To begin with, it wasn’t originally conceived as an annual event, or even aimed at the general public. The first Organic Growers School, convened in 1994, targeted several dozen commercial farmers who wanted to learn how to tap the growing market for healthy food. But the idea proved too timely to quietly fade away, and when word spread to home growers, the gardening world beat a path to the door.
This year, some 700 eager students hailing from at least five states will choose from among 48 workshops, ranging from a beginners’ track to nuts-and-bolts presentations for professionals. Participants can select a narrow focus in one area, such as herbs and flowers, or hopscotch from high-tensile electric fencing to squash diseases to organic certification and end with home cheesemaking or how to build small greenhouses.
Linda Blue, an urban-horticulture expert at the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, has worked on the Growers School for nine years.
“In the second year, home gardeners had heard about the school and wanted to participate,” Blue explained. “In the third year, I got pulled in to break out talks for home gardeners, so there would be separate tracks. Now, three-quarters of the participants are home gardeners.”
Although the school has expanded each year, the level of interest always outpaces the available space. By the time Xpress goes to press this week, all the slots will be full. (Walk-ins are NOT welcome — there simply isn’t room.) Blue cites two reasons for the school’s phenomenal success.
“First, because there are so many people in WNC who are into organic growing. I came here after working at an extension office in the Piedmont, and one of the first things I noticed was how much more interest people here have in organic gardening. Second, it’s because the organizers have done such a good job getting great speakers who know what they’re talking about.”
Five years ago, the Organic Growers School Steering Committee, which stages the event under the auspices of the Western Carolina Coalition for Social Concerns (a local nonprofit organization), decided to hand off the business management of the school to an outside coordinator. For the past three years, Elly Wells has filled that post; she has her own take on why the school has prospered. The credit, Wells told Xpress, goes to “the volunteer committee members who make the school happen!”
In addition to Blue, Wells commended the work of Diane Ashburn, Jeanie Davis and Diane Ducharme (all colleagues of Blue’s at the Extension Service), Tom Elmore (of Thatchmore Farm), Jackie Greenfield (Good Scents Herb and Flower Company), Chip Hope (Blue Ridge Community College, which has hosted the event for the past four years), Chase Hubbard (Warren Wilson College Farm), Karen Vizzina (Earthstar Herbals & Massage Therapy), and Patryk Battle (market gardener, WCQS-FM garden expert and Xpress contributing writer).
Organic agriculture has grown from a fringe movement in the early 20th century to the fastest-growing segment of the food industry in the 21st. WNC is known as a regional leader in this movement toward agriculture that is unquestionably healthier for ecosystems, arguably healthier for people, and clearly soaring in popularity in both homestead and market. If you want to learn more, this region boasts a wealth of experienced experts and helpful resources, but if you want to learn more at OGS, the line is already forming for the 12th annual event, slated for March 2005.
For information about next year’s Organic Growers School, contact Elly Wells at 258-3387 or P.O. Box 984, Asheville NC 28802 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).