Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont Conference report

Just back from the NOFA-VT 24th Annual Winter Conference at Vermont Technical College in Vermont. What an event! Over 850 attendees filled the VTC Judd Gymnasium to hear Jim Kunstler's keynote address "Feeding America in the Long Emergency" and closing remarks by Amy Seidl of LivingFuture.

The Conference Theme was "Local Energy, Local Economies." During her closing remarks, Amy mentioned that at last year, almost no one at the conference knew what the term "Peak Oil" meant. Now, she added, almost no one at the conference hasn't at least heard of "Peak Oil." Indeed, most of the concurrent sessions had some bearing on Sustainability with "Peak Oil" serving as the rallying cry and call to action.

The floor of the gymnasium was filled with a farmers market of seeds, agri-systems, silent auction items, books, and information booths. I wish I had another hour to investigate all these! One group was passing "Peak Oil Primers" and a bumpersticker with a Hubbert's Peak graphic surrounded by text reading "Peak Oil" on top, and "Prepare to Rewild" on bottom. Another group, Post Oil Solutions, offered $1 CD-ROMs with interviews in MP3 format, PDF documents, and posters on Peak Oil and its implications.

The first session I attended was titled "Community Response to Peak Oil," presented by Netaka White, Alyssa Jumars, and William Stevens, members of Addison County (VT) Relocalization Network (ACoRN), headquartered in Middlebury. This group seems very much in the same mold of PC Outposts. They have about 40 members and were conducting Energy and Food assessments/audits for their county in rural Vermont. They, along with several other peak oil groups in Vermont, are allied with The Vermont Peak Oil Network. [See VPON's site for all Peak-Oil groups in VT.] Greg Pahl, author of "Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy" is affiliated with VPON as well.

Lunch was an incredible potluck of a variety of meats (organically produced by the farmers), salads, side dishes, soups, breads, and deserts. There were so many attendees, we were split into two groups for ease of serving us all. During the hour before my turn for lunch, I watched a preview of the forthcoming documentary, "Peak Oil, Cuba & Community." This documentary was produced by Community Service, Inc.'s Pat Murphy, Megan Quinn and Faith Morgan. This was an incredible story of how in three short years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing cutoff of foreign oil (referred to by Cubans as "the Special Period") Cuba converted its agrarian and energy systems from petroleum-dependent, to privatized small farms, urban gardens and non-petroleum fuel sources (such as sugar mills burning cane remnants for fuel and increased use of bicycles, draft animals, etc). Did you know that the average Cuban lost about 10 kilos of bodyweight during those three years? Yet somehow, Cuba exhibited incredible ingenuity, resilience, tenacity and sacrifice to become self-sufficient for its own food supply. Many people returned to farm the land as their ancestors did, and many converted, out of necessity, to vegetarianism. Yet there was a sense of hope and victory that proved if it can be done there, perhaps it won't be as difficult as I imagine to do it here in the US and around the world. I think the crucial difference is that Cuba seemed to be the frog that was thrown into the boiling water and jumped out to save itself, whereas here, in the US, we are already in nice, tepid water, and the heat is being turned up slowly. We, here, might not realize we are being "boiled alive" as we continue to be incrementally lied to by our so-called leadership and convinced that there is no problem. This video is a must-see! Special thanks go to Lee Blackwell (VPON's representative from Cabot, VT) for hosting the screening.

The first afternoon session I attended dealt with Off-Grid Photovoltaic Systems. Long-time off-grid homesteader Remi Gratton and his protege, Jacob Racusin, explained the components of a PV system for non-net-metered systems. [See Backwoods Solar Electric site for descriptions of these systems.] The open nature of the discussion and the practical knowledge of these guys was well-received. I'm considering a net-metered PV system, and still found much of this talk relevant, especially the use of non-roof-mounted systems with vertical orientation for non-accumulation of snow in the winter. They provided many resources for further investigation.

The second afternoon session I attended was titled "Burlington Bread: Local Money for a Local Economy," presented by Amy Kirschner of the Burlington Currency Project. She explained the concepts of Complementary Currencies, and how it is implemented in Burlington, VT to keep about $200,000 of Burlington Bread (their local currency) in circulation within the town. She also touched on ideas such as time banks and LETS-based systems. This talk was very useful for me in that I now feel much more comfortable about bringing up the notion of a cc to my downtown business association, political leaders and local non-professional practitioners. Again, if nothing else, this session provided me with contact information and resource links to bookmark for future reference.

I was beginning to think that the message of Declining Resource Availability wasn't reaching enough people to grow grass roots, but after attending this conference--which was only tangentially related to our work at Post Carbon Institute and the Outposts--I believe that awareness is out there, especially among the sector that will play an instrumental role in our transition period: those who grow our food. I was surrounded by people (many of whom sported graying ponytails) who were talking amongst themselves about Hubbert's Peak and its implications, Photovoltaics and cellulosic ethanol, and urban permaculture. Unlike many other professional conferences I've attended, absent were the presentations with scripts that read, "Here's the great stuff I did, but there's no way you can do it so just sit back and listen." Instead, the willingness to fully share knowledge and resources was incredible. No competition but rather healthy doses of co-operation and community! I left the conference uplifted, encouraged, and primed for more action. My hat goes off to NOFA-VT for putting on such a great conference, and I tip my hat to all those who participated. Kindred spirits are out there! People are more aware than I gave them credit for!

OM Shanti,
Jim Zack, Sustainable Saratoga Springs (NY)