Q&A with David Lively of Organicology Conference

Organicology Conference “The Study of a Sustainable Food Future” will be held Feb 2 – 4, 2017 in Portland, Oregon

Organicology is a biennial conference that brings together organic farmers, activists, policy experts, educators, retailers and sustainable organizations for three educational and inspirational days. The conference will be held for the fifth time this February 2 – 4, 2017 at the Portland Hilton Downtown and includes a rigorous schedule of workshops, speaking engagements and exhibits. Organicology was started by four organic trade organizations and David Lively, marketing director of Organically Grown Company has been involved since the beginning. We asked David a few questions about the history and evolution of the conference, what to expect this year given the current state of the organic industry and about some of his favorite Organicology moments.

Registration for Organicology is now open online and there are a limited number of small farmer discounts available. Visit Organicology.org for complete conference information, including the schedule of intensives, workshops, receptions and live entertainment.

“Organicology offers a unique educational curriculum that unites the organic food community in advancing knowledge and addressing challenges and accomplishments in the organic food industry.”

This article is based on a phone interview with David Lively in November 2016.

Can you start by giving us an overview of the conference – when it started, how and why?

David Lively: In 2005 we [Organically Grown Company] hosted our first big event, which we called a Sustainability Summit. It was a one-day event and we brought in everybody from up and down the supply chain. The goal was to create some commonality in language and let everyone know what we were taking on. The following two years we hosted vendor fairs, which were essentially trade shows for our retailers accounts to meet vendors from the Northwest, California and Mexico. This gave people an opportunity for retailers to meet the growers and producers and our staff to meet them as well. After two vendor fairs, we’d essentially exhausted the learning curve on that format. There wasn’t the time or opportunity to go deep in conversation, to really get into the challenges of how to create more sustainable agriculture. So we started to explore how we could create an environment where those conversations could go deeper and there could be better comprehension of what’s really going on.

David Lively of Organicology

Oregon Tilth approached us at that point. They were interested in enhancing their annual meeting, liked our approach to designing an event and proposed we do something together. I had recently gotten pretty involved on the seed front and brought Organic Seed Alliance in to participate as well. The three of us started working on putting something together and then the fourth player, the Sustainable Food Trade Association also came in. Between all of us there was a broad spectrum of interests, concerns and agendas, but ultimately what we all wanted to do was create an opportunity for a lot of cross-pollination. An opportunity to meet people involved in economy, in sales, and also to see what was going on on a more granular level; to bring together policy workers, seed breeders and pollinators, so everyone could have a better appreciation of what is involved in food distribution from policy to production to retail.

We wanted it to be an educational effort, hence the name “Organicology”. We wanted to challenge people to come prepared and to create an ongoing agenda, so it would have more lasting effects than other conferences where you just attend the talks and then go home.

The first Organicology conference was in 2009. We divided it into three days: Thursday was for intensives, Friday for workshops and then the vendor fair on Saturday. There was a lot of opportunity for coming and going, for people to choose where they were interested. But it’s not only about the work, it’s also about the celebration. We put a lot of effort into dancing and celebrating and eating.

What is the target audience for Organicology?

David: Everybody who has a stake in organic, sustainable, agro-ecology, up and down the organic supply chain: everybody from policy-wonks and politcos, to people in feed, fertilizers, pollinators and biodiversity issues; suppliers, growers, retailers, chefs, bloggers, the whole shooting match; really, anyone of any interest, since we were trying to create an agenda that could attract all of those people.

One of our biggest intentions was focusing on whole systems; we want people to understand the whole system, not just who’s immediately upstream and immediately downstream from them.


Do you think the conference has been successful in achieving that?

David: I think we have. I wish we could get more growers to the conference. Some attend the growers fair, but often it comes down to whether it’s rainy or sunny that weekend. That’s why winter is always the best timing for the conference.

We could also be better about incorporating the eaters and would like to improve that. We have some different ideas, like doing public speaking events around town, showing the eaters how relevant all of this is. Eaters are starting to find more information online, but unfortunately there’s a lot of bad reporting and overblown language. I can understand how eaters might be confused.

Has the mission of the conference stayed consistent over the years? Do you see it changing at all in the future?

David: The mission has stayed consistent, but our desire is to evolve it. We’re pretty hardcore about organic and about the conference needing to remain visionary in its approach. One of our challenges is that it’s held every two years. The clock is ticking: there’s climate change, the degradation of soil and biodiversity. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how this can be ongoing and not restricted to when we get everyone together. If you can get 50 people in a room, we don’t want them to all just walk away at the end. How can we continue to keep people engaged?

Once we get through the conference a lot of our resources are pretty exhausted, like marketing for example. We’re trying to push how we can keep the conversations going. Like how can we take Organicology into other forums? There’s a constant need for this education.

Do you think that there’s a way that technology could help that?

David: I’m sure technology could be a part of that. Matt Dillon, who was exec director of Organic Seed Alliance and now leads Seed Matters, he’s a social media whiz. We’re trying to use these other communication tools to our advantage. It’s really a combination of the two: face-to-face has a big role to play in culture and society. But we really need to try to approach it on as many fronts as we can.

Are there any specific current issues or topics that are the focus of this year’s conference?

David: One issue, it’s not necessarily over-riding, but there is a fair amount of concern around mergers and acquisitions, how capital is coming into the trade and how that’s affecting the industry. We can grow like crazy for a few years, but then when many of the independent companies are bought out, what if the mother companies decide to engage in the trade but not in the movement? That will really affect how we can move forward. The movement and the trade are locked at the hip; the movement gave rise to the industry, it was driven from the grassroots up. I think it’s critical that they remain in close contact. Take, for example, when the GMO bill was going on in California – if companies that were independent were vocal and financially supporting the bill, the outcome would might have been different.

Of course we have a case for the independent, but it’s not a one or the other deal. There needs to be a mix. There needs to be some independent voices at the table, people that support movement initiatives and the way that organic is going.

Organic agriculture is now a threat to conventional. We’re saying “you’re doing it wrong and we’re going to take the market” and that’s what’s happening. There’s a resistance, but some people are embracing it. Now there’s about more than $40 billion dollars in organic sales annually. And those aren’t new sales, those are mostly sales that would have been going to conventional before. People would be eating anyways. This could be seen as good or bad, we’re facing resistance and more questions. Like, is it more important to have more organic acres? Lots of these topics will be on the table as well.

For anyone that’s not in the Pacific Northwest, are there any other conferences across the country that are comparable to Organicology that you would recommend?

OrganicologyDavid: There’s actually a lot of people that attend Organicology from the Pacific Northwest, but not just exclusively. Growers come in from everywhere: Canada, all over the US, Mexico, New Zealand, South America. A number of organizations come to Organicology from out of the area, it’s a pretty diverse audience.

As for other conferences, EcoFarm is a great one. It’s been around for a while and is very mature, they have a fairly broad agenda. Washington Tilth is historically very grower focused, though that has changed more recently. MOSES, back in the Midwest, in the biggest conference by a long shot, and a high percentage of those attendees are growers from all over the Midwest.

They started another conference down in Monterey, the Organic Produce Summit. It was only one day, but there were a lot of growers at that one that were coming out of the conventional world or were hybrid. Lots of attendees were new to organic, so the presentations were designed to bring people up to speed. There hasn’t really been a conference to do that, so it may become pretty significant in coming years.

What is one of your favorite memories from a past Organicology conference?

David: Some of the talks have been pretty incredible, people who have inspired me greatly and have recharged my battery. I do love the debates that we do, some of them are hilarious, that you cry you’re laughing so hard.
The “speed networking” event we did a few times was great. It involved 15 or so people that represented all different aspects of the chain. Each person had 3 to 4 minutes to talk with every other person that was there. So you could walk in and then walk out an hour later having talked to a solid group of people with a great variety of expertise.

We’ve included items from the Slow Food’s Ark of Taste into the menu for several conferences. Last year, we had the Organic Seed Alliance join in on planning a menu and we created a Slow Hot Meal, the “Hot” being “Heirlooms of Tomorrow”. We incorporated a lot of information on who grew each ingredient and where it came from. Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network and Micaela Colley from OSA did a slideshow with the meal, going through each ingredient, variety-by-variety, explaining why it was there. Some of them were newly developed and some were from the Ark of Taste. It was the most informed meal that I’ve ever had in my life.
Registration for Organicology is now open online and there are a limited number of small farmer discounts available. Visit Organicology.org for complete conference information, including the schedule of intensives, workshops, receptions and live entertainment.
Photo Credit: Broken Banjo Photography

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