National Young Farmers Conference review

Tierney, Chandler, Becky @ Stone Barns

What with moving into a new house and starting a new job and navigating a new bike commute, I haven’t had time yet to write part 2 of my canning saga.  My writing energy this last week went into the following writeup for the  Washington Tilth Producers quarterly newsletter.  I don’t know if this will get published or not, but what came out when I sat down to write about the conference is worth posting here.

My Experience at the 2010 National Young Farmers Conference

by Becky Warner

In thinking about writing a summary of the National Young Farmers Conference that I attended in New York in the first week of December, I keep coming back to an image of what a “conference” looked like at my pre-farming job, which was in computer software development.  A tech conference is almost always held in Las Vegas in a massive, sterile event center.  Time is spent schmoozing and selling product.  Food is ample but tends toward large pieces of tough meat surrounded by mysterious high school cafeteria-style glop.  Attendees are there on their company’s dime and they make the most of it, spending lavishly on first-class flights, five star hotels, and limousine rides.

Attending the National Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture could not have been a bigger contrast.  The venue was an idyllic piece of farmland in New York’s Westchester County, where beautifully crafted old fieldstone buildings have been modernized into warm-feeling workshop spaces and animals graze in the surrounding pastures.  The meals we ate in the vaulted hayloft-turned-lecture-hall were catered by the amazing farm-to-table restuarant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and were freshly crafted from organic ingredients grown on the farm where we sat.

Perhaps the most striking difference was the attitude of the young farmers attending the conference.  There was a large group of us doing work-exchange for the conference and being a member of that group really hit home a point for me.  I’ll see if I can explain it.

In exchange for housing, meals, and part of the conference admission fee, we work-traders helped set up and serve the meals, and we were in charge of taking “official” notes and  audio recordings of the workshops we attended.  As a result, I got to know the staff/organizers at Stone Barns, saw a bit of the behind-the-scenes, and felt that I was an integral part of the event rather than just an attendee.  It made it feel really meaningful.

I gleaned a lot of information and inspiration out of the conference.  The keynote speeches by Kathleen Merrigan (US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) and Bill and Nicolette Niman (Niman Ranch) were thought-provoking.  I attended seven workshops with wide-ranging topics such as crop rotation planning, do-it-yourself techniques, building a successful CSA, growing better starts in the greenhouse, and Farm Bill policy for beginners.  All were well-presented and full of useful information.  There were a multitude of other options that I didn’t have time for, including permaculture workshops, a hog butchering demo, and instruction in worksongs.

I was able to attend the conference and gain all these great bits of knowledge to add to my farming toolbox because someone or some entity was generous enough to provide part of the financial support to cover my being there.  In return, I was able to help out by doing work-trade: doing something for free that otherwise, someone would have been paid to do.  In this way, everybody wins and there is less waste in the system.

I feel that this is a small example of the way that the young farmer movement as a whole can work and is working.  Every young farmer there at the conference, whether they were doing work trade or not, is in the same position: We don’t have much money but we are passionate and hardworking.  We don’t expect to have things handed to us, but instead we want to work together with our compatriots and those who have the means to help us.  We can’t approach a problem by simply throwing money at it, like they often seem to do in the tech world.  Instead we have to work smarter to achieve results by making the best use of resources we do have and relying on mutual cooperation with friends and strangers.

There are those out there who want to help us get a leg up — mentors who are willing to share knowledge, give of their time and let us borrow their tools; organizations who can provide educational scholarships, financial loans, etc. But we have to put in the effort to search out these opportunities and make the most of them.  We have to show that we are willing to work-trade for them.

Young farmers, let’s continue to push the momentum of the food revolution that is happening in America today.  We are a part of something important.  We have lofty aspirations, and we can make them realities by living thoughtfully, sticking by our ideals, growing good food, and staying involved in our communities.  Attending the 2010 National Young Farmer Conference helped me see more clearly that we what we are doing here in Washington state is part of a real and growing movement across the country — I feel privileged to be a part of it and am excited to see what develops as we move into 2011.

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A city season

I’m on the Seattle light-rail train, rumbling through the industrial area south of the city on my way to the airport. There is snow on the ground and more falling from the sky.

I’ve been in Seattle for the past week, catching up with friends and taking care of errands in between moving off the farm and heading back east for the Thanksgiving holiday. It feels appropriate that my transition off the farm was marked by a very obvious transition of the season. It rarely ever snows in Seattle, so a visible blanketing in mid November is enough of an event to make for a lot of “it’s a winter wonderland!” facebook status updates. It’s cold. The leaves are gone from the trees. It gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. So it makes sense, I keep telling myself, that I’m waking up in Seattle instead of on Bainbridge. I miss the farms, but there’s no farming to do right now! So it’s time to change it up and settle into a winter routine.

After Thanksgiving, I’ll be spending the winter working a software job in Seattle. I decided that I want to farm again for sure next season, and I lucked out – with this short term contract job I should be able to save up enough money to make it possible. I could see myself doing this dual life thing for awhile: working and living in the city December thru March and then spending the rest of the year farming. A transitory lifestyle clearly has its drawbacks — the post office’s forwarding address system is probably going to short circuit itself trying to keep up with all my recent moves — but being in new places and meeting new people also keeps life interesting.

So as much as I miss the daily life on the farm, I am really looking forward to a Seattle winter. I miss the farm “family” (Betsey, Brian, and the girls). But this week reminded me that I also have an awesome Seattle “family” of really dear friends who I can spend more time with now. This week was great as so many of my friends are unemployed or underemployed right now that I was never at a loss for friends to hang out with, even during the day on weekdays! A big goal for my winter is to spend tons of quality time with these people… you know who you are :-). I also want to log lots of miles on my bike, build something, re-learn Lindy Hop, and learn how to drive stick finally. (This last being a very necessary farming skill that it would behoove me to pick up before next season!)

Of course, when I started the internship I was looking at it more as a temporary break from “regular life” rather than a permanent shift in lifestyle. There are some important issues I’ve been putting off addressing that I’ll need to deal with soon if I intend to keep farming. For instance, I have a cavity I need to get filled, and I need new tires on my car. Questions to think about: Will I ever be able to resume adding money to my retirement accounts? Does that matter? How much private health insurance coverage do I need versus how much can I afford?

I didn’t fully appreciate how cushy my former job as a salaried software engineer was when I had it, with its high salary and great benefits. I could have been saving more. Now, though, it feels good to be making more conscious decisions about the amount and type of work that I do, how much time I take off, and how much money I really need to spend on “stuff.” Paying for healthcare out of pocket makes me appreciate it more. Trying to look on the bright side here. What I really love is the feeling of being a producer of something tangible. As an engineer I got used to a steady paycheck that didn’t depend at all on what I actually did that week. As a farmer, there’s a more direct relationship between work and reward: I make money by creating (growing) a product through my own effort & skill and then finding a way to sell it directly to a consumer. The amount I make feels a lot more tied to my own ability to work hard and work smart. Of course the regular paycheck is great, and I couldn’t argue with you if you pointed out how dumb it seems to purposefully walk away from a career with that kind of security. But I feel excited about growing food in a way I never felt about computers, and I feel like I’m reaching for the “work to live, not live to work” ideal. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

To that end, I’m visiting a few farms in the Puget Sound area to “interview” for a position for next year. There are two that I’m really excited about at the moment and I would be thrilled if either of them worked out. I feel sad when I think about not spending another season with Brian and Betsey after how much I loved being there this year. What if I don’t love my next farm as much? But I know that I’ll learn much, much more by moving on to a new place. Everyone has their own ways of dong things and it’s best for me to see several so that I have more information going into my own potential future farming endeavors. I’m looking for a slightly larger-scale farm for next year, growing a wide variety of crops and selling through a wide variety of market channels. I’m looking for a new community of people and a new piece of earth to get to know.

Ok that’s about enough. Kudos to you if you made it through all of that. Happy Holiday to all — let’s enjoy winter as we look forward to spring!

Tis “The Season”

When we started the internship we kept hearing the farmers talk about “the summer season” when things go crazy on the farm. Back in April, Betsey would take us all out for coffee in the middle of the morning, or Brian would treat us to ice cream after lunch. “Don’t get to used to this,” they would say, “it’s slow right now, we can take a break.” They were only half joking. “Wait til The Season kicks in,” I kept hearing. “Wait til the tomatoes come on. Everything’s going to change around here!”

April, May, and June seemed like a busy enough time to me! It was a lot of work learning new tasks every day, getting comfortable with the workings of the two farms, taking on more and more responibility, becoming more self-directed. I never felt like things were particularly slow during “the slow season.”

But now, just within the last two weeks, I can feel the change. “The Season” is upon us. Some indicators: the volume of produce at Brian’s stand increased dramatically so now we need to bring extra tents and tables. The variety increased a lot too- We have tomatoes and zucchini and cucumbers for sale now in addition to all the greens and carrots and springtime things. Betsey’s crops are starting to be ready for harvest now too; I got to dig potatoes for the first time this week. Garlic harvest is a huge project that will happen all at once this next week or so.

The summer is a time of sleep deprivation for Betsey and Brian and us interns too. The long days and warmer weather have done their job on the crops and there is a lot ready for harvest. If things don’t get picked at the right moment, they get over-mature and are no good for sale. Those vegetables don’t run on our time schedule – when they’re ready they’re ready and we need to harvest them. So the farmers pull long days and we apprentices try to help as much as we can. I’m burning the candle at both ends a bit; evidenced by the fact that I’m posting this at 1:15 am and I plan to be working at 7:30 tomorrow. Oopsies!

With so many things to do it’s easy to forget to take a moment and appreciate what is going on here: all our springtime work is starting to pay off. Seeds that we planted back in April grew into baby plants that we transplanted into the field in May and now we are harvesting broccoli. Crazy! As we ate some zucchini for dinner tonight Erin and I recalled how we had planted those plants into the greenhouse during the very first week of our apprenticeship. It is amazing to me that I’m able to be here doing this in this place with these people… I’m trying to savor every minute of it as it flies by ever faster. Here’s to summer- the tomato Season with all the work and all the bounty that it brings.

As always, new pictures here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/warnerbecky/