Winter Conference

Celebrating our Interdependence – NOFA-VT Winter Conference Recap

The NOFA-Vermont Winter Conference is an annual event to celebrate the efforts and mission of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont. NOFA-VT was founded in 1971 as one of the first organic farming associations in the United States. The organization has grown to have over 1200 state-wide members and certify over 720 farms and processors in Vermont to the USDA National Organic Program Standards. 

The mission of NOFA-VT is to “promote organic practices so as to build an economically viable, ecologically sound, and socially just Vermont agricultural system that benefits all living things.” This focus on environmental and social sustainability and of creating community through learning and sharing dovetails with the mission and values of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. We’re all in this together!

Over three days, exhibitors, presenters, and attendees converge for a weekend of connection, learning, and inspiration. This year’s conference theme was ‘Celebrating Our Interdependence,’ and sought to focus on how relationships and connections can help build a stronger, more resilient food and social system. 

I attended the conference on Sunday and was thrilled by the opportunity to connect and learn! The first stop was at the Exhibitors fair, where farmers, seed companies, book publishers, and other local organizations offered books, tools, food and drink samples, and crafts for sale, along with information and materials from agricultural businesses and conference sponsors.

Exhibitors Fair

The first workshop I attended was a presentation on ‘no-till’ farming methods led by Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm. He told the story of his farm and how after about ten years of using fairly typical methods in organic annual market gardening, crops started to do less well, succumbing to pests and diseases. He observed how the health of the plants was directly connected to the complex web of life in the soil. He also made the connection that the health of the plants relates to their nutritional value – and flavor! – when we eat them. After those revelations, Bryan decided to convert his farm to ‘no-till’, adjusting his methods so as to not disturb the natural balance of the soil ecosystem. Working with nature, rather than fighting it!

No-till Vegetable System at Tobacco Road Farm (Source:

Right before lunch there also featured a panel discussion on “weaving a new narrative” and how agriculture can be a catalyst for culture change. Panel members included an educator of Native American culture linking seeds with culture and history through stories and practice; a member of a co-operative farm with revolutionary ideas that has created a family of co-owners and co-workers to create a co-operative vision; a traditional Vermont family dairy owner in transition and partnership with a new generation of young organic farmers; and a husband and wife duo practicing ecology, observation, learning, and fascination with the natural world on a dynamic perennial food forest in Jeffersonville, VT. 

Weaving a New Narrative Panel Discussion

This panel participated in a discussion that sought to explore the ways we can use imagination and connectivity to create change in the wider world through the ways we relate to the food we consume every day. Particularly interesting was the idea of the momentum of existing structures in society to perpetuate themselves, and the hope that by promoting new narratives the foundation for change can be created. The last question posed to the panel members was one worth pondering: “What would you tell someone in 2100 you did to help create a positive change in the years since 2020?” One of my favorite responses was from John Hayden who said his “grandkids would hopefully happily report that Grandpa helped people love the insects,” because by “loving, appreciating, and respecting the insects, it might spill over to loving each other more too.” 

After browsing the Exhibitors’ Fair, chatting with the Young Farmers Coalition, and bagging up some seeds from the “seed-share” table, we walked to where NOFA had their mobile wood-fired oven roasting root vegetables. A wood-fired pizza oven on a trailer – how cool! And what a treat on a cold day!

NOFA-VT’s Mobile Pizza Oven

An afternoon workshop presented by Jim Ulager, author of Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener, focused on seed-saving. Jim opened the workshop with a story of his Grandpa ‘Zeke’s’ tomatoes and how he was the only descendant with these Russian heirloom seeds, and that you couldn’t find them in seed catalogs. He also observed that by saving and growing these seeds (and enjoying the tomatoes the plants produced!) was a process completely independent of the larger economic system, a unique feat in this modern day-in-age. Throughout the workshop, we discussed specifics of how one can save seed from legumes and pumpkins and tomatoes, but we also explored the stories that seeds can tell and the philosophical links that seeds make between the gardener and the natural processes of the earth.  


After a long day or learning, connecting, exploring, and gaining inspiration, it was time to go home to tend to the sheep and chickens and dream of Spring!

Alex Arroyo is a member of our Produce Team who also runs a permaculture farm in North Ferrisburgh, VT


NOFA-VT Winter Conference Announces Exciting Lineup!

Going Beyond Borders for our Winter Conference

By Helen Whybrow, Roving Farm & Food Reporter

Our brave little state has been through a lot: a 2016 winter of no snow, followed by this summer’s drought, an election season full of strife, and now with a new President, worlds of uncertainty about what’s to come. It can be easy, in the dark days of winter, to wonder about the larger purpose of one’s efforts on the farm or in the world.

Thankfully, NOFA-VT has attracted two international giants in the food and farming world to speak at the 35th annual winter conference on February 18-20 at University of Vermont. Dr. Fernando Funes Monzote, of Cuba, and Dr. Vandana Shiva, of India, will both bring a message of resilience, hope, and the power of people to make slow—but radical—change.

NOFA-VT has not typically looked so far beyond its borders for a relevant message. The winter conferences of years past have focused on themes such as local food and soil. But Executive Director Enid Wonnacott and board member Mimi Arnstein—who leads farmer-to-farmer exchanges in Cuba and elsewhere —felt the time was ripe to break open the boundaries of how we think about the impact of our local food movement in Vermont.

For Wonnacott, inspiration came at the Terra Madre International Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy, where the slogan was “They are Giants, But We are Millions.” The faces of the “Millions” of small-scale farmers from around the globe were represented by some 7,000 delegates at Terra Madre as they came together to raise a collective voice against the corporate “Giants” – for food sovereignty, the survival of family farms, and resistance to GMOs.

I asked Wonnacott how she saw Vermont agriculture fitting into such a global people’s food movement. “NOFA-VT has always had a social change agenda, and at Terra Madre, I really saw the power of this idea that all small-scale farmers around the world are in this together,” she said. She noted that there are big similarities between how we farm and market food here in Vermont with indigenous and local food systems all over the world. Not only that, but the same challenges to seed sovereignty, land protection, and market control are remarkably similar.

NOFA-VT was instrumental in Vermont’s own fight to pass a GMO labeling bill—the first in the country. Although the bill was ultimately gutted at the federal level, a lot of good came out of it, with several major food brands agreeing to label their products. “The GMO labeling law is a great example of how Vermont is an innovator,” Wonnacott said. “It’s a small place full of people who care can start big change.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva is perhaps best known for her tireless crusade on behalf of seed sovereignty and against GMOs, a message she has delivered for over three decades. Bill Moyers called her “the rock star in the worldwide battle against genetically modified seeds.” She started her center for seed sovereignty Navdanya (“nine seeds” in Hindi) to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, and to promote organic farming and fair trade.”

Personally, hearing Dr. Shiva will be a highlight of my year. It’s hard to think of anyone who has more presence, conviction, and boldness when it comes to speaking out for what she believes in.

Dr. Shiva came to Vermont two years ago and gave a talk, co-sponsored by NOFA-VT, at City Hall in Burlington and at The Vermont Law School. She gave a bow to Vermont’s efforts to resist GMOs: “By demanding a right to know, you are demanding a right to live,” she said. Such a bold, clear statement is typical of Dr. Shiva; she is capable of throwing a net over freedom, democracy, civil rights, food, soil and the future of the planet in one sentence, showing me how they are all connected, and convincing me that it’s possible to fight for them all at once.

Equally inspirational as a speaker and global in his thinking is Dr. Fernando Funes Monzote, an agronomist, and farmer from Cuba where he is building a food revolution from his bio-intensive 20-acre model farm, Finca Marta. Now, when Cuba is undergoing such change and trade channels have opened up with the U.S, it will be prescient to have Funes give us his perspective.

Margarita Fernandez, who runs the Vermont Carribean Institute in Burlington, takes groups of people to Cuba several times a year. Whenever possible, she includes a visit to Finca Marta, “a huge highlight.” She describes Funes as “an incredible storyteller, whose whole life has a great arc to it.” Funes often tells the story about his journey back to the land in Cuba after getting a doctorate in agroecology in Europe, and how he was determined that his next life project was to earn a PhD as a farmer, to put into practice what he had learned in theory.

That practice began by digging a well—by hand. Now, with its acres of terraced beds, beehives, living fences, solar irrigation systems, a methane biodigester, and organic practices, Finca Marta is a model of how small farms can use natural resources and innovative production methods to be profitable, pay living wages, keep families and neighbors on the land, and also improve fertility and biodiversity of natural habitats.

“If we don’t want foreign companies to come in and dominate Cuban agriculture all over again, that means we need to give Cuban families a way to stay on their farms,” said Funes, as quoted in a profile by Nick Miroff of the Washington Post. The article points out that Cuba has to import 60 to 80 percent of its food. “Funes’ vision of Cuban agriculture is radical because it’s a throwback. He advocates smart, resource-efficient, artisanal farming as an alternative to both capitalist agribusiness and the disastrous state-run agricultural model…,” wrote Miroff. Sounds like Vermont, and in fact, there are lots of similarities between the way Funes farms and the way many of us farm here.

“Fernando is a super motivational speaker,” says Fernandez. “I’m really interested to watch how the farming movement in Cuba is going to respond to and resist current forces. As they enter the global food movement, how do they maintain sovereignty?” This is a theme that Vermont farmers also care about. “He will be able to talk about the context of what we are facing now as farmers,” she said, pointing out that with the death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump we are all working in a new and unknown political landscape.

The winter conference this year is embracing a huge global theme of change and resistance at a time when populist movements and corporate power are both surging. We need more than ever to come together, be in relationship, and find our common strength as a community. “People need something positive to believe in. They feel like the world is out of control and they need something to rally around,” said Wonnacott. At the NOFA-VT winter conference this year, we should get an incredible taste of what that something is.

Conference Details

The NOFA-VT Winter Conference offers more than 100 workshops for farmers, gardeners, and local food enthusiasts. Some of the most anticipated workshops include: “Herbal Digestive Bitters” taught by Guido Masé of Urban Moonshine, “New Developments in Study and Implementation of Northeastern Indigenous Agriculture” presented by Frederick Wiseman of The Seeds of Renewal Project, “Plants to Attract Pollinators and Create Biodiversity” presented by Lizabeth Moniz, and “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Fruit Trees” taught by Nicko Rubin.

There are also 5 day-long intensive workshops, diving deeply into the topics of winter farming and season extension, biological orcharding, healthy permaculture, organic medicinal herb production, and the art and science of grazing. The intensives are open to anyone interested in garnering in-depth information about specific subjects.

In addition to the speeches and workshops, attendees at the conference can enjoy a delicious lunch featuring local and organic ingredients, a lively Exhibitors’ Fair, a seed swap with High Mowing organic seeds, and helping to create a community art project with artist Bonnie Acker.  For the next generation of farmers, gardeners, and foodies there is a Children’s Conference, which features hands-on workshops, art projects, yoga, outdoor play and much more.

Early registration for the conference is offered at a discounted rate until February 13th, with additional discounts for NOFA Vermont members and volunteers. More information and online registration is at