Resilient as Texas: TOFGA Conference 2019

by Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Colin Mitchell

Last month was the annual Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA) Conference. It was the 25th TOFGA Conference, but my first. The conference didn’t have an official theme, but it was apparent from the plenary, the location, the banquet, and the keynote speech that the theme of the conference was weathering storms and finding resilience.

In 2017, East Texas was hammered by hurricane Harvey – lives were lost, homes were flooded and no longer fit for living in, and farms were destroyed. Around 50 inches of rain fell, the amount of rain the area usually receives in a year. It is the largest amount of rain dropped from any storm in the history of the United States. The location this year was Corpus Christi, TX, a coastal city on the Gulf of Mexico, the warm body of water that builds and strengthens hurricanes and brings them to our door.  The plenary featured Glen Miracle of Laughing Frog Farm in Hempstead, TX, northwest of Houston, and Constant Ngouala of Plant It Forward Farm in Houston. These farmers shared their experiences during and after hurricane Harvey hit, their recovery efforts, and plans to build resilience. Weathering a historical hurricane and then to go on and recover in less than two years, and still be farming, takes not only a resilient farm but resilient farmers and communities.

Friday night the banquet and keynote address focused on a different kind of storm that reaches us all. The banquet devoted time to honor Larry Butler and Malcolm Beck, Texas giants in sustainable, organic farming and gardening who passed away in 2018. Larry Butler was the co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, which was a pioneer in organic, local agriculture in Austin, TX. Malcolm Beck was a farmer, gardener, and author, and was known as the “Dirt-Doctor” or the “Compost King” after he founded Garden-ville, a company based in central Texas that produces organic soil amendments. I vividly remember hearing Malcolm Beck speak on Bob Webster’s weekend morning garden radio show in San Antonio, which my parents listened to when I was a kid. To me, the passing of Larry and Malcolm emphasized the resilience important members of community can instill in us by creating a high quality body of work. These pioneers set standards that farmers can aspire to and enriched us all with their knowledge and products, whether that be quality food, a healthy farm, or compost. Throughout their lives they created more resilient food systems by educating us all, and their knowledge will continue to reach those new to agriculture for years to come. The loss of two such important figures also reveals the depth of resilience a community has for loss and the strength it takes to lift each other up as an agricultural community as we attempt to fill the space they left and continue to educate each other and the world outside the agricultural community.

The keynote speaker, Ellen Polishuk, co-owner of Potomac Vegetable farm and co-author of Start Your Farm, focused on a different kind of resilience: weathering the “crazy” that happens to you on the farm. Equipment breaks, prices of non-organic crops fluctuate due to global commodity markets, storms hit, people get sick, weird zoning policies go into place, partners go out of business — the list of stressful things farmers cope with that makes them feel crazy is a long one. She focused on strategies that can help us weather all of these things, but what really struck home was her most important strategy – being kind to ourselves as farmers. Almost every farmer I know is doing their best to make their farm sustainable, profitable, organic, and efficient. And we make mistakes or sometimes things catch us by surprise us or just don’t work out when we try something new. She emphasized that we are more resilient when we don’t beat ourselves up for these things and we are kind to ourselves as farmers. It’s easier to keep going when we’re kind to ourselves and others.

It was my first TOFGA conference, and I was honored to host a session on useful composting strategies. I saw a bigger picture of the Texas organic and sustainable agriculture community. I’ve worked on and around Texas farms for a few years, but to have the opportunity to see a lot of people I’ve worked with and to have the chance to meet people you know by name but haven’t had the privilege of connecting with is a terrific blessing. The strength of the Texas organic and sustainable farming community is apparent, as is the community’s inclusivity and welcoming for more people under the tent. Down in Texas we have a saying about being “Tough as Texas, but I think replacing it with “Resilient as Texas” may be in order.

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