Well, actually, I remember two “first times”. And, yes, I DO know the meaning of “first”, but, well, you decide.
In 1996, Paul and I attended the SSAWG Conference held in Lexington, KY. We had been growing using organic practices for some time. For both of us, we had read “Silent Spring” in 1974 and it changed our lives. We had been growing vegetables commercially for somewhat less time. For me, since I bought the farm in 1989 and for Paul, 2-3 years. But, as a team, we were very new, like 3 or 4 months new. And, as was typical for the time, we had no one close to us to talk with about growing without chemicals. When we tried, response ran from total amusement to total disdain.
Somehow, we heard about the conference and that there were scholarships available. It was in Lexington, close enough to drive up for a day – jobs kept us from attending any time but the weekend – and it sounded like a wonderful opportunity. We got the scholarship, pulled together the money for gas, got up VERY early and drove to Lexington. We were so poor that we carried our lunch in a cooler and ate it in the truck in parking garage. But what else I remember is sooo important: Martin Richards introduced me to Mark Cain, who assured me I WAS capable of making great flower bouquets, we attended Tom Trantham’s “12 Aprils” which was perfect for our plans for a grass finished beef operation, and most important, when we talked to people about growing organically, they “got it”.
Jobs and other things – like figuring out how to use High Tunnels – intervened and it was 2001 before we had the opportunity to attend again. We were asked to speak about the fledgling High Tunnel technology, and it was in Chattanooga – close enough to drive down in just a few hours. It was our first time speaking before a large audience. Before we had PowerPoint. Slides only. But what I remember clearly is that as I talked, I could see heads nodding. Afterwards, people came down and wanted to continue the conversation. And, we got to attend lots of sessions ourselves, often getting answers to questions we had not yet asked, or giving us fresh ideas for the next year.
We have only missed one since. Although the number of farmers growing sustainably has grown, it is still such a small community in South Central Kentucky. The SSAWG conference, more than any other we have attended, is like a large community. We have a wide circle of friends we only see at Conference, and each year we add to that. The variety of sessions always energizes us for the coming season, and gives us lots of new ideas as to where we will be taking our growing next. It is a “must attend” for us still and hopefully for many years to come.