For the past few years we have set aside money for continued education…yes, even farmers need to go to class! Our first learning opportunity was the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) Conference, which is held in Granville, OH each February. We were on the verge of growing for market when we attended that conference, so everything was a learning experience. The following year we went to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference, which felt like a step up in terms of the level of speakers and knowledge as well as the farmers participating. Most everything was a valuable learning opportunity. So, this year, since Columbus was the host city, we decided to attend the Acres USA Conference. What I learned at Acres is that I have a lot to learn! The title should have given me a clue that the participants and the talks would be geared towards those with acres of land…and that was indeed the case. However, there were some great lessons, not to mention a whole new vocabulary, that we took from the conference.
- Soil: At some level I understand the importance of quality soil for quality vegetables, but Acres really helped define what is going on in the soil, or better yet, what needs to be going on in the soil, for successful results. There were soil biologists, chemists and agronomists who have been studying soils for decades and their talks were chock full of facts and data. They are definitely proponents of biodiversity and against the use of chemicals as solutions to pests (yeah!). So, we are going to do another soil test and will look at our soil in a whole new way. We plan to reduce/eliminate tilling between plantings since that disturbs the soil and all the microorganisms living therein.
- Vermicomposting: We have been keeping a worm bin for the past 4 years now, some years have been more successful than others. Right now our worm bin is rocking! Harvey Ussery gave an awesome talk – Trash to Treasure: Innovative Use of Organic Wastes on Farms Large or Small. This guy is awesome and we plan to adapt his greenhouse vermicomposting project in our hoop house for on farm compost tea and fertilizer for our soil. He actually uses it as a protein feed source for his animals.
- Nutrition: Another theme of the conference was nutrition and how farmers (at least most at the conference) are growing real food (sans chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides) full of nutrients and doesn’t cause harm to humans or the environment. And, these techniques are also good for the bottom line since they rely more on the cycles of nature than equipment that can rot, rust and depreciate. One of the most compelling speakers on this topic was Jerry Brunetti, who managed to cure himself of cancer through a diet high in animal products. The key note speakers also included Gray Graham whose research focuses on Pottenger’s Cats and similar studies that illustrate that eating highly processed foods can pass on genetic traits to our children and their children and so on. Pretty fascinating stuff.
- Movie recommendations: A couple of films to check out include Farmageddon, a frightening look at how big ag has the USDA in its pocket and uses its power to manipulate the food system in its favor driving small producers out of business due to heavy regulation and severe intimidation. Queen of the Sun offers an overview of colony collapse disorder and a hopeful look at those who are raising bees in more natural ways.
- Keynote speakers: In addition to Gray Graham, the other keynotes included Joel Salatin, who always fires up the crowd with his awesome approach to farming, and Francis Thicke, who ran for Iowa Secretary of Ag in 2010….that would have been a real coup for small scale farmers had he been elected.
Overall, it was a really great learning experience for us. Now we have to put what we have learned into practice….