24 January, 2009

EFA conference, day 2

I sit writing in the central building of the Asilomar Conference Grounds, beside a massive stone fireplace. There is so much to share. There's a man beside me strumming on a guitar and singing, and i just finished a delightful game of cutthroat with Gabriel and Iris - if you're unfamiliar with the game, it's a variant of pool for three. Each player, as they sink their first ball, chooses a range of numbers to defend 1 to 5, 6 to 10, et cetera. The object is to sink the others' balls while keeping yours on the table.

This morning i had hoped to wake in time for the yoga session, but the lingering cold overruled. I went back to bed and missed breakfast and the morning plenary session. The first workshop was a roundtable for produce distributors, an interesting glimpse at how - on larger scales than the CSA or farmers' market - organic produce makes its way from farm to retail. One of the presenters, Annie Moss, runs an organic wholesale in Vancouver, and spoke on the dual challenges of sourcing locally and working across national borders.

After lunch, i chose the presentation on beneficial insects and habitat factors. The research, presented in large part by Sara Bothwell, a PhD candidate from UC Santa Cruz, might not have seemed informative to some, but answered many of the questions i have been most interested in. In short, how do you investigate the connections between noncrop habitats and the abundance and efficacy of beneficial insects, in particular parasitic wasps? Bothwell's research surveyed 33 organic farms around Monterey Bay. GIS analysis was applied to determine habitat and vegetation types in 0.5 and 1.5 km radius of the center point of each farm. Field experiments were then performed with both aphids and cabbage loopers - the pests were raised in a lab and set out in 4-inch pots for two days, enough time to be parasitized by ichneumonid or braconid wasps. Then, returned to the laboratory, the pests and their uninvited guests were allowed to develop until the parasitoids emerged and could be identified. Bothwell analyzed the relation between among GIS data, factors such as tillage intensity and pesticide severity, and the abundance of parasitoids. Other research by a colleague examined how far beneficials will move from a hedgerow into a field.

The final session of the afternoon was a group presentation by representatives from two organizations - Pie Ranch and Food, What?!. Both offer programs for inner-city youth to visit farms, harvest and prepare food, and assume leadership roles in the youth to farm connection. A third, national organization called "Rooted in Community" holds a national conference for these youth leaders. Doron from Food, What?! and Nancy from Pie Ranch co-led the workshop with Maya, Carlos, and Will, three youth from the programs, and their approach was novel, moving back and forth from a roundtable lecture format to a participatory tangle of icebreakers and group activities several times. They had taste tests and made smoothies, and engaged attendees in a particularly instructive game called "the opinion line". The session wrapped with a moment of reflection and journaling. The energy in the room was so collaborative, open, and respectful, thanks to the presence of several inner-city youth who shared their experiences and thoughts. So much opportunity.

Conferences like this are such a treat; once you break the ice and stop feeling like a stranger, once you warm up to starting a conversation with every person you sit down next to, so much exchange happens. I saw a 'ride wanted' sign on the message boards, a freelance journalist named Ethan. Over the table at the last workshop i saw the teal bandana he'd described in the note. We started chatting, and realized we had something in common - a familiarity with the surfable couches of Monterey. He might end up being my travel buddy tomorrow on the ride north to Santa Cruz.

And things continue to work out in wondrous ways. As i sat in this room wondering what to do for dinner, one of the EFA staff walked over and handed several of us free passes to the dining hall.

Now, though i would love to linger with this acoustic guitar in my ear, the pleasant warmth of the fire, with all the great people i have yet to meet - it's time to move on. Time to finalize tomorrow's itinerary, shoulder the pack and walk to my next couch, and tomorrow pick the rental car up and tour the coast - historic home, state parks, urban farms - what will i see?