A Future Farmer's Conference Experience

by Karen Lanier, guest blogger

I’m not a farmer. I’m a future farmer. I don’t expect to feed the world, or even fill a shelf in a grocery store. I do expect to grow most of my own food and share a surplus. When? Well, starting next week I’ll be eating the sprouts I am soaking today. But the real testament will be this time in 2020. My plan is to steadily increase my skills and growing space until I have a full larder consisting largely of home-grown food. I’m sure I can do it. I want to do it. Do I know how to do it? Well, yes and no. That’s why I went to the 2016 SSAWG Conference, to learn enough to feed myself and share the surplus of information with readers.

In this series of three blogs, I’ll recap what I learned at SSAWG Conference, where a diverse field of topics enticed farmers of all levels of experience to enrich their knowledge, hone their skills, and boost their motivation to farm for the greater good.

Lord of the Rings: Part I

First, the Ring of Knowledge.

Venn diagram.

Venn diagram.

Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin.

On the first morning of SSAWG conference sessions, Joel Salatin drew a big crowd. I, on the other hand, drew circles. Three rings, overlapping in the middle. This simple Venn diagram would become a symbol of my farming future. “If time and money were not an issue, what would you do tomorrow?” Joel challenged his audience with this question and I followed his instructions. I wrote the word Love inside one circle, Good At inside another, and Know inside the third.

Just because I know a lot about something doesn’t mean I’m good at it. Just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I love to do it. And vice versa. Joel’s goal with this exercise was to encourage movement toward the center. This simple reminder becomes a compass, guiding me toward the sweet spot in the middle of those three realms. The focus area is the place where what I’m good at, what I know how to do, and what I love to do all come together.

My current relationship with farming falls outside of the center of the three rings. I know a lot about organic farming, I love to work outdoors with plants and animals, but I have far less hands-on experience with growing food successfully.

I was an armchair farmer in the high desert and dusty plains of the West, reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle while daydreaming about rain. I made a deliberate move to settle down in Kentucky, a place where green things actually grow pretty readily. I was a short-term volunteer on a few farms and spent two years helping organize and tend community gardens. Then I tried to lead middle school students in creating a permaculture urban farm. That’s when I realized how little I actually know.

Maybe it’s true that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. Well, I’d like to become a better do-er. To fit “teach gardening skills” into my three circles, it would have to go inside the Know circle. I know how to do it but am not altogether good at. While I love teaching gardening sometimes, I truly enjoy the act of working alongside colleagues of all ages and sharing experiences. I heard about SSAWG and wanted to absorb more knowledge so I can practice more in the field, on my own at first and potentially with others.

Sessions at the SSAWG conference could fill up my Know circle. Everyone there was an educator in some respect. Expert farmers shared a wealth of knowledge, in the form of practical, useful information. I will definitely refer back to the recommendations from the following presentations.

Pam Dawling.

Pam Dawling.

Intensive Vegetable Production on a Small Scale by Pam Dawling
Intensive is right. While Pam’s title referred to growing a large amount of food on a small amount of land, her presentation was like a graduate-level course jam-packed into 75 minutes. The great thing was that I didn’t take any notes and could absorb her wisdom. She gave a handout with very detailed examples of transplant age and size for a sampling of veggies and spacing for crops for various goals (early harvest, max yield, sizes, etc.). It also summarized biointensive integrated pest management, sustainable weed management, and season extension. Pam’s presentation went into great detail on timing and rotations of crops specifically for her ecoregion. This slideshow and many more are available on slideshare.net. Her book Sustainable Market Farming is rich with tables and timing plans to get the most out of a small area.

Permaculture Designs for Small Farms, Shawn Jadrnicek
This was another one that left my head spinning, partly wondering why this guy hasn’t been recruited by NASA to establish a self-contained life system on another planet. I think he’s got what it takes. While I have a decent understanding of permaculture practices, I’m continually amazed at the ways people like Shawn can work with nature to enhance growing systems. Much of his presentation focused on a pond. What does that have to do with farming? Everything about his pond is hosting a life form, impacting a microclimate, building soil, and performing at least ten other functions. This qualifies as bio-integration. The system is alive. If you’re more into chickens than watercress, his flower-petal design for rotating moveable fences just outside his door is impressive - simply elegant and highly efficient. Those were just a couple of samples from his extensive repertoire. Read all about it in Shawn’s book, The Bio-Integrated Farm.

My future farming partner attended these additional sessions and shared his notes, which we will keep and refer back to when the time comes.

Managing Plant-Soil-Microbe Relationships for Better Fertility, Julie Grossman
This presentation focused on managing cover crops for profit, and all the benefits, in terms of chemical composition and microbiology, that come along with nitrogen-fixing cover crops.

Intensive Short Course: Growing Farm Profits by Managing for Profit, Ellen Polishuk and Jim Munsch.
My partner brought home not only pages of notes on how to choose what to grow, profit margins, and markets, but also a jump drive full of spreadsheets. We’ll be off to a great start when we start tracking our data.

One of the biggest benefits from the conference was the abundance of takeaways, literally: Handouts, resources, literature, references on best practices on everything from when to plant to how to sell. SSAWG could compile a thorough sustainable farming library just from the websites and books the session presenters authored.

The sessions mentioned above were ones that I classified as fitting into the Know ring. They provided statistics, percentages, ratios, specific crops and timetables, all of which can be great starting points and troubleshooting guides for my future farm. I may be too green of a greenhorn to really know what good all this accounting, science and engineering will do for my little hobby farm. I don’t want an organic chemistry course to be a prerequisite for planting a potato in my back yard. Thank goodness I don’t have to remember it all now. I don’t even have to understand it all now.

However, maybe I should track my sprouting sunflower seeds on a planner. It’s never too early to start a good habit, and maybe I could sell sprouts in the future. You never know!

Karen Lanier is a freelance writer, environmental educator, and youth photography teacher. She is author of the forthcoming book, Wildlife in Your Garden (i5 Publishers). Read more of her work at Hobby Farms and Urban Farm online.

Shari Hawley