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The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) marked its 40th anniversary during its annual educational conference in December in Belleville.

But it is also looking ahead, as the ideas that it has espoused, regenerative farming and farm-level research and cooperation gain popularity.

Why it matters: The EFAO has provided training and farmer-to-farmer networking for 40 years.

The daughter of two charter members, artisanal chicken and CSA vegetable producer Katrina McQuail, delivered a keynote address on the first day, which was followed the next day by a presentation from Michelle Holliday, a Montreal-based urban consultant who heaped praise on the organization.

Both women said the values of EFAO members now align more closely with those of many farmers and food consumers, particularly on the issues surrounding climate change.

“The rest of the world, who are not in that kind of direct relationship with the land (enjoyed by farmers), are kind of stumbling around in the dark,” said Holliday, author of The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World.

She talked of emerging from an early career in brand strategy, including stints at Coca-Cola and Kraft Heinz, at a time when sustainability was a popular catchphrase. But capitalistic values continued to hold sway, not just in commerce but also in healthcare, agriculture and elsewhere. And sustainability lost its lustre.

Now, she told the EFAO audience, as regenerative enters the conversation for many farmers, she sees a different level of awareness among the broader public.

The organization’s president, Brent Preston of The New Farm near Creemore, said he has seen the same shift.

“I’ve had these feelings from these events that we had on the (charter member) farms, and in talking to all of you, and in talking to non-farmers… that there’s something really, really important happening right now.”

Preston said he believes people are awaiting opportunities to get involved in something that’s going to make a difference to the long-term health of the planet.

“And we’re at the forefront of that.”

The first evening’s celebration began with a look back.

A video created by Nakita Krucker, daughter of EFOA members, included interviews with some of the 1979 pioneers, as well as other long-time members, drawing from them what they saw as the pivotal characters and moments in the organization’s history.

Katrina McQuail related how she left the farm at 16 to finish high school elsewhere, then went on to study and work in urban centres. Eventually, when her parents announced they would be slowing down and considering the Lucknow-area farm’s fate, she and her partner decided, in 2014, to move back.

McQuail spent a lot of time thinking about it, and remembers hearing from a group of her friends that many consumers are clamoring for ecological farming. This helped cement her decision.

When McQuail was growing up, EFAO was an “older sibling” for her and her sister, competing for her parents’ time and attention. But it also meant EFAO was part of their larger family, where they often felt more at home than in their own local community.

In the film, Tony McQuail recalls how Herb Eldridge first brought the group together back in 1979. “I don’t know for sure how he even knew where we were.”

For the McQuails, this was pivotal because they were just starting out. All they had was a belief in what they were doing, but no experience to draw upon to determine if they were headed in the right direction.

Eldridge, by contrast, was an experienced farmer, and had been through years of his neighbours talking behind his back and wondering where he was going.

About 15 like-minded farmers originally gathered, calling themselves the Natural Farmers Association. But that name didn’t stick. They debated calling themselves organic but felt this would deter those not using organic practices. So they decided on ecological as an effort to be open to all farmers.

Katrina McQuail spoke of Lawrence and Mathilde Andres — later to form the Harmony Organic dairy brand — “resuscitating” the organization after Eldridge started to burn out. And then of Bernhardt Hack and Michael Schmidt fighting against what she described as the “isolation” felt by many pre-internet-age ecological farmers — creating what became a very popular two-day conference in biodynamic and ecological agriculture that, over several years, attracted more than 1,000 people to on-farm learning sessions.

These sessions eventually morphed into the two-day introduction to ecological agriculture courses that EFAO later became well-known for.

Those courses, too, are now in the past. Current areas of focus were explained at the meeting by EFAO executive director Ali English:

  • This was the sixth annual educational conference. It is held in a different Ontario community each year.
  • There are about 500 members (mostly farmers and mostly from Ontario).
  • There were dozens of farm tours in 2019 including several in partnership with other organizations.
  • This year marked the fourth for the organization’s pioneering Farmer-Led Research Program

Preston also explained that, during the summer of celebrating the past, the board of directors “spent just as much time looking forward… (at) how do we continue the very important work that we’re doing.” EFAO was, in 2019, handed $150,000 per year in unrestricted funds from the Brian and Joannah Lawson Foundation. Joannah Lawson is a nutritionist, Preston explained, and both Lawsons had become increasingly concerned about the effects of food production on climate change — some of which they used recently to begin a five-year strategic planning process. The board is looking to expand outreach beyond the member base so they can get wider consideration of ecological practices among conventional farmers, and get political leaders to better understand the importance of these practices in fighting climate change.

“We’re really getting traction among people who haven’t always paid a lot of attention to us,” says Preston.

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