Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Day 276 - Attending a Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems Seminar

I have never been to a Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems seminar. While this event is not something I would normally have any interest in attending, I recently became aware the CIAS was hosting an event featuring Odessa Piper, the founder of one of Madison’s finest restaurants, L’etoile and a series of organic farmers and food professionals. With the focus on defining the concept of “eating well”, the seminar promised to offer participants a deeper look at food networks and healthy eating, which I knew were subjects that would help me learn and potentially help me achieve a healthier diet. In turn, I decided to attend my first every CIAS seminar at the University of Wisconsin Music Hall this evening, hoping to walk away with deeper insight and understanding on the concepts of local food systems and how they related to healthy eating.

After convincing Rachael to join me for this evening’s experience, the two of us made our way to the university campus and pushed our way through the cold to the UW Music Hall. Once inside, we promptly found seats among the scattered crowd of attendees and did our best to warm up as we prepared for the presentation to begin. As we got comfortable in the aging seats of the theatre a man took the stage and welcomed the crowd to the event, which signaled the panelists to take their positions at a table on the auditorium’s brightly lit stage. With it apparent the seminar was ready to begin, I leaned forward and readied myself for the insight I had come to gain.

Opening remarks
Initially, the seminar began with some words from Odessa Piper, which offered some background on her history with L’etoile and her guiding principles in laying the groundwork for a healthy, local food network in southern Wisconsin. As she spoke, her perspectives were driven by eloquent and almost commanding words on the importance of supporting local food resources in a world facing unprecedented food and health crises. Her soothing tone carried the words over the crowd lightly, but the content of her remarks was powerful to the point that it left the crowd silent. As I listened on, wrapped up in the waves of perspective being offered, the only real movement around me was the periodic nodding of a head somewhere in the crowd. It was clear I wasn’t the only one engaged by Odessa words and her commitment to bettering the world through increasing food access. Odessa’s commitment to her cause fascinated the whole of the crowd, and the sentiment rooted in her life’s work helped each of us gain new perspective on the concepts of life, land, and food now and into the future.

Thoughts on eating well... From a beef farmer's perspective
Following Odessa’s remarks, the host of the seminar worked through the remaining panelists one by one, seeking their perspectives on the concept of “eating well.” Though the organic farmers on the panel offered a more grounded, technical approach regarding the role of food sources and the academics on the panel offered a more worldly view of the concept, the consistent themes from one expert to the next were rooted in the idea of localization, food diversity, and healthy land maintenance practices.

From comments regarding the health and well-being of livestock serving as sources of food to the idea of inner-city CSA initiatives, each of the experts spoke with a sense of purpose, placing emphasis on the roles of individuals in the idea of healthy eating and living. Listening to each panelist, I sat in awe of the expertise, intelligence, and passion at the heart of their remarks. I was witnessing some of the best food experts I had ever seen wear their hearts on their sleeves in the name of a cause, and it was quickly becoming one of the most enlightening experiences I have had in recent weeks.

The same from an organic vegetable farmer
Eventually moving from a panel discussion to an open question and answer session with the audience, the presentation continued with some interesting inquiry and some bold remarks from several audience members. In response, the panelists each took turns offering metered, well-reasoned perspective only made possible through years of expertise working and advancing a cause. The interaction was captivating to the point that I was caught by surprise when the host of the event made us aware the two hour session was drawing to a close. With that, the panelists offered some closing remarks that were simple, yet impressive reminders of their perspectives, their points of discussion, and the critical importance of local food systems now and into the future. As they resonated through the crowd, the comments provided the perfect cap to the seminar and gave me plenty to think about as we headed for the doors.

Attempting to wrap my head around the perspective and knowledge presented during the course of the event, I sat quietly on the way home. It was several minutes before I broke the silence with a simple remark to Rachael. “The passion those people live with, what live for... is really remarkable,” I said quietly, my hands at the wheel, “They use their brilliance to help make a better world around them every day.” I paused momentarily to try to find where my comments were leading me. “That’s impressive... Knowing that cause. It’s admirable,” I said continuing, “Think of what this world would be like if we all had that sense of purpose.” Rachael simply smiled at my comment and turned her eyes back to the road in front of us. Her expression made it obvious she understood my thoughts, which was all I really needed to know my mind was on the right track.

Question and answer

I went into tonight’s experience hoping to learn, and although I walked away with plenty of insight, the greatest impact from this evening will be the emotions that drove every word from the panelists. Through forces beyond their control and a series of life experiences they found what truly mattered to them, and now they focus on taking what matters and helping it blossom into a humanitarian focus in everything they do. They live and breathe their life’s work and they constantly seek ways to make the idea of “eating well” a reality in every person’s life. No matter how a person looks at that concept, it is powerful, and, for me, it inspires hope I too will find that sort of calling. I know it’s out there somewhere. I just need to keep searching for it.

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