In Food

VES Land Trust Hosts Small Farm Mini-Conference

Posted by: on Feb 7, 2013 | No Comments

local tomatoesThe Virginia Eastern Shore Land Trust (VES Land Trust) sponsored a small farm conference, Eastern Shore Grown: Small Farm Future, this past Saturday, February 2nd. The conference ran from 9 a.m. until noon. This was the first conference of its kind on the Eastern Shore. However, all across the United States, Land Trusts are rising up in support of small and local agriculture.

Farmer at the Salt Lake City Farmers' Market, part of my Local Ag tour during the Land Trust Alliance conference

Farmer at the Salt Lake City Farmers’ Market, part of my Local Ag tour during the Land Trust Alliance conference

Last September, I attended the Land Trust Alliance’s annual conference in Salt Lake City. The conference was packed with traditional topics relating to conserving land. However, there were also tons of sessions and even field trips related to local agriculture and how Land Trusts are working to support, preserve, and further the small and local agriculture movement. In fact, during his address (and later published in Saving Land, you can read the text here) the President of the Land Trust Alliance said in the next 30 years, “The local food movement will flourish and land trusts will be at the heart of making this possible.”

So, this past Saturday more than 100 Shore residents gathered to hear local and professional experts discuss the future of small farming on the Eastern Shore. The day began with coffee from Eastern Shore Coastal Roasting Co. and muffins from the Yellow Duck Bakery. Bob Bloxom, former Secretary of Agriculture was the first speaker. Bloxom kicked off the presentations discussing the history of agriculture on the Shore. The Eastern Shore is a traditional agricultural community much like the rest of Virginia. As Bloxom stated, “America started on a farm in Virginia.” For a long time, the Eastern Shore supplied many of the metropolitan areas on the East Coast with fresh produce. The Eastern Shore is known for its potatoes (sweet and white) and seafood (crabs, clams, and oysters). Soybeans and other large-scale commodity crops didn’t make an appearance on the Eastern Shore until the 1940s. “Food is important,” Bloxom said, “and we must give agriculture its rightful place.”

Attendees at the Eastern Shore Grown: Small Farm Future conference

Attendees at the Eastern Shore Grown: Small Farm Future conference

The audience then heard from a panel of local farmers, including Arthur “Cricket” Upshur of Copper Cricket Farm, John Johnston of Pickpenny Produce, and Bill Jardine of Quail Cove Farms. Each of these three represents a very different and unique way of farming. Upshur has a small produce farm in Machipongo, Virginia. He and his wife, Carol, farm about 1.5 acres. They place emphasis on biological management and sustainable growing practices. During his presentation, Upshur countered the idea that farms must get bigger and bigger to survive. In fact, he said, “The motto of farming has pretty much implied that only the biggest can survive – get bigger or die. As I studied farming over the last couple of decades, it appeared that this was more and more a motto that maximized profits for the producers of inputs to farming and not for the farmers.” As an alternative to the industrial complex, he outlined their model: sell direct to consumers to capture almost 100% of the food dollars; substitute your own labor for inputs; and use inputs that are available for ‘free’ from your farm. Upshur left us with a little hope and practical advice, “Small farms can work. As long as they do not pretend to be large farms in their spending, equipment, or marketing.” (Check out their blog post about the conference including a transcript of Upshur’s presentation here.)

John Johnston operates Pickpenny Produce out of Locustville, Virginia. Rather than focusing on CSAs and direct to consumer sales, John Johnston mostly sells to restaurants and other larger markets. Although, he did sell at the Onancock Farmers’ Market this past season as well. Johnston specializes in herbs and some produce. He believes there is a world of potential within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, formerly food stamps, for small produce farmers. Johnston suggested requiring a percentage of SNAP benefits be spent on produce, increasing consumption of healthy food as well as increasing the income of small farmers through acceptance of EBT cards at local markets. In addition, Johnston believes the biggest challenge for small farmers today is food safety regulations.

And finally, Bill Jardine of Quail Cove Farms rounded out the panel of small farmers. Quail Cove Farms, located in Machipongo, Virginia, grows, sells, and distributes natural and organic foods. They specialize in potatoes and actually sell to Route 11 Potato Chips. Jardine showed a very entertaining movie about peanut production at Quail Cove. He explained that peanuts are an excellent opportunity on the Eastern Shore because you can market them all year-long and you do not have to worry about them immediately the way you do produce. He agreed with John Johnston that food safety is one of the biggest challenges facing small farmers. And he emphasized that farming is hard work. In fact, his advice: “Work harder.”

Extension agents, Steve Rideout, plant pathology and Josh Freeman, horticulture, from Virginia Tech’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC) as well as an agent, Vernon Heath, from Virginia State University (VSU) spoke. Rideout and Freeman emphasized that The VT AREC is there to help all farmers. They expressed their doors are open to anyone with questions and they will do everything they can to assist. Rideout also mentioned they are working to expand their research into food safety and are transitioning three acres at the center to organic. Vernon Heath is a part of VSU’s Small Farms Program. His advice: a farm can be as small as you want but it’s a business and you must make a profit. He emphasized the importance of marketing, suggesting farmers spend just as much time marketing as they do producing. He explained that VSU’s Small Farms Program has 40 acres for demonstration and works with small farmers in the area to demonstrate unique enterprises as well practical skills like high tunnel usage. Extension agents are a wonderful resource for farmers; take advantage of their knowledge.

To close the speaker portion of the conference, Rick Felker of Mattawoman Creek Farms, Hampton Roads Buy Fresh Buy Local (HRBFBL), and Virginia Biological Farmers’ Association (VBFA) and Janet Fosque of the Onancock Farmers’ Market spoke about their regional organizations that support small and local farming. HRBFBL offers marketing support for small local farmers. It is also akin to a professional organization, providing networking opportunities. In addition to its local buying guide, it sponsors a farm tour day once a year in the fall. VBFA has a yearly conference (this coming weekend), provides educational opportunities and networking with both consumers and peers. The Onancock Farmers’ Market had a very successful first year. The market operates on Saturday mornings from May to October. They are a producer only market. At their peak, the market had 3-400 customers at one time. The typical consumer spent between $20 and $40. And 100% of customers surveyed said that it was very important for food products to be locally produced. The Onancock Farmers’ Market is a great example for new markets and an excellent place for consumers to find small local farmers. Farmers’ Markets provide much-needed contact between consumer and producer. It’s a great place to mingle and speak with the people producing your food. More often than not, the farmer is happy to tell you just how he grew his produce and even invite you to the farm. In fact, the conference was a great place to do talk with farmers. I even got invited to visit two farms!

Small and local farms are an important part of our food chain and community. They offer healthy food for the consumer as well as the environment. In addition, small local farms provide excellent educational opportunities for kids and adults. I recently read an article in my electric companies cooperative newsletter that quoted a second grader asking why we needed farmers if we could get all our food from the grocery store. Taking children and adults to farms, showing them how food is produced, and letting them taste and experience new foods goes a long way to their understanding of the natural world and how much we rely on it. I certainly hope this conference is a first step toward a stronger local and small farm community on the Shore and in the world.

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