Planting seeds for organic farming’s future

Earlier this week, I participated in a panel discussion at The Organic Summit, an annual leadership forum for people who care about the future of the organic movement. Our topic was “Engaging the Next Generation of Organic Farmers.” I was joined by two terrific panelists: Cynthia Barstow, Seed to Shelf Marketing for Sustainability and adjunct faculty at the University of Massachusetts; and Curt Ellis, documentary filmmaker and co-founder and executive director of FoodCorps USA.

This is a tremendously important topic. If we’re going to grow the benefits of organic farming for people and the planet, we need more organic farmers, farming more acres without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or genetically engineered seeds.

I encouraged the summit audience to “hug your R&D team,” because innovation in organic foods is a major driver of opportunity for future organic farmers. Unless we grow the space, there’s no room for the organic farmers of the future. A great example is our Horizon Organic milk with DHA-Omega 3. Since we added this product to our portfolio in 2007, we’ve been able to add about 100 family dairy farms to our source of supply for Horizon, bringing the total to about 650 family farms that together supply 94 percent of our milk; the other six percent comes from our two company owned farms in Idaho and Maryland.

Cynthia discussed the great strides being made in organic agriculture education, ranging from two- and four-year programs at land-grant universities and other schools to WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which provides “gap year” on-farm experience to introduce young people to organic farming, with about 1,400 participating U.S. farms.

Curt told the story of FoodCorps USA, an offshoot of the highly regarded Americorps public service program for young people. FoodCorps’ first 50 youth leaders, selected from among more than 1,200 applicants, have been working across the U.S. to help kids plant school gardens, to help them learn what healthy food is and where it comes from, and to bring local organic produce into school cafeterias, where many kids get more than half of their calories.

Organic farming offers young farmers of all ages a great alternative to conventional, chemicals-based GMO agriculture. It’s a great story about the fast growing world of value added agriculture, something that’s relatively new and growing fast. I left our session feeling confident and excited about the next generation of organic farmers, and the opportunities in front of them.

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