Food From Farms For Families: NOFA/Mass Winter Conference

January 18, 2010

The Northeast Organic Farming Association tries to spread the word about the benefits of organic food production and is dedication to its longevity.  The Massachusetts chapter had their 23rd annual winter conference in Worcester this past Saturday.  It was an excellent day. Coffee/breakfast/registration at 7:30, the first workshop soon to follow, then the key-note address (given by the acclaimed Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms), another workshop, the annual meeting and yet another workshop.  There were over 40 workshops to choose from, ranging all skill levels and interests.  From pest management to making organic beauty products, from introducing livestock on your farm to cheese making. The halls of the technical school were filled with exhibitors: seed companies, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, composting companies, 25 chicks, people selling honey and wax candles, baskets, produce, currant wine, and organizations offering classes. Nearly 900 people showed up and a good many of them participated in the larger than life potluck lunch!

First I had the pleasure of riding up with some people involved with The Food Project and The Real Food Challenge.  These are great people and great organizations.  For the first workshop I chose was Chemical Free Beekeeping given by Jean Claude Bourrut who manages 10 hives at his home in Natick.  I have to admit, when I left the workshop I kind of felt like I should have gone to the cheese making one, only because it clearly indicated “Beginner”.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized how much interesting bee knowledge I learned in that hour and half, especially since I knew next to nothing before going in.

Here is one of the really cool tidbits: A full life-cycle of a bee is 24 days.  Unfortunately, 24 days is just enough time for the bees biggest pest, the Varroa mite, to go through 2 life cycles. Well, it turns out the bee life cycle is only 24 days because today they are trained to make cells that are 5.4 mm in diameter, for the simple reason that people thought bigger cells means more honey.  However, if bees make cells closer in size to 4.9 mm, incidentally what they make in the wild, their life cycle is shortened to 19 days.  Mites can only reproduce once in this time period. The smaller cell size effectively halves the population of mites.

The next workshop for me was Whole Farm (Garden) Approach to Disease Prevention, given by Ed Stockman.  He basically just walked us through every step of the gardening process and gave tips at how to keep things clean and healthy to make plants less susceptible to attacks.  Everyone left with a comprehensive check list to go through when gardening or farming at home.

The last workshop, and I have to say my favorite, was called Gardening in Small Spaces given by Carolyn Edsell-Vetter who is a designer for the landscaping company A Yard & A Half.  She showed some amazing pictures of what she has done to impossibly small yards to make them useful and look beautiful. At the beginning she gave a handout which seemed to be the list she goes through when hired by someone to design their yard. It asked questions like, What do you envision in this space?, What values do you want to guide your plan? What do you need space for (bikes, play area)? How can you make things double use (blocking your neighbor’s yard and giving you tomatoes)? She talked about design tricks that make your space look much bigger and space finding techniques like gardening in containers and raised beds. After her presentation I asked what she thought of square foot gardening, a method that subdivides raised beds into square foot sections to plant one crop per section.  She said she hadn’t worked with them much, but a nice man from Newton had.  He gave me his email address and said he would be happy to help me! Hopefully I can make it over to Newton to check out his garden before I attempt mine.

One of the best parts about this conference was meeting people who are interested in organically growing their own food. All of the people at the conference share the same feeling of respect for the earth, the soil, and are dedicated to improving its fertility and working with it to feed people.  Really, these farmers are dedicated to leading a revolution in the way to treat our land and in the way we eat.

Joel Salatin felt the same way. He talked about how the way we are eating now is NOT normal, how we need food to be produced on farms, for families. We need food with integrity that comes from a system that is transparent. When we sit down at the table to eat, the food should be the result of relationships that we have cultivated, relationships with the soil, with the community, and with the people that have grown and harvested the food. Furthermore, he believes that farmers need a new image. Producing food is the most important job and he is sick of people representing farmers as if they are over-all wearing, straw chewing hicks that can’t put one word in front of the other.  He wore a suit. Farmers should consider themselves professionals because they are. Enough of this notion that smart kids shouldn’t become farmers.  Farmers must be smart.  It was a great key-note address, and wonderful to finally see this passionate, outgoing and quite hilarious character in person.  Joel Salatin is a symbol of the potential of farmers and farms in the US.  The combination of his intelligence, down to earth demeanor and hopefulness make him an inspiring leader.

Thanks NOFA/Mass, I am happy to be a member.

Other posts that mention Joel Salatin: Say No to GMO, Food, Inc. Michael Pollan wrote about Joel Salatin in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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