Food & Farm Conference: Revitalizing farming with old methods, new science
by Lisa Moeschler
What do you get when you put three nationally renowned and deeply respected authors, experts with real-world experience in balancing farming efficiencies and profitability with environmental consciousness, humanity, biology, and plain good sense… then, invite our whole community of farmers, potential farmers, and foodies to hear them speak? The answer is hope, inspiration, A LOT of newly acquired knowledge and mind-blowing best practices—not to mention a refreshed commitment to farming methods that Nevada County farmers can implement; the kind that work with nature, not against it.
Access to this kind of experience is what motivated Sierra Harvest to take on the Food and Farm Conference when volunteer organizers began to suffer from burn out two years ago. The conference is also in alignment with Sierra Harvest’s mission and 10-year goal to grow 25 percent of the food we eat here in Nevada County (we’re now growing just five percent). To achieve this, they added dedicated staff and resources to ensure that our local farming community could learn from the very best in their respective fields. Top that off with local farm tours and a day of workshops and you have a recipe for success—something that Sierra Harvest co-director Malaika Bishop has been working toward since helping as one of the event’s original volunteers. Now in it’s seventh year, the conference is a one-stop-shop for those who want to learn environmentally friendly methods of farming, whether for commercial purposes or for themselves. Malaika noted that it’s sponsors like BriarPatch that enable them to charge affordable admission prices so that anyone can attend, and to also provide scholarships to farmers, citing last year’s allocation of $11,000 for this purpose alone.
This is exactly the sort of synergetic opportunity that BriarPatch General Manager Chris Maher looks for when partnering with community organizations. “BriarPatch Co-op has been a proud sponsor of Sierra Harvest programs and of the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference since each of their inceptions,” he said. “Our goal as a community-owned natural food co-op is to provide an easy way for our community’s talented farmers, ranchers and producers to reach customers in an increasingly complex and competitive market, and to support the development of a robust and thriving sustainable agricultural sector in Nevada County and beyond.”
At the conference Chris had the added pleasure of introducing the first of the three keynote speakers, Greg Judy, who “had us at hello” as soon as he took the stage. Judy and his wife manage 1,000 acres in Rucker, Missouri on which they raise South Pole cattle, sheep, horses, goats, pigs and chicken. Using holistic management techniques such as rotational grazing, their primary focus is on creating healthier
soil to build rich verdant pastures. Their animals are 100 percent pasture-raised and finished on the perennial grasses and forbes. This seasoned farmer went on to offer the most incredible and obvious answers to many of today’s farming conundrums. He explained to us how to revitalize land that’s been left to decay after a vicious cycle of soybeans, soybeans, soybeans, Round Up, soybeans, Round Up, and how spraying all these herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides had finally taken its toll.
As for the remedy, “We healed it with livestock,” he said. “We healed it by focusing on the weakest growth cycle of our weeds.” He went on to describe how they acted as if they didn’t own the farm come the following spring. They let the native grass come up and cut off the sunlight to the baby cocklebur seedlings and buried them. “You could count on your hand the following year how many cockleburs were growing in the field,” he explained. Next, he brought in the animals, adding that if you have any kind of weed issue, sheep are the answer. “Every manure pile is worth a dollar bill,” he said. “And it didn’t cost a thing. The animals did it. Going into the next spring you can see the windrows will be greener, thicker, lusher and that’s what the animals will eat first.” He described how his neighbor was convinced that his farm got more rain because he had so much more grass. He also discussed clean water for cattle, saying you shouldn’t force cattle to drink water that you wouldn’t drink. He also spoke of the dung beetle, which kills the life-cycle of flies when they feed on manure, but which is itself killed off by pesticides. If you preserve the natural habitat of the dung beetle, then, flies won’t be an issue and spraying cattle with pesticides won’t be a necessity. Talk about win-win…
Malaika introduced the next keynote speaker, Ben Hartman, explaining the author’s lean systems of farming based on creating more value for customers with fewer resources—methods that were popularized by the Japanese automotive industry like Toyota and others who ran their factories in ways that became models for worldwide production. She then described the jaw-dropping reality of what this means: “Ben and his family are farming vegetables on less than an acre, and are making a decent living selling 90% of their produce within 10 miles of their farm.” The results of such streamlined methods are profound. After just five years working full-time with his wife, Rachel (who works one-quarter time, while their kids work one-tenth time), they were meeting their goals. Ben claimed that you simply have to know what’s in front of you and what you’re working for. In their case, the goal was to make a comfortable living working nowhere else but their farm, while also raising a family there. By eliminating waste, they freed their capacity to do more, and by keeping the farm small and crops close together they were able to raise around 30 crops, including greens and tomatoes—no big stuff. They provide produce for six artisan restaurants, while their total sales are distributed in thirds to a CSA, farmers’ markets, and wholesale. All told Ben has a sane work-week of 40 hours and the family earns a comfortable living.
So how did they do it? By applying principles like the ones by Taicchi Ohno that state, “All we are doing is looking at the timeline from the moment the customers give us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that timeline by removing the non-value-added wastes.” They took notice of the activities that people got most hurt at and removed them because injuries stalled productivity on the farm. They analyzed their motions to optimize efficiencies like where they hung hosing and how they could save 10 hours a week or six months over 10 years by placing it in a more convenient location. They also surveyed what their customers wanted and then figured out how to meet their needs better than the competition, partnering with others like their local co-op so that their customers could enjoy one-stop shopping by picking up their CSA shares in a convenient location.
For all of her degrees and accolades, the next speaker, Elaine Ingham, is a delightful, brilliant poster child of sustainability. (She’s literally featured on a sustainability calendar.) This is no wonder, given the huge esteem in which she’s held by growers, ranchers, and academics alike. Elaine’s methods are grounded in science that she uses to reveal the secrets of soil for the benefit of growers, which she then applies on an environment institute research farm, where in addition to healthy plants, she harvests data from replicated scientific trials. Elaine has been able to apply her findings to more than 10 million acres worldwide, and then use her findings to further develop her unique biological approach. In fact, there’s so much to learn about the biology she teaches that she offers growers online courses so they can study it in depth at their own pace.
Instead of spraying chemicals, Elaine’s researched-based evidence shows that the solutions to unhealthy crops lie in the biology of the soil. “It’s all about life. It’s all about the creatures in the soil, and I want to explain about that.” For most of her career she has worked with individual growers, explaining, “I’ll come to the grow and I’ll say can you just let us show you how to get this biology started on small parts—half an acre, an acre, 10 acres–something like that and we’ll start making compost, we’ll start making compost teas and the extracts, getting them out on the property and the grower starts looking at the difference between the productivity of our one-acre area as compared to the rest of their 600 acres that they’re growing chemically. And the next time I come back out to their farm, the whole entire farm is on biological.”
Bottom line: you have to get the biology right. That often means getting a microscope and examining the soil to see if Mother Nature is sending a me
ssage such as “Fix the organism or the plants are gonna die.” In the course of her presentation, Elaine touched on the importance of deep root systems so that you don’t have to worry about drought or nutrient-dense plants for cattle. She said that the “highest percentages of proteins that cows require are found in the plants with the deepest roots.” She described how 75 percent of good healthy soil is composed of fungi, which attach themselves to roots to pull in nutrients that feed the plant and protect the roots, adding that we need to reduce the use of chemicals that kill it. She also described how flagellates eat bacteria, and the damage caused by monster-like looking organisms called root-feeding nematodes… who you simply don’t want to see thriving in your soil.
Following their presentations, the keynote speakers led smaller breakout sessions to address questions specific to local issues. The following day of the conference was packed with workshops spread out across the NU campus. Not even the torrential weather could deter the grateful attendees from taking advantage of all that Sierra Harvest had in store for them with the amazing wealth of knowledge they bestowed on all of us through this event. To find out about attending this event next year, sign up for Sierra Harvest’s e-newsletter at sierraharvest.org.
See more about the 2017 Food & Farm Conference at http://www.foodandfarmconference.com/
Photography by Akim Aginsky