PASA on the Move

{This is my speech from PASA’s recent annual conference, which was delivered there in a somewhat abbreviated version}

The 24th edition of our annual Farming for the Future conference is an achievement worth celebrating in itself, but this year we are mindful that it begins a year of intense preparation for our 25th “PASA family reunion” as some people like to think of this event. And while there will be much literal preparation for the next conference in terms of developing a program, designing the workshops and recruiting the best lineup of speakers possible, there is a far more subtle process of organizing, and reorganizing, currently underway, that will come more fully to light over the next 12 months and in the years ahead.

To put it succinctly, PASA is undergoing an “extreme makeover” that we hope will pay dividends for our members and society in general, both in the short and long term. We are planning for what the next 25 years will bring to an organization that has already experienced considerable success, but is fundamentally restless and feeling an urgency to do more. It is indeed in the very nature of this organization that we, as its stewards, are perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo in agriculture and food systems, and are committed to moving ahead even before we stop and celebrate anything very much.

This transformation we are going through didn’t just start in the past several months, but has been going on for at least four years. At a very basic level we have upgraded all of our internal systems for managing information, relating to both membership and financial data, and in the spring of 2012 we even changed our bylaws with the need for future growth and flexibility in mind. Since then we have completed some necessary business, communications and strategic planning, our board and staff have reorganized, and we are now in the midst of developing new programming directions and goals, while facing the necessary hard work of identifying where funding for important new programs will come from in the future.

It has not been an entirely smooth process. Funding shortfalls – and we have had a few – never come at a convenient time and can set a process like this back for months or even years. There’s also the constant stress of needing to work on developing future plans while at the same time maintaining current activities at an acceptable level. In big companies they have Research & Development departments working on new products and services all the time while others carry on with the routine implementation of current programs.  But alas, in most nonprofits like PASA, the same staff members must maintain both of these necessary activities.

We do not intend to fail in this process, though. There’s simply too much at stake. In our planning, we have identified three things PASA must do in order to succeed. First and foremost, we must provide innovative educational programming that inspires new farmers, brings existing farmers together in a meaningful way to exchange information, and establishes an aggressive on-farm research agenda to support the sustainability of farms and food systems in an effective and lasting way. You will be hearing much more about this aspect of our strategic planning over the next year, leading up to our 25th conference.

The second thing we must do, which builds upon the first, is to develop strong markets for sustainably produced foods through effective outreach to food-related businesses and the general public. This is something we have done with varying degrees of success for over a decade now, particularly in connection with the Buy Fresh Buy Local® brand, which PASA now manages across the country through our subsidiary, the FoodRoutes Network. But more recently, our Western Pennsylvania office is leading an important project, referred to so far as the “Real Deal,” to design and disseminate communications tools that businesses can use to talk about the degree to which the food and other farm products they sell come from local sources. You’ve probably noticed the ubiquitous use of the term “local” these days, and been outraged when it’s used to promote products that either come from across the country, or worse, have no clear lineage at all. We hope to do something about that by providing incentives and positive messaging opportunities for businesses trying to do the right thing.

And last but not least, the third thing we must do is to advocate in the public arena for our sustainable farmers and businesses in an effective and consistent manner, and to do so in a way that relies in turn on our successful educational and outreach programs for the sake of establishing credibility.  We have already done this pretty well, and in the past year have managed more gains in our work on food safety regulations on the local, statewide and national levels. This has in fact become somewhat of a signature issue for us as we continue to help PASA members stand up for their rights to produce and sell safe food without compromising quality, and while avoiding regulations that sometimes seem designed to make it tough for all but the largest farms to manage costs and stay in business.

I also want to mention that we worked over the past year with partnering organizations as part of the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations to pass legislation making high tunnels permanently exempt from both property taxes and the Uniform Construction Code . . . and that is true no matter the size or use of the structure, so long as it is for agricultural purposes.  I will be ending my two-year term as president of the state council in March, and am proud to be the first leader of a sustainable or organic farming organization to have held that position.

So, over the next year you can expect to hear more about our evolving educational programs in particular, and other ways in which PASA is preparing for its second quarter century as a leader for the sustainable farming movement in this part of the country. To that end, we are currently hiring key staff positions, including an Educational Director and Communications Coordinator, both pivotal positions at this critical time. You can help us get the word out about those jobs, and also about the fact that we will be producing a 25th anniversary edition of our popular membership directory, which will include and be distributed to all current members after next year’s conference. It will be a “who’s who” of sustainable farming and food systems in the Mid-Atlantic region. Many members have told us that previous editions of this directory have actually served as a daily phone book for them. It’s something you won’t want to miss.

But the main thing I don’t want any of you to miss is the reason we are doing all of this. It’s not for those of us on the staff and board, or for the strength of PASA as an organization alone. It’s for you, our members, and for all those people who do not yet understand the importance of knowing how their food was produced or where. And also for our children and grandchildren, who may not have an opportunity to understand in time to make a difference.

We as PASA members cannot ever accept the status quo in any situation as a given to which we must accommodate ourselves. Indeed, sustainability, at its heart, can be described as a fundamental uneasiness or dissatisfaction with the way things are, and a desire to improve. We are a very diverse community of people, representing divergent points of view in other areas of life. We are, however, united by our desire to move beyond the status quo in agriculture and to embrace change in terms of economics, environmental restoration and in our responsibility to each other living in community. PASA is a facilitator of such change, and we aim to support all of you as the real agents of the change we seek.

The basic paradox we face, not just as an organization, but as a larger sustainable farming movement, is that our success individually depends on our collective achievement. And just as we have overcome the diverse points of view within our own family to do some great things, our larger movement must also overcome its fragmentation in order to realize meaningful and lasting change. In other words, the change we wish to see in the world is rooted in diversity, but fully realized only in strong partnerships that are driven by a common vision. That is, for our movement to succeed, we must devise new ways to work together.

But in addition, we will need to find more effective ways to measure success, both internally and externally with respect to farming operations. We also need to move beyond our current fascination with the words “small” and “local” to start talking about building innovative production systems that are adaptable to different size operations in different parts of the world, while still keeping sustainability as the ultimate goal. We must also insist on building those systems in such a way that all participants are able to succeed economically, from farmers, to farm workers, to consumers in poorer neighborhoods, to those hardworking and often underappreciated people who run farmers markets (think about it), and yes, to organizations like PASA that help to hold the whole system together. The dominant American food system today was founded on the precepts of taking land from its original inhabitants and then working that land with imported, forced labor. The systems built by the sustainable farming movement must offer a distinctly different paradigm by comparison.

In summary, and as I’ve already outlined, PASA is about to take some big steps, and we’ll need your help. In the future we will deliver to you more robust educational programming, more effective outreach to the businesses and consumers we depend upon to keep our farms viable, and a broader array of advocacy programs to address the public policy challenges that threaten to block our progress. We will do this to serve the needs of our members first, and to secure the next quarter century for PASA as an organization second. But we also do this because the sustainable farming movement is in need of someone to put together all of these pieces into a coherent whole that can achieve the ultimate goal of effecting meaningful change in a food system that has run amuck.

So I ask you, with respect to this higher purpose, “If not PASA, then who?”

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