When the Idaho Center for Sustainable Agriculture was founded in Boise in 2012, the goals of its 11-member volunteer board were simple: Organize educational events, usually during an annual symposium, in which farmers and expert speakers address sustainable farming topics. It was not to rabble-rouse or pick fights among farmers, says the center’s president, Pete Pearson.
The nonprofit promotes local food distribution, regenerative agriculture, healthy soils, and discussion of farmers’ use genetically modified organisms, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics.
“The first year we did a half-day workshop on soil health,” Pearson says. “It was simple with some great speakers and a keg of beer.”
But the center soon ran into opposition. In 2013, the center organized its first big forum at the Nampa Civic Center with a controversial speaker, Wenonah Hauter, author of the book “Foodopoly,” a book critical of corporate consolidation in the food industry. Peterson says that led the Food Producers of Idaho to turn away from the group.
Last year, the center sponsored a presentation by Joel Salatin, who describes himself on his website as a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” and a “beyond organic” farmer. Salatin urges farmers to sell only close to home and to be transparent to the public and media to the point where “every corner is camera-accessible.”
Pearson, who co-owns a Boise film production company and has worked as director of sustainability for Supervalu, says Salatin was too much for some large-scale farmers. It led the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, which sponsored the center’s first three symposiums, to pull out. The association lobbied successfully in 2014 for the Legislature to pass a bill outlawing spying on dairies and other farm operations.
“Joel Salatin wants radical change, and some people think that’s unrealistic, that they can’t make that big of a switch right now.’” Pearson says. “We’re not saying Joel Salatin has the perfect solution. We just want to keep the conversation going and encourage farmers to continue thinking critically.”
A panel on genetic modification of foods also prompted complaints, though Pearson says it features speakers on both sides of the issue.
Pearson says his group is trying to provoke thought, not alienate farmers. It seeks a middle ground among differing interests. The center plans its fourth annual symposium Nov. 7 at the College of Idaho in Caldwell. Pearson says the group will try its best to avoid emotional issues and focus on soil health topics such as no-till farming and cover-crop strategies.
“When you focus on soil health, the whole system improves,” he says.