they have an expression and that is, “If you’re not spraying you have to walk your beans,” which means at a certain point in time you’d better pull those weeds out, otherwise they get out of control. So he had certain parts of his bean field that were out of control. And some of the farmers that were there were absolutely horrified about the weeds, because they wanted to see this pristine field. They’re proud when everything is exactly, no weeds, perfect looking. They were just aghast that he… Even if he was making money, one farmer said, “I don’t care if you’re making more money—I could never stand that.”
And then someone in the background commented and said, “Wow, if you think it’s bad being a teenager, try and be a farmer in the Midwest and do something different.” So how did you think that these early pioneers were kind of on their own, all outliers, were able to help and recruit others? What did you see in those early years?
FJ: I saw a lot of different things, you know. There are different ways that people come to organic. There are three general ways that people come to organic, but some of the ways that they got over it was what I just said: they got over having to have perfect-looking fields. And that is an important concept that a lot of people, they don’t want… It used to be you didn’t want your neighbors to know you were organic, because they thought that instantly meant your fields were going to look bad. And so it takes…the biggest shift that has to happen is up in the head, hey? It’s between the ears, okay, it’s in the brain. It’s that way of just thinking about it different, thinking that it doesn’t have to look like… We are indoctrinated in this society to think clean means better. So that change is ahead.
But the three ways that I see farmers that come to organic is that, like I said, for me, because it felt like the right thing to do. They just believe it’s the right thing to do; they believe that it’s good. And for other people, it’s a very spiritual experience. You know, they feel like their goal and their purpose here on Earth is to be good stewards of the land, and it’s religious. And for others, it’s plain old economics. They make more money once they’ve learned how to shift the way they think and the way that they farm. But it takes a number of things to change, but the biggest change has to happen in the brain.
TM: One of the things I’m wondering in your history now, twenty-seven-plus years, or actually it’s more now, isn’t it, 1970 till today. Do you see that that is still those three things driving people into organic? Have the farmers of 1970 and the farmers of 2015, are they different? What do you think?
FJ: I think they’re basically the same human beings. I think that people are a lot more opened about it and willing to talk about it than they used to be. But the reasons people come to it, in my mind, and the people that we are seeing, still they’re coming to it because they’re interested either in economics, the spiritual, or because they really believe it’s the right thing to do—that it’s similar. But how many more of them are coming to it than I would have ever dreamed.
TM: That was my next question: Are you seeing an increase of farmers coming in?
FJ: I never thought in my lifetime I would see the…well, Organic Valley or MOSES or these kind of institutions grow the way we’ve grown. The competition for funding and for that type of thing also has increased, but I believe that, you know, I didn’t think that we’d have a federal pool. And I see more younger people interested in vegetable production. That is exploding. And I want to see more dairy farmers and grain farmers, because the early adopters, the people who are low on the bell curve, are the easy people, the low-hanging fruit. They’ve come on board. So we are in the middle of the next phase, so to say. And that’s going to take good, strong, steady prices, to help them see that organic means that your price margin is going to stay similar. It’s not going to fluctuate for reasons that are completely out of your control. And I am hopeful that that helps bring more farmers, this next group, into it.
TM: Well, if I might, just for a second—if you are just joining us, listeners, I am talking to Faye Jones, who is the executive director for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, or MOSES, which is a conference that happens every year in La Crosse and is actually happening next week. And the dates, Faye—
FJ: 25th, 26th, and 27th of February in beautiful downtown La Crosse.
TM: This year’s conference, Faye, tell me, what do you think is exciting here, coming up?
FJ: Well, I think the conference, everything about the conference, I think, is exciting, because I really believe in the farmer-to-farmer learning, and that’s what our conference is all about. And there is literally something for everyone. We are featuring almost seventy workshops; there are tracks from livestock to vegetables to all kinds. So there’s the workshops. There’s the roundtable discussions, which you can visit our website and see what’s already taking place, or you can just show up at the conference and see what has been organized by farmers. Again, that’s that farmer-to-farmer learning.
But the thing that really excites me this year is our two keynoters that will be Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon. And Eric Lee-Mäder from the Xerces Society is going to be talking Friday at about 1:30 at the general session. And he’s going to be talking about the important role that organic farms have in saving the earth’s wildlife—pollinators, you know, room for them all to grow. And Eric is a fantastic speaker, and he so much wanted to focus on his keynote that he declined doing a workshop too, which really impressed me. And for those of you that have heard Eric, you know, I think it’s going to be a great keynote. For those folks that have never heard Eric speak before, you’re in for a treat.
And then we also, on Saturday, we have Mary Jo Forbord, who is a certified organic farmer herself, and she is also a registered dietitian. She’s going to talk about both the challenges and the great opportunities there are out there for farmers.
And so a part of the conference that I like to say is that we try to put the culture back in agriculture. We eat well, organic food of course, and that’s one of the ways I got into being a conference organizer was I went to an organic event with no organic food whatsoever. It’s not a good thing to put in front of Faye Jones! And they said to me, “Well, you just can get on the committee and help make it happen.” And I said [unclear]—
TM: Oh no!
FJ: —oh no, that would be years ago, and look at me now. But the food, we have music, we have organic beer. You know, the exhibit hall for a lot of farmers. I just talked to the Farmer of the Year, by the way, and you’ll have to wait till next week. I will just say that the Farmer of the Year is someone from Wisconsin!—here in the Madison area. But oh, next week, the name is going to come out. That Farmer of the Year will speak on Thursday night at the conference, and I will introduce them on Friday at the conference. And that’s a lot of fun. But we dance, we drink, we eat great food. It’s a wonderful event.
TM: Well, I’m going to just give my testimony: yes, it is a wonderful, wonderful event. I’m correct, aren’t I, Faye—you’re drawing from all over, aren’t you? I bet you’re even drawing from Canada and maybe even offshore.
FJ: You bet! We usually have fifteen countries represented. Last year we had forty-three states—that included the three provinces up in Canada. So we have a wide variety of people. And certainly we have a lot of people from the Midwest, but people are drawn from all over to come out. I mean, there are people who rent jets to fly out from the east coast—farmers! These are farmer types, and they’re like, “We’re not going to miss that conference!”
TM: Oh, that is so exciting to see. Yes, it is a beautiful cultural event. You know, just a couple of things: you probably just want to mention it and see what you think about that Newcastle study that just came out this week. Everyone can say the jury was out, but now the jury is in, and clearly organic milk and meat showing very, very high nutrition, healthful nutrition, compared to conventional. I think in 1970 we all knew that, but now we have some proof. What do you think about that?
FJ: Well, you know, I’m not surprised. It makes good sense to me. And I mean, they have been, the UN will even say it, that organic foods are more nutritious and are healthier. And we’re hearing it more and more, and people believe it and they accept it. And it is nice to hear this kind of validation, because a lot of people just want to see the numbers. Studies like this, the one you refer to, show us what we know in our hearts.
TM: Yeah, and then also, I think it was last week, another study came out from Washington State University about how organic could feed the world; the resources and references on it were just fantastic. So this has been a couple of really, really great weeks for me as far as showing all the things that we have believed in our hearts for so long is now being proven. What do you think, Faye? How do we approach the naysayers on it? I mean, I’m looking at press today that’s poo-pooing all of this. You mentioned, “I represent a positive approach.” Tell me more about that and how it’s worked.
FJ: I think, of course, I think it’s worked great. I think that people, any human being is not going to be open to new ideas if it isn’t positive, if they aren’t approached positively. And that’s why I say farmers are my heroes—and all farmers, and I mean it. All farmers are my heroes, regardless of the type of agriculture you do. And I think it’s important to recognize all farmers—that’s the first step.
And how you continue to be positive is that you offer them a safe and comfortable place—that’s what we try to have the conference be. It’s not judgmental. So you spray—you’re still welcome to come. Maybe this will give you the courage to try not spraying on part of your farm. And so the positiveness is very important to me as far as if we really want to change the way America farms, we need to be positive about it. It’s a very negative world out there in general, and if farmers find that organic, if the people are positive and what-not, they are going to be a lot more interested. If they come to the conference and they see young and old and mixed genders, and they see this diversity, and they get excited. For the first time in so long they’re excited about agriculture, and they’re with other people who are excited and feeling positive. And again, this all falls back to farmer-to-farmer learning.
TM: You know, Faye, just for the record, are there other conferences around the United States that you’re seeing that also do a lot of farmer-to-farmer… Are there other events that you would recommend to people who are looking for places where they can have that farmer-to-farmer interaction?
FJ: There’s a lot of them, and that’s the great thing, you know. This wonderful conference that I get to help, have helped for twenty-seven years to organize, is just one of many. There’s the Minnesota Organic Conference; the Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference down in Iowa; Illinois is putting on their own conference—I think they combine it with the specialty crop areas. Those are here in the Midwest. But reaching further out, there’s EcoFarm out in California; the PASA, which is the Pennsylvania sustainable ag group [[Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture]], organizes a great conference in Pennsylvania; Southern SAWG, which stands for the Sustainable Ag[riculture] Working Group—they move around from Mississippi all around the South. So this is a movement. The conference and this concept of farmer-to-farmer learning is not really unique to us.
TM: You’ve just been doing it for a long time!
FJ: That’s right, and I believe in it. I just believe in it. I also believe people want to see numbers on these surveys that, you know, you cited two great surveys. It helps people to say, “Well, you know, the University of Washington says…,” you know, and they can quote them.
TM: For those people who are gardeners out there, what do you think? Is the MOSES going to be interesting to someone who just is a home gardener?
FJ: Our focus is on farmers, clearly, but I think the conference will have plenty of opportunity for them to learn specific things. I would call it serious gardeners—people who are serious gardeners, you are going to find something of interest at the conference. And the exhibit hall will be of great interest, everything from great hose to wonderful, wonderful compost that you might want to buy, to learning about some new seed companies. So absolutely, gardeners will find something that they need at our farmer-focused conference.
TM: Yeah, I forgot about that—you have like a tabletop, don’t you, where people can show their goods.
FJ: You know, the exhibit hall is about 170 booths. It’s two layers: it’s both the floor of the arena and it’s the concourse.
TM: A hundred and seventy booths!
FJ: Yes, a lot of booths. And they’re all relating to agriculture. We’re very particular. Our booths are agriculture related.
TM: So you’ve got 170 booths, you’ve got seventy different workshops; you probably have a lot of ad hoc things going on; you have roundtables; you have two excellent speakers. By the way, Eric Mäder is going to be on Rootstock as an interview in just a little while. And certainly what is a wonderful thing is this conference puts together things like what do pollinators have to do with agriculture, which is a very, very important question that we have to ask now as we watch our bees decline.
You know, we’re running out of time, and there’s just one thing I want to make sure to say, and that is thank you, Faye, for having the most wonderful life and career of dedicated to the things that you’re passionate and you believe about, and for giving us so many gifts, those of us who love organic and want to see a new kind of agriculture. I just can’t thank you enough. And I know that it’s not just you—it’s a lot of other people who do it too. But you have been just instrumental in helping so, so much. So I just want to thank you for that so much.
FJ: And thank you for being so sweet and acknowledging this important work that I do. And I love it! I love the people who I’m with, I’m excited about the future of the world. And even though we have a lot in front of us, I feel hopeful and positive about the future, because I didn’t think we would come to this point in my lifetime.
TM: And Faye, see you out there on the street!
FJ: Thank you!
TM: Loving you, Faye.
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