Embracing Change in Challenging Times: 2021 BC Organic Conference

With so many twists and turns these days, it’s always interesting to hear how organizations adapt their activities to keep up with the changing times. And, how they continue to grow and strengthen their networks in new and unexpected ways.

The Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC) is hosting its annual BC Organic Conference at the end of February. Typically, this event is an in-person gathering that brings together BC’s organic community over a weekend of educational sessions, workshops, social events, and really great food (buffet style–remember those days?!). But, like so many other organizations, the COABC had to take a pause, regroup and carve out a new vision for this major event.

After much pivoting and planning, the 2021 BC Organic Conference, which is happening on Feb 27 – 28, will be anchored by an ambitious podcast series with 25+ episodes spanning all aspects of food systems and organic farming. There will also be an giant online gathering, a keynote from Darrin Qualman of the National Farmers Union, Q&A sessions with podcast speakers, farm tours around the province (most likely virtual), and more.

To learn more about the upcoming BC Organic Conference, we caught up with Eva-Lena Lang, Executive Director of the COABC.

But first, a bit more about Eva-Lena:

As you may know, Eva-Lena’s also one of the founding members of the North Okanagan Land to Table Network. Her connection to the regional food system and organic agriculture runs deep: She grew up on a farm in the North Okanagan, and it was while working at the Certified Organic Associations of BC (in a different role) that she joined SFU’s Community Economic Development program.

Land to Table grew out of one of Eva-Lena’s projects at SFU.  Her masters work in the Institute for Community Engaged Research at UBCO further supported building the network, as did her organic connections—working with COABC, on organic farms, and in farmers’ markets—as well as her drive to help support a more prosperous, sustainable, and accessible regional food system in the North Okanagan.

Now on to the conference!

The theme of this year’s conference is Embracing Change. Can you tell us more about the theme and how the conference format came to be?

The COABC was talking last year about changing our annual conference and spicing it up a bit, so we were planning on a new format anyway. Then when COVID hit, it all happened so fast! It was in the summer that the COABC conference committee decided to say ‘no’ to an in-person conference—for the first time in 28 or so years. 

It’s been a challenging year, but it’s been amazing to see the organic community come together under pressure. New ideas form when you’re forced to have some sort of change. We embraced the change, got creative and went the podcast route. 

It’s been such a team effort. We wouldn’t be where we’re at in this conference without the skill set and creativity of our Conference Coordinator, Jordan Marr, but it’s all of us working together. We’re so lucky to have such a supportive and passionate network within the organic sector. 

Why podcasts?

With a virtual conference, we needed a substitute for our in-person seminars and workshops. Jordan said it best when he answered this question in the opening podcast. He said webinars are trying to exactly duplicate an in-person session, but something gets lost in that duplication. It doesn’t quite work. And webinars glue you to a screen. Podcasts are their own thing and are produced specifically with the unseen listener in mind. They’re a much more useful way to share this kind of information.

What are some other benefits of this style of conference over the traditional in-person gathering?

We have quite a variety of speakers from across Canada and the United States, and some pretty big names we wouldn’t normally be able to engage due to financial restrictions. There’s quite a bit of prep work to carry out these interviews, but it’s much easier to get on a call and talk to someone! 

Another huge benefit is that farmers—well, not just farmers but a lot of us—don’t have time to engage with webinars during the workday. The podcast is such a great way to have access to awesome new material and be able to listen to it while weeding, driving a tractor or running errands. And there are no geographical barriers—the conference is accessible to everyone and anyone. Hopefully people across the country will engage with the conference as well. 

And, these podcasts are essentially a type of extension service, which BC doesn’t currently have. The education component is huge. I feel we can work with what we’ve done this year and create all kinds of new opportunities. 

Are there any downsides?

A big part of the in-person conference is the chance to personally reconnect every year with other conference attendees. You run into people in the hall and make connections, which opens up doors. That’s one thing we unfortunately don’t have, but everyone’s in the same situation.

Speaking of connections, will there be any opportunities to directly network at the conference?

We’re still hashing out the details of the conference weekend, but the original idea was to work with community champions and hold small, regional farms tours around the province. It’s looking like we’re not going to be able to do that, so our alternative idea is to hold virtual farm tours. And on the Sunday of the conference, when we will be holding our live program, we’ll have opportunities for networking, including breakout groups and a session with the COABC Executive to wrap up the work the organization is doing and look into the future. Anyone’s welcome to join those conversations. 

Why is it so important to provide opportunities for networking? And to formalize networks, like in the work Land to Table and COABC does?

To decrease the duplicity of work! Connections exist and there’s so much similar work being done on the ground, but we’re missing the coordinating piece. It’s so important.

Land to Table started with my relationship with the farmers, and because I’m so interested in the food system and having coordination amongst all the different stakeholders and groups. The economic, environmental and social sides—all stakeholders. At the end point, they all have the same goal: to improve the regional food system. That’s why we need this coordination—to ensure everyone understands what’s happening on the ground.

Will people be able to access the conference podcasts and happenings after the event has wrapped up?

Yes, the podcast will be there and will be available. If you don’t have time to listen right now, you can listen to them in the fall or even next year. We’re also planning on recording and sharing the live program, and if we end up doing virtual farms tours we’ll record those as well. 

This is a good time to say thank you to the Institute for Community Engaged Research (ICER) at UBC Okanagan for providing their Zoom account and a physical space from which we can broadcast our live program!

Where can folks learn more about the 2021 BC Organic Conference?

Full details can be found on the COABC’s website and tickets are available on Eventbrite. Also keep an eye on COABC’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts for the latest updates.