2012 – National Young Farmer’s Conference

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Wow!  This wonderful conference sold out in 36 hours! When I sat down for breakfast on the first day I felt a little out of place, not very confident, and guilty about taking up space that could have gone to someone on the wait list.  By the end of the second and final day I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

The Host

The conference was hosted by the Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills, New York.  This place is amazing and très agrarian chic.  I told Sammit that I want my ashes spread there when I die.  I encourage you to explore their website, but be warned that it simply does not do it justice.  Here is their mission:

The mission of Stone Barns Center is to create a healthy and sustainable food system that benefits us all. Located 25 miles north of Manhattan, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit institution. We operate an 80-acre farm and work to:

Increase public awareness of healthy, seasonal and sustainable food.
Train farmers in resilient, restorative farming techniques.
Educate children about the sources of their food, and prepare them to steward the land that provides it.

The People

I may be biased, but I think that Farming conferences have a) the best food (which I will get to later) and b) the best people of all conferences.  I only met a handful the 150+ people present but each any every one of them was charming and wandering down a particular path toward sustainable agricultural community.  We were all incredibly different and yet I had never been in a room where I had so much in common with everyone.  I met several people from Michigan: A couple that just started farming in Midland, a campus farm manager from Andrews University, the agricultural manager of the Grand Rapids’ YMCA, and a few U of M grads who’ve worked on farms.  I met farmer’s from Long Island and California.  I met veg farmers, ranchers, land owners, CSA managers, homesteaders, and cheese makers.  I met young farmers and old farmers and couple farmers and platonic partner farmers, radical farmers, traditional farmers, and so on and so forth.  Here are some highlights of my favorites:

  • Tom, a farmer with a wicked ‘stache who slept in a sleeping bag in the field outside the center to save money who told stories of getting strip-searched in Canada because of his corn seeds.
  • Eliza, a farmer and soon-to-be sheep rancher who fell in love with local and sustainable food systems at 15 when she did a science project.
  • Angie & Joe, small farmers who grow on their own land and provide “foodie” baskets to their share holders.  (This couple is a-friggin-dorable and living my dream life a few years ahead of me).

In addition to the great folks that traveled near and far to be at the conference, there were the wonderful people who work at Stone Barns – all the apprentice farmers, the restaurant staff, the conference organizers, and the board president, Fred Kirschenmann, co-author of “Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher.

The Workshops

I wanted to attend every workshop offered.  Alas, I cannot yet be in two places at once; I will have to wait to level up before I have that skill.  Instead I went to the workshops I could and picked the brains of those who attended other workshops.

Day One:

  • Finding Your Farm: From Basics to Action – the basics of land access facilitated by Kathy Ruhf from Land For Good.  I went into this workshop thinking that owning my own land was the only option I could settle on for farming and I left it knowing so much more about options for land leases.
  • Cooking for Farm Crews – Tamar Adler (who wrote An Everlasting Meal!) walked us through cooking a week’s worth of lunches for farm crews using just a few ingredients.  She spoke beautifully about the dignity of serving farm and restaurant workers meals that have value, but are still cost effective.
  • Pollination Strategies of Common Food Plants – I learned so much about bees, beetles, moths, butterflies, and all the things they pollinate.  My favorite quote, “Honeybees are the spoiled sluts of the pollinating world.”  Rebecca McMackin from Brooklyn Bridge Park and Mantis Plant Works did a pretty good job of condensing millions of years of evolution into an hour and a half – tough work.
  • Carpentry – Gregg Twehues, the groundskeeper at Stone Barns, lead a workshop where he walked us through the tools/materials uses for basic carpentry.  We also learned how to build a wall and also how to put in a door or window into that wall.

Day Two:

  • Growing New Farmers in the City – a slightly mis-titled workshop that basically talked about the history of East New York Farms, an urban farm in Brooklyn.  I thought it was going to be more about techniques for urban farmers and most of the information wasn’t really applicable to me.  I did, however, learn about some of the challenges of growing in pure compost but I’m hopeful because my compost is a combination of food scraps and horse manure rather than the pine and leaf compost that comes from most cities.
  • Innovative Approaches to the CSA Model – great stories and ideas from Sara Worden (CSA Manager of Full Plate Farm collective) and Suzy Konecky (Cricket Creek Farm) about ways to run CSAs.  Including this amazing idea of members taking what they need each week instead of being given pre-packed boxes (with some limitations).  They also gave great marketing and book-keeping advice.
  • Tools for the Next Generation of Farmers & Farm Advocates – Probably the most important workshop I attended and how fitting that it was the last one! Lindsey Lusher Shute of the National Young Farmers Coalition and Alicia Harvie of Farm Aid facilitated a truly fantastic hour and a half where I filled pages upon pages of my notebook with resources.

The Food

Oh my god. The food.  For breakfast I ate ripe pears, hard-boiled eggs with orange yolks, and chocolate laced croissants that were so delicious and french I could actually feel my teeth bite through each of the hundreds of flaky pastry layers.  I paired breakfast with the most delicious coffee I’ve ever had.  For lunch they served quiche with a baby potato crust, incredible soup (a cauliflower one day and squash the next), and fresh baguettes.  The one night they served dinner I had fresh greens tossed in a light dressing, moist meatloaf, literally to most amazing mashed sweet potatoes I’ve ever eaten, and a great pear tartlet for dessert.  I wanted to eat at Blue Hill, the restaurant at Stone Barns, but it was far beyond our budget.  To give you a slight idea, we’ll be putting away $20/month with the hopes of eating there next year.

Coming up next…

After the conference, our time in NYC!

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