(Almost) Live from The Edible Institute in Santa Fe

It snowed.

It snowed like I've never seen it snow before--enormous, dry, high desert flakes that blanketed the ground, shut down western highways, stranded motorists and truckers, and brought west Texas and the eastern part of New Mexico to a screeching halt.

But the weather didn't prevent dozens of journalists, writers, farmers, activists, and publishers, myself included, from taking over the convention hall at Santa Fe's renowned Bishop's Lodge last week, for the first Edible Institute conference, established by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian, co-founders of Edible Communities, the remarkable consortium of 60 plus regional print magazines dedicated to local, sustainable, ethical, and organic food, and food practices.

The thing about conferences and panels--and I've attended and spoken at many--is that sometimes, after a few hours, things get a little restless. People get up to leave the room a little more frequently after an hour or so. They check their crackberries a little bit more often. They stare out the window. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but only rarely. The first thing I should be clear about is that it did not happen at the Edible Institute. Many of us gazed out the broad floor to ceiling windows at the lodge, at the quiet, petal-weight snow, but only because we were so, so happy to be inside, listening with rapt attention to an extraordinary group of people speak on the subject of food and sustainability. For five solid hours during one day last week, not one person budged from their seats, and instead listened to the likes of Deborah Madison, Tom Philpott, Jane Black, Samuel Fromartz, Gary Paul Nabhan, Fred Kirschenmann, Emigdio Ballon, Will Harris, and Lisa Hamilton speak with fire and passion on what Alice Waters calls the most important subject there is. Because without food--sustainably grown, ethically produced and harvested food--we, as a society, have no future.

The implications are enormous, and although many write the sustainable food movement off as the ramblings of a bunch of purple-wearing, hemp-clad, tree-hugging hippies, the bottom line is that this issue crosses aisles, demographics, socio-economic differences; it can't be pigeon-holed. Because, at the end of the day, if you know that your child is being fed a cheap school lunch packed with corporate by products; if you know that small farms are dying at an astonishing, alarming rate; if you know, in your heart of hearts, that the very thing on which this country was built--fair and sustainable local agriculture--is being dismantled piece by piece in favor of wallet-lining, then you feel as I do: that this cause to which people across the country are devoting their lives, is as important as the winning of an oil-slicked, so-called war, half a world away. It just gets a lot less attention.

The Edible Institute took place almost a week ago, and admittedly, this is the first chance I've had to write about it, vague though I might be. On the one hand, it's because I've been tooling around New Mexico, seeing things I've never seen before and meeting people I've never encountered before. On the other, it's because I'm still reeling: the ground under my feet has shifted, permanently, and to spend so much time in the company of such thinkers on a subject of such importance has been a little bit like being a dedicated high school violinist suddenly taking lessons from Isaac Stern.

It leaves you a little bit speechless.

I'll be back soon.