On February 8 and 9, I (Justin) attended the 22nd annual PASA conference in State College, PA. This conference is the premier sustainable agricultural conference on the east coast, maybe in the country. One of the reasons is that the organization is intentionally inclusive: although most of its members are organic, it is not an exclusively organic farming association. Its founders were wise to take a “big tent” approach, and the result has been a broader membership and more influence than many other regional organic farming associations. My first conference was in 2000, the 9th annual conference, at which attendance first reached 1000. This year, and for the past several, attendance has reached over 2000+. In fact, through my extended family, my ties to PASA go back even further. My father-in-law, who had the first CSA in our area, was present for the first conference in 1992, and my wife Dillon was the typist for PASA’s newsletter in the mid-90’s.
For all these reasons my connection to PASA run deep. Even though I’ve only been able to attend about half the conferences these past 13 years, my experience at the conference is always transformative. Most of the important ideas that have pushed our businesses forward have come from the conference: the knowledge to start a website, the idea to operate a restaurant on the farm, the possibility of raising money through Kickstarter, and most recently the skills needed to begin making cheeses and curing meats!
This year’s conference was focused on around two keynote addresses: one from Charles Eisenstein and the second from Ben Hewitt. The two couldn’t have been more different: the former a Harvard grad, the latter a high school dropout. The former a resident of suburbia using his pen as a sword in the arena of ideas; the latter a farmer in rural Vermont, fighting the daily battles with nature which give a farmer his resilience and independence. The two also adopted opposite styles. Charles spoke with no notes; indeed with no prepared remarks at all, it seemed. Ben, the high school dropout, read a lecture as eloquent and carefully crafted as any professor of writing. Yet, both spoke to the same hopes and dreams we all seem to have on some level: to live in a more just world, to replace the sickness of a money economy with one based on things of true value, to restore health to both people and the earth. Both men would be labeled quixotic by the world, impractical dreamers divorced from the hard-nosed real world. And yet, both men understand that it is the very assumptions about the way the world operates which paralyzes many from living their lives with greater integrity and meaning. Both men understand that timidity and fear dominate the lives of many and that trust in fragile things is required to break such fear and insecurity. And both men understand that change doesn’t come only from great acts of those in power, but the quiet, imperceptible actions of individuals. Finally, both men understand that change in the world comes only when we begin by changing ourselves, when we see others not as the enemy but as kindred souls, and when we decide that the only change that ultimately matters is our own decision to live in the way our conscience demands.