Friday, August 17, 2012

The NOFA Summer Conference

Melissa and I were lucky enough to go to the NOFA Summer Conference last weekend.  We had never been before, but both have worked with NOFA for a little while now, and were pretty excited to see what it was all about.  
Unfortunately, for us, and hundreds of other conference goers, Friday was a day of torrential rain, flooding, high winds and tornado sirens.  We missed the Friday afternoon workshop session because the weather delayed us so much, but we finally settled in an headed off to our first workshop.
I have some pretty sad blueberry bushes in my back yard (with a yield of three blueberries this summer, though it is their first summer in my yard) and wanted to maybe add some other fruit bushes (since I'm clearly such a successful fruit grower), so I went to "Growing Raspberris Organically" with Tom Johnson who manages Silferleaf Farm, a family farm that has grown raspberries for 30 years. Tom discussed the difference between summer and fall bearing raspberries (he has fall-bearing plants on his own farm). He discussed raspberry varieties and what microclimates and sites for which they were appropriate.  Raspberries like slightly acidic soil and in the summer like to get 1" of rain per week.  Tom discussed the benefits of mulching along with the potential consequences, pruning, harvest, storage, sale and the benefits of Pick-Your-Own.
After the workshop we ate an all organic, mostly local dinner in the UMass Dining Hall and ran into many of our NOFA-related friends and co-workers. When we came out from this delicious dinner, we found that it was no longer raining, but that it was a rather beautiful evening

After dinner we headed to the student center for the NOFA Annual Meeting and Keynote Address.  I apologize for the quality of these photos, they're mostly the backs of heads . . .  Anyways, after some business, a number of NOFA Interstate Council Members sang (as you see below) a clever song about GMOs and how brilliant it was to engineer infertile seeds that grow corn and soy with pesticides inside of them.  It can be difficult to be humorous about the topic of GMO Contamination, but they succeeded, (remember, many NOFA Chapters signed onto the lawsuit against Monsanto).
After the barbershop quartet, Bill Duesing, CT NOFA's Executive Director and the President of the Interstate Council gave a brief history lesson about NOFA and reminded everyone in the audience about NOFA's strong presence in the northeast.  NOFA has been providing support for organic farmers, education for consumers, and instruction for gardeners for forty years!  NOFA has had an undeniably strong presence in the Northeast's sustainable food movement, and we're not stopping any time soon.
Next, the keynote presenter, Representative Chellie Pingree from Maine was introduced.  Congresswoman Pingree is from North Haven, Maine, where she has a farm and now an inn with a local restaurant. She is on the Agricultural Committee in the House and is one of few that represents the interests of small farms, organic farms and New England farms.  She introduced the the Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Act,to support the local-food movement. It has over 65 cosponsors in the House and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has introduced a companion bill, S.1773, in the Senate.  Congresswoman Pingree was blunt about the frustrating atmosphere in Washington D.C., and the amplified voice the money gives Big Ag over All-Other-Kinds-Of-Ag.  She explained that the grassroots education of consumers that increases demand for local and organic foods is a vital step to creating policy that benefits small, sustainable producers.  She is encouraged because, as she said "We are at  level of interest that is unprecedented in the work we are doing."

The next day was more workshops! First thing in the morning was "Introduction to Edible Forest Gardening" with Connor Stedman.  This workshop was mostly about permaculture, and was fascinating.  Connor first compared America's food system (where 16 calories are expended to grow, process and transport food for every calorie consumed) to ancient forest gardens maintained by Native Americans and South Americans, including the Mayans.  Luckily the solution is pretty simple: home gardens can be thirty times as productive as monoculture crops like soy, corn and wheat. 
For gardening in the forest, Connor recommended planting ramps, ginseng and goldenseal, and shiitake.  For gardening like the forest, that is creating a garden-ecosystem fit for your microclimate that provides food for you as well as animals and pollinators.  To do this you should consider several design principles: everything you plant should have multiple functions, there must be a functional interconnection (where one plant creates waste that another uses for food),  plants can catch and store energy, you should use edges and margins.  He recommended using polycultures (like the Three Sisters of beans, corn and squash) to optimize plants' functions as food crops, nitrogen fixers, pest confusers, beneficiary insect magnets, wildlife habitat and dynamic nutrient accumulators (some plants, like comfrey, accumulate multiple micronutrients in the soil around them). 
After this workshop we went outdoors for a Medicinal Herb Walk with Brittany Wood Nickerson, an herbalist, and owner of Thyme Herbal.  On the walk we learned about beneficial uses for broadleaf plantain (which can be found in your lawn), dandelion, ground ivy and blue vervain. Below, Brittany shows us water hemlock, which can look like wild carrot and other members of the parsley family, but is very poisonous. 
After the workshop we admired this cow which had been brought on campus for children to learn about in one of the several children's workshops . . . but people of all ages have to like cows.
After lunch the final workshop Melissa and I attended was "Radical Kitchens" with Adrie Lester, a co-owner of the Wheatberry and Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain CSA.  She discussed planning meals, preparing extra food in advance, how to make every meal, snack and drink, multiple uses for leftover ingredients, and how to make your own condiments.  The main message was that, with some careful planning, it can be just as "convenient" to create large, healthy meals if you have many of your ingredients ready (like frozen vegetable broth in the freezer, frozen dough for bread, muffins, a huge pot of rice and/or beans, frozen fruit, canned tomatoes, etc.).

Despite some pouring rain during that workshop, Melissa and I had a safe, easy ride home with minimal windshield wiper use, and we heard that Sunday was a great day at the conference.  If you've never been, it is really worth it.  The variety of workshops, quality of speakers, and wonderful company of farm and food lovers will make it a weekend you look forward to each year.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

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