University hosts 29th annual Organic Conference

Monday, February 1, 2010

  • (Left to right): At a booth for Pfenning's Farm, Jayma and Gwendolyn Hanselman learn to mill organic oats under the watchful eye

    (Left to right): At a booth for Pfenning's Farm, Jayma and Gwendolyn Hanselman learn to mill organic oats under the watchful eye

  • Kyle Wilson serves up Mapleton's Organic Ice Cream at the vendor's expo. (Greg Beneteau)

    Kyle Wilson serves up Mapleton's Organic Ice Cream at the vendor's expo. (Greg Beneteau)

  • Pauline Nadersmith of Organic Meadow Dairy offers up free samples. (Greg Beneteau)

    Pauline Nadersmith of Organic Meadow Dairy offers up free samples. (Greg Beneteau)

Written by Martina Schaefer

The University of Guelph’s 29th annual Guelph Organic Conference attracted large crowds and support from organizations advocating environmentally sustainable food production.

However, the future of the major that allows students to learn about organic agriculture remains uncertain.

The week-long conference offered workshops and presentations on everything from animal husbandry to genetic modification and social research in organics. An annual vendors’ expo over the weekend attracted representation from a wide variety of  local farms, natural food companies, seed vendors and industry groups.

Almut Wurzbacher, who works at Pfenning’s Organic farm store and has been running their table at the conference expo for over 12 years, said events like these highlight how much the market for organic produce has expanded. 

“We now have the store separate from the farm. It just got too big,” she explained.

Three generations of Wurzbacher’s family have worked at Pfenning’s Farm in Baden, Ontario. She predicted that interest in organics would continue to grow, thanks to a younger generation of consumers concerned about the environmental and social impacts of the foods they eat.

“There’s more interest from young people in recent years…it’s the young people that need to make the difference,” she said.

Founded by students in 1982, the conference first served to bring together like-minded people to learn about food production from a different perspective than those their courses provided.

Starting from a handful of participants, the week-long conference now draws hundreds of visitors, showcases over 150 vendors and has earned support from industry groups such as the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Canadian Organic Growers.

Students and faculty from the University of Guelph’s Organic Agriculture degree program also set up a booth, hoping to capitalize on interest in organic food production to attract support.

The program, which opened for enrolment in 2004 and was the first of its kind in North America, recently came under scrutiny from the university administration during last year’s budget consultation. The major was originally slated for elimination, but was given a year-long reprieve so that faculty could to meet the three criteria required for the program to continue: increased enrolment, new teaching staff, and funding from the organics industry.

These days, the future of Organic Agriculture is looking a little brighter. The Ontario Agricultural College recently withdrew its proposal to cut the program, with support from the college's Program Committee. 

However, the issue will ultimately be decided by the Board of Undergraduate Studies, which will meet in April to discuss possible program cuts.

Dr. E. Ann Clark, one of the two coordinators of the program, said she was hopeful that the University of Guelph would continue to offer the organic major.

“We’ve gotten funding from a number of different sources to support this, and that’s hugely reinforcing,” Dr. Clark said. “We’re tremendously grateful… [people] are really pulling for us… and they want to know what they can do.”

At this year’s Organic Conference, Dr. Clark accepted a $5000 donation from Toronto-based Feast of Fields, which hosts an annual dinner prepared by acclaimed chefs and donates the proceeds to groups that promote responsible food production.

International organizations have also voiced their support for U of G’s Organic Agriculture program, including the United States Agricultural Library.

Groups within the campus community are doing their part to raise awareness about the major. Eco Squared, an independent student-run organization which started up last year, has been heavily involved in promoting the program through events during the school year. At the town hall meeting held this past November concerning the future of the major, students from various programs attended to show their support.

Eco Squared organizers attributed this interest to the fact that the program integrates numerous disciplines including social sciences, anthropology, and biology.

“[Organic agriculture] is for people who want a balanced education, not just organics students,” said Anna Mancuso, a coordinator of Eco Squared.

Last month, Eco Squared hosted a series of seminars focusing on different aspects of the organic major.  Current and former students shared their experiences with the program, and representatives from the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada discussed research and career opportunities.

Dr. Clark, who is retiring this year, said the overlap between organics and topics like human health and environmental stewardship makes organic agriculture a vital, but undersupported, topic of study.

“Organic is the future in mainstream agriculture, and it’s time now to be doing this, and if we can’t do it through research then we certainly need to do it through teaching.”

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