It’s Farm Conference Season. What did we Learn?


 

National Farmers Union convention 2018 in Saskatoon

Our life on the farm is so strongly associated with seasons.

Spring, summer, fall, and winter play a strong role. But there’s also a seasonality to the business aspects of running our farm.

We stop going to market at the end of October or early November. We have a few weeks to get the farm ready for the snow on its way (this year that was a VERY short window!).

And then we begin our ritual of farm conference-ing.

One of the “guiding principles” we’ve identified for our life (and so by extension, our farm….since our farm is principles put into practice) is “Continuous Improvement.” We know there is so much to learn and that we will spend our lifetime doing it. And one of the ways we get to do this is by attending farming conferences.

We just finished some back-to-back conferences and we’re going to share a few of our favourite takeways from each with you!

The 7 Pillars of Food Sovereignty

National Farmers Union Convention in Saskatoon:

This year’s theme was Unleashing the Power of Food Sovereignty. It was a wordplay on a report that came out called the Barton Report (officially called Unleashing the Growth Potential of Key Sectors). The report calls for more Canadian agricultural exports. Food Sovereignty focuses on communities, with exports being a part of, not the primary goal of agriculture.

Reserve 107

This is an incredible film that was an inspiring way to begin the NFU Convention. It really brought my heart and head together into the moment. It speaks of the development of relationships and friendships between Indigenous peoples and Mennonite farmers who lived in the same area in the Prairies but hadn’t had much of any connection beforehand. There were so many touching moments….my eyes were rarely dry. There was also a panel afterwards from people featured in the film. One of the panelists, Gary, said “Reconciliation can be as basic as being a good neighbour.” Another panelist Barb said “Land connects us. Our relationship with the land – I’ve learned to hold it more lightly and hold relationships with people more tightly.” I felt very privileged to see this film – and it’s offered as a gift to all to watch free online.

Farmer to Farmer session

Farmer-to-Farmer session on Direct Marketing in a Cheap Food System

This was the 1st year the NFU Convention had a space for groups who wanted to discuss issues together, outside the main convention. This is becoming a trend for more and more conferences I’ve attended. The topics aren’t pre-planned. There is a schedule and someone writes in a topic they would like to discuss with others. Anyone who is interested shows up during that time slot. The first session I attended had a pretty broad group of participants, not only farmers, but also people who buy directly from farmers. One of those, a local politician, mentioned the idea of sharing with our customers what they get for free each time they buy something from us as family farmers/small-scale farmers. Things like: a clear conscience, carbon sequestration, a family stewarding the land, nutrient density, fairness/labour that isn’t slave labour.

Kathleen Charpentier

Farmer from Redtail Farms AND aunt to our customer and friend Sarah from Wild Caraway restaurant in Advocate Harbour (I love these connections!). She mentioned a Tree Planting Bee they’d hosted where friends, customers, community members came out and helped them plant trees and shrubs, put up birdhouses, and broadcast seeds. I loved this idea and I really resonated with the statement that “We count our wealth, not in money, but in numbers of insects, pollinators, and other animals on each part of the farm.”

Lisa Kitt

I’ve been lucky enough to know Lisa for years since we both attended national NFU Youth Retreats. Lisa wasn’t a presenter this year, but one of my favourite parts of the convention are the side bits. The meal-time conversations, the late-night chats, or my field trip with Lisa to the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. Lisa told me about one of the most inspiring things she’d learned about this past year – how to make real cheese. She attended a multi-day workshop with David Asher, author of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking. As she spoke with her trademark enthusiasm about fresh milk, real rennet and it’s place within natural livestock systems, old basement cellars as ideal storage, I started to dream of future home cheese-making and thinking about how to get a workshop with David Asher out our way.
organic farmers photobooth

Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network Conference on Prince Edward Island:

The theme for this year’s ACORN conference was Building Bridges. This obviously made a cute visual image since the conference was in PEI and many of us got there by crossing a pretty incredible bridge. But it really is more about building bridges between people who perhaps have different outlooks on many things, but do share some in common. I know that Bryan and I personally have learned so much from farmers who grow or raise very different things then we do and who have very different philosophical ideas on agricultural production or food systems. Conventional or Organic, Livestock or Field Crops or Horticultural Crops, Farmland-focused or FoodWays-focused (where “wild” spaces are a source of much food – for our own species and others). I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t have something to teach me. Our communities and farms are richer for it.

Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens

These organic field crop farmers (grains and legumes) from NY have been featured in some videos you may have seen (Symphony of the Soil and Sustainable). Whenever they have an intractable problem on the farm that they don’t know what to do about, they’ve learned to re-frame the question. Where they used to ask “How can we kill it (this weed, this pest, etc)?” They re-frame the question so it might be “What is this species telling us?” or “Why is nature doing this?” or “What have we done to make this species get out of balance?”

Joel Salatin

Perhaps the most famous farmer in North America, he lives with his family in Virginia at Polyface Farm and has written a good amount of inspiring books. Joel said everyone should be able to recite their one sentence mission statement off by heart. Unless you know where you’re going and can tell people your destination, how will anyone else choose to join you. This was a big takeaway because we do different visioning exercises every winter, we’ve created vision and mission statements at various times (including right at the beginning when we made our business plan). But we’ve never actually put that much stock into the mission statement and memorizing it. I can tell you our 5 guiding principles, no problem (which we also consider our indicators of success). But when Joel asked for a show of hands for who could recite their mission statement, my mind totally drew a blank on what it was, as it wasn’t something we revisited or looked at on a regular basis. So, I’m looking forward to working on something this winter that feels really natural (that I wouldn’t feel weird saying naturally in conversation)….something that feels like it embodies us…..and hopefully won’t be a run-on sentence. Joel suggested we put this mission statement on our fridge, our desk, our bathroom mirror. And that it will help guide us when to say No. He said farms/businesses are often more defined by what they say No to, then what they say Yes to.
Polyface farmer Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin: We need commas in our life. Not just vacations – like working, working, working….with a one-week vacation as our reward. But something smaller and more regular. Like creating sacred spots where we can go (on the farm, or in our house) without thinking of work or to-do lists. A spot to enjoy each other’s company and nature. Joel said commas help us pace our lifestyle so we don’t want to get away.
Harris Flower Farm

Janis Smith Harris

This awesome flower farmer and farmer-florist from Ontario (who also represents Canadian flower farmers on the board of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers) got me pretty excited about growing ranunculus in the future. She talked about growing them. And she talked about her challenges with them (she said she’s had a lot of rot in the past). She also brought some flowers with her to demonstrate making market bouquets. This is embarrassing, but it was my first time seeing (and holding) ranunculus in person – and I fell in love. She also gave the great tip to not practice growing a flower (specifically corm or bulb-grown ones) with the expensive varieties. Grow out the cheaper ones first, and when you’ve got those down, move on to the fancier (and pricier) bulbs.
Ranunculus flower

 

Ecological Farmers of Ontario Conference in conjunction with the Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Conference in London, Ontario:

Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser

Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser

These farmers operate Singing Frogs Farm down in California. We were excited to attend their full-day session on Operating an Intensive Agroecological No-till Vegetable Farm because many of the techniques they’ve been successfully using are things we have been incorporating into our own farm. Near the end of the day, a participant asked them about mistakes they’d made and learned from. Paul replied that tillage (which they’d done in their early years) was his biggest regret. Wow! I mean, we’ve been reducing tillage a lot and mostly only shallowly tilling, but we still haven’t been able to cut it out totally. One of the techniques we’d heard that they were doing, cutting finished crops out (like broccoli plants) and leaving the roots in the ground, was something we’d been trying for the past 2 years with only partial success. We’d found that brassica crops (like broccolini) and chard were re-growing despite cutting them off below ground level. Elizabeth and Paul weren’t sure why though they thought perhaps we needed to ensure we were cutting them off on a slant, in a raggedy-edge kind of way. So, we’ll keep trying. This day-long Intensive workshop really gave us a clearer understanding of their full system – including where our constraints and advantages differ from theirs (which changes the decisions that are made on different farms).
Managing for Soil Health slide

Rowen White

Spoke on Indigenous Seed Sovereignty. She mentioned the different plants in the creation story of Turtle Island (nowadays most often called North America), like corn, squash, strawberry, beans, tobacco, and Jerusalem artichoke. Jerusalem Artichoke (“the original potatoes”), in her language means “all of a sudden there were potatoes everywhere”! This is a really good description of this plant, which some people call invasive. Though it is a native plant to this region and so perhaps rather than “invasive” it’s just really well-adapted.
Indigenous Seed Keepers Network

Paula Anderson

An organic vegetable grower in Peterborough, she said that our ancestors came with their way of farming when they settled here (boundaries, barns, straight rows, permanent land ownership) which were also tools for colonization. Paula told us of 3 steps towards reconciliation.
  1. Truth-telling: She said it would be pleasant/easier to skip over this step but it’s so so important. We need to really listen deeply and find within ourselves how we connect with and understand the kind of grief that is created to be forced off the land/landscape.
  2. Acknowledgement: We’ve done something here and we need to figure out how to make amends and restore relationships with the environment and First Nations.
  3. Take Action: Don’t get stuck in the guilt. We need to be the people who challenge our beliefs of progress/superiority that come with the settler mentality that allowed us to colonize in the first place.
Also, Manoomin is the more correct and appropriate name for Wild Rice.

Tom Stearns

From High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont. Tom said the organic sector/movement has been spending too much time and energy fighting against GMOs and gene editing instead of investing in our own organic plant breeding. It’s not attractive to bring people into our movement to just say what we are against. We should say what we are for rather than define ourselves by what we’re against, and invest in that. Rather than make enemies of the curious, good people who are working on these simplistic, extractionist models that are based on a world with unlimited resources. We  should work less on getting labelling of GMOs and more on the positive organic seed breeding techniques.

Michael Phillips

An organic orchardist in New Hampshire and author of several books including the most recent Mycorrhizal Planet (which we LOVE!), he spoke a lot about the relationships under our feet (in the soil). He said our only job as “captains” of this “ship” (or farm) is not to screw up what’s already happening. Plants dedicate as much as 2/3 of their leaf sugar production (from photosynthesis) to “fair trade” with the biology (other species) in the rhizophere (the ecosystem around a plant’s roots). That’s a lot! What a rich economic system exists in the soil! His presentations inspired me to want to inoculate everything we plant (seeds, bulbs, tubers, bare root seedlings) – though not necessarily with a purchased inoculant. The majority of the plants we grow evolved in a forest-edge ecosystem. So if we move aside the top layer of duff and gather a little bit of the soil underneath, this is a great way to inoculate with native fungi and gives the plants a good head start in forming these barter relationships. The fungi can reach/travel long distances if left undisturbed and collect and then offer the plants nutrients they need to be healthy, with strong immune systems to fight off disease and pests. You can imagine that these healthy plants with access to a wide array of nutrients and strong immunity would in turn help nourish us with a wide array of nutrients and help us achieve stronger immunity.
Slide on Human Health ramifications

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