As reported earlier on this blog, Sonya spent last weekend over in Burlington at NOFA-Vermont‘s annual winter conference. (The “NOFA”, by the way, stands for Northeast Organic Farming Association.) As a member of MOFGA’s Journeyperson Program, Son gets an educational stipend that she can use for books, conferences, and whatnot, so she jumped at the chance to attend, meet and mingle with other farmers, attend workshops, and hear the conference keynote speakers, Bill McKibben and Shannon Hayes. She had a great time and is happy she went. There were over a thousand participants, and the conference also served as a de facto birthday celebration for the organization’s 40th year of operation.
Shannon Hayes is a farmer and author whose most popular title is Radical Homemaker: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (Sonya is currently reading it.) Sonya reports that she was a great speaker whose address featured words of encouragement that the paths followed by many in attendance…sustainability, self-sufficiency, a focus on local economies…is the absolute right path to be on and that more and more Americans are realizing this. Bill McKibben is an author, educator, and environmental activist. His 1989 book The End of Nature is considered an ecological classic, and he has long been a voice of reason regarding the need for swift action to protect the environment and curb human contributions to climate change. He provided encouragement, too, noting that in 2010 the number of farms in America actually grew for the first time in decades. He talked some about his organization 350.0rg which has organized action events and work parties around the world to bring attention to the issue of climate change (the number 350 refers to 350 parts per million, considered by scientists to be the upper limit of the amount of CO2 the atmosphere can safely handle…we’re up around 390 parts per million as of this writing). McKibben noted that many countries around the world have committed themselves to reducing their emissions and addressing the global warming problem, but that these countries tend to be the poorer ones who haven’t caused much of the problem in the first place. Real changes remain gridlocked in the big, well-off nations like our own. The irony is startling and humbling…the poorer people and nations on the planet are willing to work to head off damage to the world that they didn’t even cause. McKibben noted that the reality is that the damage at this point might be too great…stopping climate change might be a lost cause. However, the only morally correct course of action is to keep on fighting and pushing for positive changes. His speech was depressing, Sonya admits, but still full of hope, and she was struck by how much emotion was present in the room (remember, about a thousand people were in attendance) at the end of his remarks. She also found considerable solace in the fact that she was surrounded by so many folks, most of them fellow farmers, who “get it” and, as Gandhi so simply and eloquently put it, are working to “be the change they want to see in the world.”
Sonya attended a trio of classes at the conference. The first was all about nutrient management in high tunnels/greenhouses and was moderated by Vern Grubinger, the vegetable and berry specialist for the University of Vermont Extension. (I attended a similar presentation at this fall’s Farmer to Farmer Conference, also moderated in part by Mr. Grubinger.) A high tunnel or greenhouse is a very different environment than out in the field, so specific approaches to soil testing and crop management apply. Son was especially struck by the advice to do tissue sample testing on our young tomato plants (we’ve always just tested the soil, not the plants themselves) and to use a soil test specifically focused on greenhouse needs. John Bliss and Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm down in Scarborough presented a talk on organic flower production that Sonya also attended. Flowers are a big money crop on their farm, which Sonya took note of, and they also recommended using pigs to prep perennial bed areas before tilling. We plan to raise a couple of pigs this season, so any use we could put them to is a good thing! Along those same lines, Sonya’s final class at the NOFA-VT conference focused on raising pigs in the woods, which is what we have in mind for our duo when they arrive here in May. Son picked up some good housing and fencing ideas as well as more information about how effective pigs can be at clearing out thickets and helping to knock out invasive species (here, we have honeysuckle and, back in the woods, Japanese barberry).
On top of everything else, Sonya was also able to attend a yoga class during the lunch break on one of the conference days. She also received a free health screening and skin cancer check, a nice perk for her and the many farmers like us who don’t have health insurance. Overall, she had a great time at the conference, learning much and feeling hopeful and empowered by the energy of the participants. Farm on!