Even when our country isn’t in the grips of a snowpocalyspe, annual January temperatures make winter farming as slow as molasses. But while fields fill with snow and markets sell little more than stored roots, hothouse sprouts and meat that’s lucky it’s already frozen, farmers stay busy in another way: learning. Winter is high time for agricultural conferences — and increasingly, these meetings of the minds are open to the public. Which means people like you and me can get schooled on everything from seeds to sauerkraut, even if the only overalls you own were purchased at Beacon’s Closet. I’ve been to plenty over the years, and even though I don’t own a tractor, the following three have fed me in more ways than one:
The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) throws a big to-do in Amherst each August, but many farmers are working 18-hour days then and instead opt for NOFA’s winter conference, Jan 24 to 26 up in Saratoga Springs. Sessions include everything from milking to marketing, and while the hotel bar fills up each evening with upstaters, this year NOFA has added a special Urban Farming track. Two years ago I ran into George Weld in the lunch line, which was alone worth the icy drive to Saratoga.
Over in Pennsylvania, the annual PASA conference has long been the category killer in our region, convening over 2,000 farmers, homesteaders, academics and just plain eco-conscious eaters for workshops on everything from pollinators, predators and parasites to heirloom grains and raw milk — not to mention knitting circles, yoga and seed swaps. It’s quite a scene, and the food is better than anything you’ve ever eaten in a hotel (sorry Ace & Reynard).
Out East, the Long Island Agricultural Forum returns for its 33rd year in Riverhead on Thursday and Friday, January 16 and 17, covering everything from poultry and plants to what the Affordable Care Act means for family farmers.
Or if you really want to visit Mecca, buy (plane) tickets to Eco-Farm January 22 to 25 out in Pacific Grove, CA. Overlooking the spectacular Pacific, sessions cover everything from the Farm Bill to fracking, cheesemaking to stinkbugs, citrus to the best apple varieties for hard cider, not to mention a session entitled “Cotton, Cows and Carbon: Botanical Imperialism, Domestication and Political Ecology.”
But these conferences are as much about inspiration as information. Take it from our friend Nena Johnson, who’s working on an MBA in farm management at the Royal Agricultural University over in the UK, and just attending the Oxford Real Farming Conference. She reports:
“After a semester at a very tweedy and traditional ag school, I forgot what it was like to be in a roomful of radical farmers. The best takeaway from the Oxford Real Farming Conference was that, yes, the young farmer/small-scale/sustainable ag movement is alive and kicking over here (which I hadn’t been exposed to up till this week), and that we share a lot of the same issues as the UK when it comes to this stuff. Aging farming population, land prices through the roof, power resting with big ag and industry, having to work extra hard to be heard by the government. But I was super impressed with the caliber of speakers and attendees — it was like being at YFC with accents. And I finally saw lots of bearded farmers (was apparently missing that as well). Anyway, [I] came back to school super energized to shake things up a bit here, and also comforted in knowing that the movement is in full swing in the UK. [We] just have to seek it out.”
Featured photo credit: Flickr / fdtate