Organic farmers are a craft beer kind of crowd, so nobody was popping open celebratory bottles of champagne last weekend at the 19th annual Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse.
Still, if you were looking to salute the burgeoning organic food movement, this was the place to be. Some 2,300 people -- mostly farmers and their families, but also agriculture researchers, local-food boosters and an impressive number of young people eager to join the movement -- were in a distinctly festive mood.
"I never dreamed that in my lifetime organic would be where it is now," said a buoyant Faye Jones, executive director of MOSES, the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, which organizes the yearly conference.
Gary Zimmer, named Farmer of the Year with wife Rosie and son Nicholas, was equally incredulous.
"I've been involved in this for a long, long time, and never in my wildest imagination did I ever dream that organic would get to where it is today," said Zimmer, who operates the 1,200-acre Otter Creek Organic Dairy in Iowa County and consults widely on soil fertility and organic farming techniques
Jones and Zimmer had good reason to celebrate. A new state report documents that Wisconsin has approximately 900 certified organic farms, second only to California in the nation.
The Badger State ranks number one in organic dairy production, thanks to farmers like the Zimmers, and is among the top three states in organic livestock and acreage planted in organic corn, hay and silage.
Tellingly, the report notes that some 201 Wisconsin companies now serve the state's organic industry, evidence of organic's growing economic clout in the agriculture sector.
Indeed, I walked away from the conference struck by how the organic movement has created an organic industry without selling out its radical beliefs.
Simply put, both the organic industry and the organic movement are on a roll.
All trade conferences are alike. There is too much food and drink, and lots of earnest conversations are shouted in noisy receptions. You can bet the trade show is filled with beguiling gizmos, and the conference will justify itself with arcane workshops on the nuts and bolts of the industry. The Organic Conference was no different.
Farmers could attend seminars on soil quality, suckling systems, apple pests, aphid management, direct marketing and hoop houses. The trade show included 126 booths, hawking everything organic from veterinary supplies to fish fertilizers to grain milling.
But the movement's radical underpinnings were never undermined by commerce. Organic's challenge to conventional farming and agribusiness was always close to the surface.
These are people committed to nothing less than reordering America's fundamental relationship to food. They want to raise healthier and tastier food. They want an agricultural system that supports small local farmers and includes a meaningful link between those farmers and their customers. They want to treat farm animals and, most of all, the land with respect and care.
"We're all happy with where we're at," dairy and beef farmer Rebecca Goodman told me. "We're on the right track. We're doing the right thing."
Faye Jones took it a step further -- that acquiring and sharing good food becomes a way for people to forge connections that otherwise might be missing in the isolation of industrial society.
"Food and community have to be together," she said.
Jones' message was underlined in the keynote speeches. These weren't boilerplate talks where the crowd nods off from the effects of last night's hangover, but sermons that mixed indignation and inspiration.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, an advocacy journalist and registered dietician, made the case that healthy food choices are an illusion in American society when consumers are confronted, say, by picking between french fries and apple dippers at McDonald's.
Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, challenged the fundamental assumption of American agribusiness, arguing that large, high-tech farms with vast expanses of mono-crops aren't efficient. Small family farms with diverse crops are more productive, he said, because they aren't burdened by the heavy costs of high-tech machinery, synthetic fertilizers and excessive energy use.
Kimbrell ended his speech on a dramatic note, asserting that organic farming, with its radically different values, could have a transformative impact not just on agriculture but on American life.
Cooperation! Creativity! Connection! Community! Kimbrell even dared to associate organic farming with love. In an age of cynicism and muted expectations of collective action, this was nervy -- maybe even foolish. But more than a thousand people rose from their seats to applaud Kimbrell's sentiments.