18th Annual Iowa Organic Conference: Soil Rules!

The 18th Annual Iowa Organic Conference brings together friendly growers, powerful speakers, and incredibly yummy organic food.

The organic community is growing, more people are farming organically, and organic farmers are doing well. You can join the fast-rising wave of organic production by attending the 18th Annual Iowa Organic Conference, held November 18-19 in the University of Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Hear a compelling talk on dirt as the root of our existence, learn about the renegade farmers of the Lentil Underground, discover how growers are diversifying with crops like chestnuts and mushrooms, meet friendly fellow growers and enthusiasts, and indulge in some spectacular organic meals, all made with locally grown and raised ingredients.

The conference promises to be both educational and entertaining. “It’s one of the best, funnest things of the year,” says organizer Dr. Kathleen Delate, Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture at Iowa State University. She feels the conference is an exceptional educational opportunity as well as a chance for anyone interested in organic production to learn what farmers do. And it’s a great networking opportunity. “Everybody’s super friendly and welcoming,” says Delate. “For a newcomer, it’s a really good place to get acquainted with organics in Iowa, and then for the rest of us, it’s a great place to see friends and connect.”

The Iowa Organic Conference is held in the Iowa Memorial Union on the UI campus.

The largest university-sponsored organic conference in the country, the Annual Iowa Organic Conference is produced through a partnership among the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, University of Iowa Office of Sustainability, New Pioneer Co-op, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Expounding on this year’s theme of Building Soils and Society is keynote speaker David R. Montgomery, renowned geologist and award-winning author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Other speakers include Pulitzer prize-winning editor Art Cullen from Storm Life Times and Lentil Underground author Liz Carlisle. The conference includes educational presentations and workshops, as well as an extensive vendors fair.

The conference begins with a reception in the UI Memorial Union on Sunday, November 18, at 6 p.m., followed by Dr. Montgomery’s keynote address on the importance of building and maintaining good soil. The address will be followed by an introduction to the vendors, accompanied by local and organic refreshments.

Attendees always rave about the food created by executive chef Barry Greenberg and his team.

During the conference, meals will be assembled by gifted executive chef Barry Greenberg and his UI Dining team. “I always look forward to the food chef Barry Greenberg puts together,” says conference organizer George McCrory. The lunch on Monday, November 19, highlights local and organic produce, meats, and dairy products. The gourmet feast, which includes vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options, is a huge draw. “I’ve heard repeatedly on all of our evaluations that it’s the best organic conference meal in the country,” Delate says. Some of the delectable things on the menu include soup, salad made with local greens, empanadas, beef sliders, and dessert. McCrory adds that there’s tasty popcorn served during breaks.

The breakout sessions on Monday include informative workshops and talks by local and national experts in organic agriculture. “I think this year’s lineup of speakers is the best we’ve ever had,” Delate says, “showing great diversity from large-scale organic farming operations looking at innovative practices like organic no-till, to learning about all the local food initiatives going on in Iowa.”

Meals are made with as much local food as possible.

Topics include the impact of the Farm Bill on organic trade (which is a big issue in the organic food industry right now), as well as crop production, marketing and local food systems, organic labeling and pesticide residues, food safety, weed management, small grains, crop rotation, and diversifying operations. Featured speakers include Liz Carlisle and farmer David Oien, talking about growing edible beans. Carlisle has published Lentil Underground, a popular book about Montana farmers growing lentils. Shellie Buffalo of the Meskwaki nation will be talking about Red Earth Farm. Kathy Dice and Tom Wahl from Red Fern Farm will be speaking about growing chestnuts, and other local farmers will speak about diversifying with mushrooms. Bill Stowe from the Des Moines Water Works and Pulitzer prize-winning editor Cullens will be talking about water quality. A number of local food initiatives will also be presenting, including Feed Iowa First, the Global Green, and the Brick Oven.

A highlight for many conference attendees is the vendor show. “That’s the most colorful part of the conference,” Delate says, “all of the vendors and their wares for sale and on display.” About 40 vendors include people selling everything from tools to seeds to books. Production-oriented vendors sell seeds, organic fertilizer, and tools. Agents from the USDA offer services helping farmers transition to organic production. Ten local nonprofits offer information on local food systems, and many vendors offer good practical farming advice. “If you can’t find what you want to know at one of the sessions,” says McCrory, “maybe one of the vendors can help you out with the information you need.” Many vendors offer free samples, and Delate says they’ll be giving away free squash from their research plot.

For more information, contact kdelate@iastate.edu or visit Iowa State Organic Conference.  Early Bird registration is $100. After November 11, registration goes up to $120.