Eagerness to learn within the agricultural community was what brought farmer Ryan Sullivan to one of the largest organic farming conferences in the country.
“It’s easy to walk away from (the conference) excited and get back to the farm,” said Sullivan, who farms north of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
The recent Marbleseed Organic Farming Conference, formerly known as MOSES, brought Sullivan to the event thanks to a scholarship that prioritizes financial assistance to beginning farmers, veterans, historically underserved farmers and first-time attendees.
Sullivan says the family was bitten by the "wanting to farm" bug after buying the foreclosed house with a long to-do list of clean-up chores. Although, Sullivan knew his end goal was to learn more about food after having a daughter, he says that goal wasn't always easy, especially hailing from a background of aviation in the military.
“…learning about our food system and about nutrition in general was what I wanted. As a military guy, I knew a lot more about beer than I did food,” said Sullivan, who was hungry to learn more.
Today, the 40 rented acres and five acres of their homestead provides food for consumers through a food stand. The farm, formally listed as an LLC in 2020, now grows vegetables, livestock, broilers, and grass-fed lambs.
It was Sullivan’s fourth time attending the conference and says he was inspired by the variety of sessions including learning more about time management and different farms.
“There’s a million different types of farms, but everyone’s growing something and taking care of something that’s alive,” he said.
The 2023 Farmer of the Year, Harold and Ross Wilken of Janie's Farm Organic, share similar thoughts, but from the milling side of grains.
The Wilkens own and operate their multi-generational family farm in Illinois using the latest technology to raise hybrid and heritage food-grade grains. They serve large and small food companies, as well as many brewers and distillers, with their certified organic corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, oats, buckwheat and other grains.
Harold says he recognized the need in 2013 to start a business in that sold to consumers in the area while loading chicken feed made with homegrown grain that was bound for New York.
“As that truck pulled out of my yard, I thought this is really stupid, because there’s 10 million people in the food shed in Chicago,” said Wilken.
With this being the fifth-year milling and selling the flour to wholesalers and online customers, Wilken said, “we look at our customers as our partners.”
Wilken credits the organic conference experience in 2003 when he and his son, Ross, took a class on transitioning to organic.
“I came home from there with the confidence to go ahead, and do 100% of our farm organically. We've grown from there,” said Wilken.
While the annual conference recently celebrated the 34 annual conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, it recently changed the name of MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services) to Marbleseed as a metaphor for all of the things the group wanted to be, said Executive Director Lori Stern.
“Part of what started to happen over time is confusion,” said Stern. “We’re finding, like in many sectors of the population aging, there are lots of farmers that are getting older.”
Therefore, Stern said as the farmers who were once part of the beginning label discussions in 1990 transitioned their land, we found the new farmers were not as familiar with the organizations and services offered related to organic agriculture.
“I was having to do the whole acronym, which nobody really remembered,” she said.
With an organization that was founded by farmers who were interested in educating themselves about engaging with the label to become certified organic, it was a time for a change, said Stern.
The mission has not changed, Stern said, adding that, "Marbleseed is indigenous to the Midwest prairie plant, with a deep taproot and is used for restoration.”
“So much resonated with the work that we do and we wanted to bring the community together to see the many programs and activities that’s offered beyond the conference," she said, noting that the conference attracted nearly 2,000 attendees and over 160 exhibitors for a trade show.
All in all, the conference brought together many, a goal of the conference.
“It’s like any other (conference) where you come to a place, and there’s so many people and you really recognize that you’re part of something bigger, and that you can connect with all these people that are here,” said Stern.
To learn more about the organization and ways it can help organic farmers, visit marbleseed.org.