A History of the NOFA Summer Conference

By Julie Rawson

Click on past Summer Conference Logos to enlarge

Back in 1985 Jack and I and our four small children went to our first NOFA Summer Conference. It was held at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. It was a real high point for us. We had been members of NOFA/Mass for approximately one year. We loved it, and our kids loved it. We haven't missed a NOFA Summer Conference ever since! Indeed in those days the kids would spend at least a month prior to the conference each year talking about all the friends they were going to see and the menu and how much fun they were going to have eating at the conference.






We went to the conference in 1986 at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. We found out at that time that the NOFA Summer Conference was in big trouble financially, and that it had been for the past three years. Although in the early years I understand that NOFA-VT and NOFA-NH passed the conference back and forth, at that point in the mid-eighties the Interstate Council had titular charge of running it. Again, this is all hearsay, but the word was that the conference was very large in the early seventies, with upwards of 1,500 people in attendance. As we got into the eighties, and as the conference became a little more top-heavy in terms of benefits for staff and presenters, and for whatever reason the attendance started to slow down, it was on a collision course for financial disaster. I'm not sure how many people attended that 1986 conference, but I do remember that it was very cold that weekend. The Interstate Council was poised on the precipice of cancelling the conference altogether because the combined debt to colleges for unpaid bills had risen to $6,000. Attempts to get each of the chapters to help pay for the deficit had thrown NOFA into a bit of a turmoil.






At that point in my career, I had been home raising children for about nine years, and was itching to get back into my profession of professional community organizing. Our farm was beginning to take shape, but by no means was it an adequate financial living, nor did it take all of my time and energy. Jack and I felt that with his business skills and my organizing skills this would be a fun challenge to take on. We huddled with some of the other NOFA/Mass leadership who were in attendance at that conference - Ed McGlew, Lois Voltmer, and Roberta Panagakos - and decided to give the Interstate Council a proposal for NOFA/Mass to take over the conference. We offered them the following deal: we said that NOFA/Mass would take all the financial risk for the conference in 1987, but that we would also take any income in the conference as income for NOFA/Mass. We also offered to the Interstate Council that we would give the first $1,500 of that income to the Council as a "franchise fee." They accepted our offer and we went about organizing the 1987 conference.






I remember many sleepless nights and dreams bordering on nightmares as we planned that first conference in Massachusetts. Time and time again I would find myself at the conference and find that none of the arrangements had been made and that no one had a clue who I was or what I was doing there. Despite all the anxiety and probably because of a lot of work on the part of our hard-working 1987 conference staff, we were able to pull off a successful event on the weekend of July 31 to August 2 at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Our dim memories are of about 400 people in attendance. I do remember that we would have broken even except that we got a $1,500 grant and we dutifully turned that over to the Interstate Council.






Someone asked me recently how the conference has changed over the years, and I said pretty honestly, "Not very much." I really have a respect for history and a loyalty to those who have come before and also feel that the basic template that was in place when we took over the conference was a very well-thought-out one. So, we really haven't changed much: it still is a three-day event, there is a keynoter on Friday night (we recently added a Saturday night keynote), the heart of the conference is the workshops run by NOFA members and others in the trade, and we have a children's conference. In later years we added the teen conference, a fair, and a Saturday night local meal (although I am told that in the early days NOFA members brought food to the conference and it was like a big potluck). People reminisce about huge corn-husking parties and vegetable-chopping marathons. We still have the Friday night contradance, and the rock-and-roll party has turned into a zydeco party.

This history will be added to in a piecemeal fashion. I will try to mention highlights of all the particular years and give as good a sense as possible of what the big issues were at the time.






The theme for the 1987 conference was "Growing Organically: People and Earth Together." The logo was done by Eve Andrade. We had done a pretty extensive search of Massachusetts and border counties in surrounding states; in the end we chose Williams College, right in the corner of Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. It was a beautiful location, and we stayed there for three years. We had to leave because we grew out of the space. At the time of the 1987 conference there were 1,500 members and there were only 6 chapters (RI had not yet joined as a chapter). It was the 13th annual conference and celebration of rural life of the Natural organic farmers association.

The keynoter for the event was Jack Dennison, Associate Dean of Instruction at the College of Food and Natural Resources and Director of Stockbridge School of Agriculture, at the University of Massachusetts. He noted in the program that he believes that there will continue to be an exciting and profitable future here in the Northeast for present and new agricultural products. Other changes cause him to worry about the structure of the production and processing industries and where we are going to find interested and well-trained youth in the future.




On Saturday we had a panel discussion titled, "What Can the State Agricultural Departments do for organic agriculture?" In attendance were August Schumacher from Mass., Ronald Albee from Vermont, Steven Taylor from New Hampshire, John Lawrence from Rhode Island, and Donald Butcher from New York.

Elizabeth Henderson was given the prestigious NOFA Person of the Year award in 1987.

The conference committee members that year were Coordinators Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, Registration Lois Voltmer and Stanley Robinson, Volunteers Wendy Fairlee, Publicity Stacy Miller, Design and Layout Sissy ffolliott, Exhibits Roberta Panagakos, Films Dan Kovnat, Food Susan Podmayer and Ed McGlew, and Children's Conference Dorothy Allen and Debbie Habib.

If I remember correctly we weren't able to talk them into doing an all-organic meal at that point in time.

To give you an idea of the presenters in those days, we had a draft horse demonstration by Peter Braymann; "Sustainable Whole Systems" by Ted Haber, Carol Rees, John Quinney, and Ian Robb; "New Programs in Sustainable Ag" with Bill Murphy and Alison Powers, "Economic Tools for Small Farms" with John Pontius; "Wheat Is Not For Everyone" with Beatrice Trum Hunter; "Herbs: The Labor of Love" with Kathy Morris (Kathy still is a presenter every year at the NOFA conference); "Massage" with Martin Church, "Design and Buildings for the Homestead" with Jack Kittredge; and "Minimum Spray Programs for Orchards' with Ron Prokopy. Other workshops included "Agriculture in the USSR" with Liz Henderson (I'm pretty sure Liz has not missed a NOFA conference since we've been organizing them); "Coops: Are They Working?" with Brian Henehan, Paul Harlow, Bruce Kaufman, and Brian Caldwell; and "Certification Update" with Grace Gershuny, Scott Smith, Lee Stivers, Liz Henderson, and Paul Doscher (organic certification programs at that point had been around two years, max). Martin van der Kamp presented composting for the organic gardener, and Steen Bentzen presented on organic strawberries.

The films and videos for 1987 were the following: Root Hog or Die, Maple Moon, Living History of Maple Syrup Production, The Wrath of Grapes, From Stump to Ship, The New Alchemists, The Living Soil, An Introduction to Beekeeping, Wetlands Boundary Delineation, Desertification of Botswana, Alternative to Incineration: The German Perspective, Save Our Harbor, Taste A Little of the Summer, and Heinz Guide to Successful Pickling. Our entertainers for 1987 were Court Dorsey and Suzy Polucci.

The 1987 presidents of the NOFA chapters were as follows: Connecticut - Bill Duesing, Massachusetts - Greg Federspiel, New Jersey - Barry Thomas, New Hampshire - Winifred Cartland Wingate, New York -Michael Kane, Vermont - Joe Klein.

Full-page advertisers in the 1987 program book were Skyline Engineering, Institute for Community Economics, Safer, South River Miso, New England Small Farm Bulletin, Gardener's Kitchen, Acme Equipment Company, and the Boston Food Co-op.