I attended my first sustainable agriculture conference in 1990. At the time I was a home gardener and hadn’t ventured into the area of market gardening yet. That would happen two years later, and when it did, I was much better prepared than I would have been if I hadn’t had the benefit of hearing real-life stories of how others were doing it. Besides hearing from the farmers, I learned about the research being done at our land grant colleges. That first conference I attended was sponsored by the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) and was their third annual, if I remember correctly. There was a disconnect sometime in the 1990’s and no conference was held for a few years. I see that this year’s Virginia Biological Farming Conference is billed as the 15th annual, the count beginning over when things started up again. Now the conference is a joint project of VABF and Virginia State University. In 2014 it will be held January 31-February 1 near Richmond, VA, with extra workshops offered on January 30.
Attending a conference such as this is a terrific opportunity to meet the movers and shakers in the sustainable agriculture movement. At my first conference Fred Kirschenmann was the keynote and told of how he returned to the conventional family farm to help his father and converted it to organic production. Fred stars in the film My Father’s Garden that has been made since then, showcasing the struggles that farmers face and why they make the decisions they do. I highly recommend it. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak again at a conference in 2007. A word of advice—if you ever have to take a plane to speak at a conference, make sure you are wearing something you wouldn’t mind getting up in front of hundreds of people in, in case the airline loses your luggage. That’s what happened to Fred in 1990.
The first edition of Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower was published in 1989 and he was a presenter at one of the early conferences I attended. His books helped many market gardeners get started. Coleman was back in Virginia to speak at the VABF conference in 2011. I used his book Four Season Harvest as a text when I taught at the community college. Conferences are a good place to meet authors with new books. Jean-Martin Fortier is on the schedule at the VABF conference this year. His new book The Market Gardener is not out yet, but the previews remind me quite strongly of New Organic Grower. Fortier may just be the new leader of small-scale market growers.
I got a taste of what it was like to attend agriculture conferences and even started a market garden operation, only to have no conference to attend for a few years. I always shied away from organizational politics, so I don’t remember what happened there, just that there was no conference. By the time VABF was ready to put on another conference in 2000, I had made plans to attend the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference. It was wonderful! Some presenters that come to mind are Vandanna Shiva, William Woys Weaver, and Elaine Ingham (vermicompost tea was a hot new topic at the time). PASA’s Farming for the Future Conference is February 5-8, 2014 in State College, PA.
Southern SAWG puts on a large conference each year. This year it is in Mobile, Alabama on January 15-18. Some years a busload of folks went from Virginia. I heard it was great fun for all, but always at a time when the college semester was getting started and not a good time for me to be away. I attended the Southern SAWG conference in Chattanooga, TN in 2011 as a presenter. Being in another part of the country, it was great to meet a whole new set of faces. That year was the first time in over a decade that I wasn’t teaching at the community college in January, with a new semester of students to be planning for.
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association holds a conference each year. In 2014 the OEFFA conference will be February 15-16 in Granville, OH. I have not been, but according to their website, 1,200 people are expected to be in attendance. I’m sure there are many more conferences planned by many more sustainable agriculture groups around the country. In addition to the speakers, these conferences are a great place to meet like-minded people. When our daughter was a volunteer at Heifer Ranch in Arkansas years ago, she and a few other volunteers attended the second day of a goat conference. They went for the information they knew they would receive, but were confused because so many people already knew each other. It appeared to be a gathering of friends and not quite what they expected. A few months later, she was back in Virginia and attended a VABF conference with me. Then she understood—it was a gathering of friends. It was a time for those of us who already knew each other to catch up on each other’s lives, which made for a lot of friendly banter. It is a time to make new friends, also. I encouraged my students to attend and chided them if they sat together at meals. They could see each other in class each week. I wanted them to embrace the opportunity to meet new people.
Farmers, researchers, authors, vendors, and friends (both new and old)—what more could you want to nudge you out of your winter hibernation and get the wheels turning in your head with new plans? Times have changed since 1990. Back then, most people I knew didn’t have a computer yet (including me) and of course, didn’t know anything about the internet. Now you can watch webinars and youtube videos about every subject imaginable. What you can’t do is witness the passion that a speaker has for the subject as you can in their in-person presentation, with the added benefit of impromptu conversations about the matter with other attendees. I’ve told you about the people I was most impressed with who presented at the early conferences I attended. I’ve left it up to you to check out the conference schedules to find out who you might want to see this year. If there is no money in your budget for a vacation, make continuing education a line item and find a conference near you to attend.