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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WA young farmers, mixing it up!

So, It turns out, I’m just jumping on this farming bandwagon with a bunch of other people 🙂  A lot of people my age are getting interested in organic farming right now.  I swear I’m not doing it to try and be cool, though.  I’d have to be crazy to be doing this much work for this little money just to impress someone.  I’m doing it because I’ve discovered I really have a passion for it.  But it looks like the farming passion is catching a lot of 20- and 30-somethings… at least I can tell you that there were over 250 people at the first annual “WA Young Farmer Mixer” on Vashon Island on Oct 4, and those people had to deal with ferry schedules in order to attend so they must have really wanted to be there!

At the Vashon mixer: Group photo with those who were left on cleanup duty at the end of the night! (And somebody's dog...) Chandler (tallest in back row in hat) and Severine (front right corner) were the organizers.

It was a pretty sweet function, and here’s how it happened and how I came to be involved.   At the Small Farmers Journal Auction back in April, we were fortunate enough to meet both  Chandler Briggs and Severine Fleming.  Chandler was an apprentice at Persephone Farm a few years ago (my post about Persephone here) and he is now farming on Vashon at Island Meadow Farm.  Severine is a mover and a shaker of The Greenhorns, a national nonprofit group by and for young farmers.  I can’t even try to be as articulate as Severine about the purpose of  organization, but I can say I’m super glad they exist and that they helped us throw this party.

It was an all ages event. Notice the seed packet nametags

In April, Severine was in the early stages of planning the “Greenhorns West Coast Tour,” and Chandler volunteered to be in charge of Washington State’s event.  Chandler looped us Bainbridge folks in to the email list for the behind-the-scenes planning and organizing of the event.  It was a privilege to be able to be involved;  it made me call up some skills which I hadn’t used since my “Future Leaders” club presidency in High School!  Asking for donations, making contacts with important farm-support orgs whose presence we wanted at the event, spreading publicity on facebook, etc.

Spit roast

Pies: the beginning of a wonderful potluck

The event came together well and was attended by a throng of young farmers, farmer hopefuls, and supporters… way beyond our expectations attendance-wise.  There was square dancing, a pig roast, a huge buffet of donated and potluck food, informational tables, brainstorming sessions, and lots and lots of “mixing”!!  (There also should have been a preview screening of the Greenhorns’ documentary film, but technical difficulties got in the way.)

Some conversations are going on here

Dancing to The Tallboys

My favorite part, though, was probably the day-before-and-morning-of prep party.  Chopping vegetables and making signs while having a more intimate discussion with the dozen or so young farmer organizers was a very valuable time.  It meant a lot to spend time with others in my position (apprentices) as well as folks like Chandler who have taken the next step and are running farms on their own.  It made me feel like I am part of a movement larger than myself, made up of people who I feel kinship with and look forward to learning and growing with.  There are lots of issues to be dealt with around young people beginning farming, such as access to land and having appropriate expectations about starting out on one’s own.  But there are also lots of reasons to be excited, and the mixer was about focusing on all the positives, meeting people, and having fun.   Can’t wait for next year’s party!

Last minute planning on a cozy evening at Island Meadow Farm

 

Roasting peppers at the prep party

Choppin stuff at the prep party

Trip to the Small Farmers Journal Auction

Our second week on the job, and we get to take a vacation! We all headed down to Madras, OR for four days to attend an event I would have never known existed: the Small Farmers Journal Horsedrawn Auction and Swap. Betsey gets sooo excited about this event! It’s a special thing she does every year and I think it’s awesome of her to share it with us. She really throws herself in and helps out with the auction and everybody there knows her, so we were known by extension, as “Betsey’s brood.” It was a totally new experience, listening to the auctioneer’s chant and watching people bid. I learned some about harness types and “single tree” vs “double tree” hitches and different types of implements that horses can pull and the difference between driving “four up” and “four abreast”. We got to help on the auction floor by doing the Vanna White and pushing wagons around. There was a fantastic bluegrass/folk band and dancing on Friday night.

The range of people there was really interesting. Mainly older men with big mustaches and cowboy hats and lots of horse knowledge they were eager to share with me. Then there was a small group of excited young farmers. It was an interesting dichotomy. The young folks of course are very idealistic and talking about how important small farming is and the changes that need to happen in society to give farming the credit it deserves. The old guys have been doing this a long time and have seen back-to-the-land movements come and go so they are understandably a bit more reserved. But I felt like they weren’t critical of us young upstarts. Instead they seemed willing to take our questions seriously and talk about their experiences. I surprised myself with the emotion I felt when a gentleman to whom I’d been chatting about my apprenticeship looked me in the eye and said “I’m proud of you. It takes courage to do what you’re doing.” My eyes welled up at the genuine validation of a choice I’m still uncertain about. I don’t think I’m doing anything courageous, but I have been worrying that I’m not taking this seriously enough and no one would ever take me seriously. Am I just playing at being a farmer because of some romantic notions I had? Making a living farming is hard work – who do I think I am to waltz in and think I can do it? These doubts have been dancing around in my head, and I am grateful to Larry for that little bit of support. It made me feel like it’s ok for me to be exploring and doing what I’m doing.

My horse passion also got a lot of rekindling on this trip. Betsey’s horse mentor, John Erskine, and another horseman named Doc Hamill gave a little clinic on Thursday morning and the deeply thoughtful horse stuff gave me chills the way it always does. I’m realizing that what I have always loved and craved about working with horses can be gotten in ways other than riding. All the same communication happens when driving horses in harness, and it’s even up a level if you are working multiple horses at a time. Using horses for farm work is really starting to intrigue and attract me. It seems like an art and it is easier on the land (less soil compaction). More importantly, it seems like you’re more intimate with your land when you work it with horses instead of tractors, in much the same way as I feel a connection to city neighborhoods I’ve biked more than the ones I’ve only driven in. So there I go getting all romantical — certainly it doesn’t seem particularly practical to farm only with horses. But if I have a passion for both horses and farming it seems awfully wondeful to be able to combine the two.

Pics from the auction are on Flickr at
http://www.flickr.com/photos/warnerbecky/sets/72157623767076685/

Here are a couple to whet your appetite. Go check out the rest!