CFSA’s 2014 Sustainable Ag Conference
by Maya Jackson, SAC14 blogger and Marketing Manager at UDI Urban Farm in Durham, NC
This workshop was my favorite of the conference. I was excited from day one to know that I would be amongst new and experienced sustainable farmers at the Conference, but to have the chance to meet with a woman of color was inspiring. You see, I am a newbie to farming. I love eating local and clean foods, but the closest I have been to a farm in my city is the local pumpkin patch. I got into the food justice movement because I believe that every human being on this Earth deserves the right to have access to clean and healthy food, but I have to learn about farming as I go.
When the opportunity presented itself to be a part of the development team for an urban farm in my city, I knew that God was pointing me in the right direction. After doing some research, I stumbled upon Natasha Bowens’s blog Brown Girl Farming. Bowens is also the author and creator of the multi-media project, The Color of Food. This project takes us into the lives of farmers of color all across the country. It depicts their triumphs, struggles, and testimonies of how race, gender, and how access to resources play a pivotal role our country’s agricultural system and how all of these things are coming together to reshape the food movement.
My biggest take away from this workshop was reconnecting with my ancestral roots in farming through oral traditions. Natasha shared several stories and images of women of color from her project. Though these women all came from different backgrounds, the one thing that they had in common was their love and passion to preserve their community and family. Many farmers of color are faced with barriers such as discrimination in land allocation, land loss, gaining consumer trust, abuse of immigrant farm-workers, and much more. Every woman in her series has had to deal with one or more of these barriers along the way, but sheer will kept them focused.
Hearing the stories of these women gave me time to reflect on my own personal journey. I only have a few memories of what it was like going down to the country to visit my parent’s family in Southeastern North Carolina. Just visual images of fields for days, eating boiled peanuts on the side of the road with my dad, the smell of country air, or snapping peas with my Aunt Emily on her porch. Though those visual images stick with me, it’s the stories of generations before me that I can remember as if I lived it myself. It’s important for me as a woman of color to guide and inspire others from my community to understand the importance of agriculture in our lives and the impact of our roles in the food justice movement. The movement is not just about community gardens, and food is neither black nor white. Food is about community, and it’s our social responsibility to ensure that we create a community of fairness and inclusion on our path to sustainability.
CFSA’s 2014 Sustainable Ag Conference
by Leah Hughes, #SAC14 blogger
The 2014 Sustainable Agriculture Conference demonstrated the broad definition of a farmer. Whatever preconceived notions people hold about what a farmer must be—what they look like or talk like, how they structure their days, how much and what type of property they have—the conference disproved each one.
A farmer is an educator.
On Tuesday morning, Eric McClam presented a session on farm marketing and agritourism. McClam is the co-owner and farm manager at City Roots, South Carolina’s first urban farm, located in Columbia. Microgreens are a big money maker for McClam, but he has a variety of products including you-pick berries and assorted vegetables. City Roots also has an aquaponics system to produce watercress as well as tilapia. Chickens are a losing enterprise for the farm, but McClam keeps them for tourism purposes. School groups are popular visitors, and the kids want to see chickens. They already ask why he doesn’t have cows, McClam said, so chickens give them some satisfaction in seeing a farm animal. The kids especially enjoy playing on the compost piles. After a group leaves, McClam is drained and ready for a nap, but he knows those visits are important to help the next generation understand agriculture.
A farmer is a florist.
Ed Phillips walked into his Wednesday morning session wearing a big cowboy hat and carrying buckets of flowers, grasses, and shrubbery clippings. About eight years ago, Phillips transitioned from landscape installation to growing and selling flowers. He now sells his peonies, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, and whatever else is in bloom at farmers markets and his local Whole Foods store. In order to sell his stock, he must present it well. He starts with a focal flower, such as a lily, and then builds the bouquet around it. Mason jars are one of his favorite vessels; sometimes he even adds a burlap bow. “Don’t be afraid to be a showman at the market,” Phillips said.
A farmer is an inventor.
During the “Curing & Drying of Alliums” session, Gred Gross showed off a box he made for drying garlic or other fruits and vegetables. He used scrap metal, glass, and wood to construct the frame. He then added a grate to raise the garlic off the surface and keep air circulating. Gross also made his own device to monitor the temperature and humidity in his greenhouse while his harvest is drying.
A farmer is a documentarian.
Jerry DeWitt, CFSA board president, presented “Images and Stories from the Land” based on his travels to farms across the country. The photos showed artisanal cheese makers, truffle growers, people raising organic chickens, beekeepers, and many more. Each one was a farmer. “People are seeking connections,” DeWitt said of the local agriculture movement. Customers want to meet the people who grow their food (and flowers); they want to tour the farm and put their hands in the dirt. When they do, chances are they’ll be surprised by what they find.
CFSA’s 2014 Sustainable Ag Conference
by #SAC14 blogger, Maya Jackson of UDI Urban Farm
Like many of the folks here at the Sustainable Ag Conference, I am in this business because I love the land and good food. But, to make it in sustainable farming, marketing our businesses and the products we produce is crucial. At City Roots Farm, based in Columbia, South Carolina, they understand the power of marketing and how it affects their farm’s bottom line. Marketing should not be feared by farmers and should not be overlooked in your farm’s budget either. Marketing is a tool to create several sources of income for your business. Here’s what I learned from City Roots’ co-owner and farm manager, Eric McClam, in his Conference workshop on Marketing, Branding and Agritourism:
Branding is not about what your logo looks like. It’s conveying your message and creating value for everyone to see in your farm’s business. Your farm’s message should clearly convey how your mission, vision, and philosophies benefit the community you support. Consistent branding creates a loyal following and customer base.
When meeting with retailers and wholesalers for the first time, you should make sure that you bring some essential items. Never underestimate the value of the collateral: business cards, brochures and flyers about your farm, one-sheets and sales sheets about your product with information along with the UPC code, and, most important, samples of your product to taste.
How your product is packaged will determine if a retailer or wholesaler believes that your product is a good fit for their market. At City Roots, Eric explained that they have 3 sizes of their microgreens for chefs and farmers markets, but they use clamshells for big retailers, such as Whole Foods Market. They do this for presentation and to ensure a longer shelf life of their produce in the store.
Finding Your Niche
Urban farming is still a bit foreign to most people in the city. City Roots Farm has found several ways to use this novelty to attract their ideal customer. They meet their community on common ground at places like the local Farmers Market, or provide them with options to obtain locally grown food through the the Community Supported Agriculture program they have formed. For added value, City Roots packages all of their CSA items in a reuseable bag with their logo. This is free advertising for them, said McClam. It doesn’t matter if their customer is at the Farmers Market or at the local chain grocery store, people in the community are able to recognize the farm’s brand when they see it.
Social media and newsletters are useful inexpensive tools to use for your business. City Root sends out 2 distinct letters, one for members of the CSA and another for Chefs and Retailers, to keep them up-to-date on the farm’s latest activities and products.
For a farm, unless your business heavily relies on agrotourism, you don’t need to do a lot of traditional advertising, according to Eric. The key to get people to come to your farm or farm stand is good signage. If you make it difficult for people to read what your product is about or your signage isn’t visible in the right place, then there’s a chance that you are going to lose a customer.
At City Roots they provide guide tours for students – from elementary school to college; they have You-Pick and hosted events. All of these activities complement the farm’s mission – and add to their brand value.
“All of these tactics were carefully adjusted through trial and error to make them work best for their farm,” stated McClam, “but, once you get a consistent winner, you will start to see the return on your investment.” Agritourism has played a significant role in their business, so much so that they have hired a professional event planner to manage this area of their business.
To learn more about City Roots Farm, visit their website at http://cityroots.org/
Dessert at our awards luncheon Tuesday was delicious, in keeping with the rest of the food at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference this year. Pastry Chef Kirsten Martin from the Hyatt Regency was kind enough to share her recipe.
Tres Leches Cupcakes
6.5 ounces butter, browned & cool
4 large eggs
1 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
2 cups + 1tbl AP flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1 vanilla bean
1 quart heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla
1 vanilla bean
Cake: In a mixer with paddle beat eggs until foamy. Stream in the cooled brown butter. Add milk, vanilla and salt. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix just until combined.
Chill batter for 10 minutes. Scoop into muffin cups and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
Drizzle: Whisk all ingredients together. Soak cupcakes overnight.
Topping: Whip to medium stiff peak.
CFSA’s 2014 Sustainable Agriculture Conference
I knew I’d chosen the right workshop when Chuck Marsh started his presentation on Innovative Horticultural Strategies for a new Permaculture Century with a poem by William Stafford.
by William Stafford
It was all the clods at once become
precious; it was the barn, and the shed,
and the windmill, my hands, the crack
Arlie made in the axehandle: oh, let me stay here
humbly, forgotten, to rejoice in it all;
let the sun casually rise and set.
If I have not found the right place,
teach me, for somewhere inside, the clods are
vaulted mansions, lines through the barn sing
for the saints forever, the shed and the windmill
read so glorious the sun shudders like a gong.
Now I know why people worship, carry around
magic emblems, wake up talking dreams
they teach to their children: the world speaks.
The world speaks everything to us.
It is our only friend.
Post-poem, Chuck discussed the impending risks of climate change and argued that the horticultural skills needed to develop landscapes that will feed us are in short supply–those of us with horticultural skills need to not only use them and network with each other, we need to teach and share our skills with others. That point resonated with me: my work with the Well Fed Community Garden involves a lot of teaching skills, techniques, and lessons for why we do things certain ways.
Another introductory point Chuck made that hit home was his description of the process of permaculture design as a rebuilding of relationships with plants and animals – relationships we’ve lost through industrialization. I write about birds and spiders and plants and bugs a lot, in part because I’ve yet to exhaust the sense of wonder it gives me, but also because I like to think about the differences in their world compared with the world built by human hands. So, I think often about those relationships between mankind and nature.
But let’s talk about strategies for urban farming and leave the poetry and philosophy for later.
The purpose of the workshop was to discuss strategies for efficient and abundant food production on a small and accessible scale. That description didn’t prepare me for Chuck’s first topic: fencing. Briefly, he explained a number of different methods for building fences from living plants, as well as using foraged or harvested material to build woven fences for animal containment, garden boxes, privacy, and decoration.
Discussing living fencing brought us naturally to the topic of tree maintenance, and Chuck provided a brief introduction of different methods of training certain varieties of fruit and nut trees to grow like shrubs rather than into uncomfortably tall trees. This makes for more branches accessible to humans and can also extend the life of the trees.
While the gentle and consistent method of pruning Chuck advocated yields less excess woody material compared to the big piles of branches you have after one big winter-time prune, that material can still be put to good re-use. Chuck told us how to use it to build hugelkultur beds, which are garden beds built over buried cores of rotting woody organic material. The rotting wood acts as a sponge for nutrients and moisture, providing a consistently rich environment for anything planted in the soil piled on top of the branches.
Hugelkultur is one way to make your beds semi-vertical and drought-proof, which is extremely valuable when your space and water are limited. Chuck offered several other methods for making vertical growing spaces, as well as methods for building efficient and long-lasting garden containers usable in apartments or other ‘soil-challenged’ places.
I walked away from this workshop brimming with ideas. While I don’t know very much about permaculture (most of my experience is in row-cropping), the more I learn about it, the more I like it.
I often explain to people that a major difference I’ve seen between working on a farm and working in most other industries is the time scale. Planning way ahead of time is a requirement. And, more planning is always better than less; actions taken today might not show their results a long time down the line, but they’re often crucial to making later work easier. So after these workshops, I’m thinking about not just how I’ll launch my farm (when I get it) but how I’ll plan in the beginning for the farm I’ll have after 20 years.
Chuck Marsh, Useful Plants Nursery – http://www.usefulplants.org/
William Stafford Poetry – http://www.williamstafford.
Well Fed Community Garden – https://www.facebook.com/
CFSA’s 2014 Sustainable Agriculture Conference
I had a great visit tonight with a group of people at the Speed Networking session that closed the first day of CFSA’s 2014 Sustainable Agriculture Conference.
Speed networking – what is it, and how does it work?
Ideally, speed networking puts diverse groups of people with compatible interests together and lets them connect, briefly, until they are told to move to the next person. In this room we broke into two circles or “wheels,” an inner and an outer, and the outer wheel moved when time was called. It can be an effective tool in many instances, but here? How could it work with people from across the South, many working in very different parts of the food system? I was not convinced, and then I quickly realized I can be such an idiot.
“What I discovered tonight was an amazingly diverse group of participants.”
I knew maybe 4 of the 60 or so in attendance, so just about everyone was a fresh face for me. My first connection was an exhibitor who has many interests, but primarily for this week is talking about using kelp as fertilizer. Pretty cool, and we quickly digressed into a discussion of secondary uses of seaweed, particularly in alternative medicine. That made me think “hmmm, maybe this event will be interesting, at least.”
The next person I met was a young man running a farm at a small college. We had a great, brief discussion on CSAs, building markets, and creating revenue streams. It is a bit hard when you meet interesting people to realize part of the networking is about telling your story, too. When we discussed my work in food access, I realized he might be someone I could help. Wait a minute, this networking thing might work after all.
In the midst of the hub-bub, I came across a pair who were filmmakers interested in improving their local food system. When they saw my HCFM (Hub City Farmers Market) hat and shirt, they peppered me with questions on market management, business building, and food policy. It turns out they are trying to help improve their local farmers market. While they had tons of questions for me, I wanted to know more about their work in film and food. They are on my short list of people to find tomorrow.
There were several others I met: a man wanting to retire and buy a farm, an extension agent who works mostly with ornamentals, a young man working with bees, a woman who works in education and nutrition, and on and on, all different from each other and me, all here for a different reason. It made me realize that there is a lot here at SAC14, many different voices, and I better take my time going through the conference!
As I walked out of the room, I realized I had not even had a chance to speak to the people I knew, but that was ok. I had new people I needed to follow up with now, and my knowledge and interest are just that much greater, which is exactly the point of the exercise.
An Interview with Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower
Editor’s Note: Michael is making a rare appearance in the Carolinas at this year’s Sustainable Ag. Conference happening Oct. 26-28 in Greenville, SC. There are still a few seats available for a full day workshop on Holistic Orchard Applications taught by Michael! https://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/sac/
CFSA: We usually hear the word “holistic” used in connection with alternative health or wellness. What does it mean in the context of growing orchard fruit? For instance, how is “holistic” fruit growing different from “organic” fruit growing?
Michael: Working with nutrition allows body systems the right resources to heal from within. Add the ecosystem component and all sorts of natural advantage can be provided for fruiting plants. Good organic growers have always known this. Yet those intentions of ‘never using chemicals’ doesn’t quite break from the notion of addressing disease pressures solely by toxic means. And thus organically-approved mineral fungicides like sulfur and copper are often used to excess to counter disease. The holistic grower knows that tree immune function and competitive colonization can be reinforced to defeat disease from within. Similar choices on this allopathic/holistic divide speak to how we deal with insect pests. It’s simply so much more fun to choose the healthy route.
CFSA: Most orchardists try to limit their chemical spraying, for both environmental and cost reasons. But in this book you actually promote biological sprays. Can you explain what these “good sprays” are and how they benefit the orchard ecosystem?
Michael: The holistic spray program is totally about deep nutrition and competitive colonization. The spring applications straddle the primary infection period of many diseases and therefore are necessary universally. Dealing with summer rots and sooty blotch is where the fermented herbal teas fit in. Basically, the phytochemical immune response is that much stronger in a robust fruit tree. Couple that with biological reinforcement on the leaf and fruit surface. . . and scab spores and blight bacteria will find “no room at the inn” to establish diseases. I look at this as our part of the stewardship pact with the trees by which we grow healthy fruit despite the vagaries of the season.
CFSA: You mention “community orchards” throughout the book. Could you describe what that means in practical terms of orchard size and marketing? Is it similar to the concept of Community Supported Agriculture? And can you make a profit selling fruit locally?
Michael: I hold to the creed that our culture needs to grow food in all the places that we live to the extent that we can. Growers have too long been daunted by not having the ideal site. . . which seems to suggest that much of our fruit should come from the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. What I see is serious home orchardists excited to plant more than the family needs. This in turn leads to selling fruit at market or creating a fruit share component for local CSAs. All such efforts are community orchards. The emphasis is now on tree-ripened fruit grown in a living soil. . . and the taste benefits of that simply can’t be brought in from afar. A community orchard can be anywhere from 20 productive trees to several acres in size to up to 10 acres. Pricing needs to account for all the labor involved but more and more, people are willing to pay this as they understand that nutrient density in our food matters. And that’s why ‘fresh and local’ tastes so extremely good!
CFSA: As a group, do you think insect pests or diseases pose a greater challenge to the person who wants to create a holistic orchard?
Michael: Insects are definitely easier to get a handle on. All sorts of biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystem helps tremendously here. Plus we have some very effective options in our organic tool box to nudge things back to balance. Disease on the other hand starts off as an unseen force of spores and bacteria. Growers are often not quite as far along on their learning curve to grasp that certain things need to be done at very prescribed times in the growing season. And it’s such a long season. . . giving various afflictions more than enough time to gain a foothold. And the weather is always different every year. All this makes dealing with disease the bigger challenge no matter what your approach.
CFSA: There’s a lot of information in your book on “understory” planting of herbs and flowers, like comfrey and sweet cicely. What kinds of benefits do these companion plants provide for fruit trees?
Permaculture people speak about dynamic accumulator and beneficial accumulator plants. The first group includes tap-rooted herbs like comfrey that draw minerals up from the subsoil to replenish the nutrient profile of the topsoil. That’s a boon for tree feeder roots. The second group of flowering plants serves as adult habitat for beneficial insects. Such as the tiny parasitic wasps and syphid flies whose larvae consume foliar pests. Plants like Sweet Cicely and Queen Anne’s Lace are nectary sources for the adults. . . which are thus on hand to find moth larvae and aphids and the like for their own young.
CFSA: So much of the orchard’s “business” seems to take place either underground or up in the tree canopy, often at a microscopic level that we humans can’t even see. How do we begin to change our perception of what’s really happening in our orchard, and how can we turn that knowledge to our advantage?
Michael: I love the electron microscopy shown in Holistic Orchard. The first image shows the cellular surface of a tree leaf. The next zooms in to show the microbe colonization on a single leaf cell. Just imagine being a disease spore landing in the midst of all that competition! We steward this biological scene as growers. Visualize this action again and again as you do orchard tasks, knowing this is how things work as nature intended.
CFSA: How much of what commercial fruit growers do in terms of spraying (whether chemical or organic) is dictated by the perceived demand for “perfect,” blemish-free fruit in the marketplace? Can we ever get beyond this?
The majority of my fruit looks pretty darn perfect too. But my customers also know that a small dimple caused by an insect sting is harmless. That sooty blotch fungus can literally be rubbed off the apple’s skin. That a couple of small scab spots represent an active phytochemical response to disease presence, and thus more antioxidants and other secondary plant metabolites that our bodies in turn utilize to stay healthy. A good third of the sprays being applied in fruit orchards are about upping the ante around appearance. How much better to understand that nutrient density and thus flavor results in part from a fruit tree standing up to environmental stress. Ultimately, that’s the ticket, isn’t it? Getting people to taste how fruit is really meant to taste when picked off healthy trees.
CFSA: Looked at from a holistic perspective, do we need “pest” species in our orchards to ensure a healthy ecosystem?
I use the term ‘balance’ for a reason when talking about insect pests. Biodiversity happens in part because food resources are available for all sorts of species. You may think life would be far better off without the yellowjacket, for instance, but did you know that all summer long these wasps gather moth larvae to feed their young? We’d lose ladybugs if no aphids whatsoever were to be found. I teach that we need to honor all species, including ultimate pests like the plum curculio. Just remember we have integrated strategies to keep the balance in our favor.
Want to learn more? Come to our Sustainable Ag. Conference – https://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/sac/ – or become a member and you’ll receive lots more great articles like this one in our quarterly newsletter! https://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/join/