Although the nation’s largest organic farming conference is not happening in person at the La Crosse Center this week, the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) is still engaging with the community.
MOSES and a handful of organizations joined forces to present a six-day virtual conference called the Growing Stronger Collaborative Conference Feb. 22-27. It represents a combination of MOSES, the GrassWorks Grazing Conference, Midwest Organic Pork Conference, OGRAIN Organic Grain Conference, and the FairShare CSA Coalition-University of Wisconsin’s Organic Vegetable Production Conference.
“Just like everybody else, we wish we were on our way to La Crosse,” MOSES Partnership Director Thomas Manley said. “We did have to get creative and consider what our options were to still deliver content and try to recreate that social part of our event.”
Manley said it was an effort to come out of the pandemic strong and continue the work of farmers and advocates. One silver lining is organizers hoped to reach new people who could not physically travel to the La Crosse Center in the past.
“There are a lot of producers on the east and west coast that have never been able to join us because they can’t get on a plane and come to La Crosse in February,” he said. “It is an opportunity to reach new audiences and deliver this content in a completely different way.”
Although the conference itself runs through Feb. 27, anyone interested can register for the event throughout the week and have access to the content for 90 days.
Despite certain advantages of the digital platform, Manley said they fully intend to return to La Crosse in 2022 and take advantage of the newly completed La Crosse Center Expansion project.
“We are excited to have our event grow into that new space,” he said. “We’re hoping this is the last event we have to do like this because it is challenging from a planning and delivery standpoint. It doesn’t satisfy that social component of the event.”
The community may be relieved to see the conference back in person as well as the event usually draws more than 3,500 attendees each year that fill hotel rooms and enjoy local businesses.
“There are places in downtown La Crosse that our attendees look forward to visiting every year,” Manley said. “It becomes a regular thing. Those conversations roll out of the La Crosse Center and into those bars and restaurants. A lot of times, the important work happens in those settings.”
MOSES organizers said they understand the economic toll of local businesses and individuals in the past year because of COVID-19. Plus in a typical year, hundreds of pounds of food from the conference would be donated to local food pantries. That’s why they also partnered with conference sponsor People’s Food Coop for a “Buy a Bag” special in La Crosse and Rochester where shoppers can purchase a $10 bag of groceries that will go to local food shelves. People’s is matching all donations.
“Everybody is suffering this year,” Manley said. “There is just an unprecedented need across the board. There are a lot of people who reached the point of food insecurity. We thought if there is anything we could do this year, let’s try to redirect some of that food support we normally get for our conference to where it is most needed right now.”
That food drive will end Feb. 28. Manley said those who do not live in the area but would still like to participate can donate online.