{NOFA-NY Winter Conference} pieces of the food puzzle

*I find it interesting that in the same week as I’m writing this post, our biggest local paper, The Times Union, ran a story on a local farm, Dharma Lea farm in Sharon Springs run by the Van Amburgh family, on the cover of their Sunday edition Business Section. Granted, we do have some great farmland around here, but I think it speaks volumes about the increased interest in getting back to producing food close to home for the paper to want to feature this in their Sunday edition.

Posting board at the conference. Many "help wanted" postings, offers from those eager to intern on farms, and plenty of offers/requests for rides back to Brooklyn.

One of the things I kept noticing time and again at the NOFA-NY Winter Conference was how diverse the attendees and presenters were. They were not simply farmers or future farmers. In fact, there were many there with no desire to ever farm. The backgrounds, methods, ideologies, practices, and geography of the people there were an interesting mix that really added to my experience of being there.

For starters I have to mention just how many people from Brooklyn were there. It was amazing. I would say probably a quarter of the huge group at the beginning farmer intensive I attended were from Brooklyn. I got to be in a small group with some of these folks and hearing their farming/community gardening hopes was immensely inspiring.

When you think of Brooklyn you probably imagine a bustling borough full of twenty-somethings and funky shops and eateries. Or maybe you pair that with its subsections of young families, older folks whose families have lived there for generations, and the poorer neighborhoods that often get forgotten. Most people don’t realize there are people there with beehives on rooftops, elaborate small-space gardens, large compost facilities, vibrant food swaps, and community gardening opportunities.

In my small group I got to hear many of these Brooklynites explain their plans for reclaiming abandoned urban spaces and turning them into intergenerational plots for both the production of local food and also education on a variety of topics. These places would serve as community hubs in some of the roughest neighborhoods and as sanctuaries where residents could experience nature and provide wholesome food for their families. I hope with all my heart these projects can get the funding they need because they are incredibly important in an age of increased poverty, high food prices, and shaky food security.

One presenter from Brooklyn who isn’t a farmer was Nicole Taylor. Nicole writes for the blog Foodculturist and records a podcast for the Heritage Radio Network called Hot Grease. Liz and I got the privilege of interviewing her at the conference. Nicole was at the first BK Swappers event with friend-of-the-blog Kate Payne, and continues to attend. As a Georgia Native she loves cooking traditional southern cuisine and is passionate about food communities, the food politics/policies that impact urban communities, and what she calls “the good food movement.”

Another person I got to interview was Marty Butts who runs Small Potatoes Sales and Marketing in Syracuse. He’s also not a farmer but very involved with his local food community. An advocate for local and fair-sourced food, Marty’s company assists small-scale food producers sell and market their products in small shops, farmer’s markets, and co-ops in the Central New York region. Marty was working at the conference as an employee of NOFA-NY but also attended some of the workshops focusing on fair trade and ethical treatment of farm workers.

There were many attendees similar to Nicole and Marty, people who came to learn about the Farm Bill, using a shared commercial kitchen space, healing with herbs, homesteading skills, and more. There were also the usual suspects though.

As great as it was to see so many young people there, I was impressed to see many older, long-time farmers there as well. I saw several vendors I knew from the Saratoga Farmers Market and it was a reminder that to be a successful farmer you should never stop learning and networking. Also, by having these older generations there it allowed for people like myself to pick their brains.

In a time when many older farmers are nearing an age of retirement, it seems incredibly important to have arenas like this conference for everyone to get together and pass on advice and information. They actually offered a workshop on how to pass down a family farm to new owners. There must be a sense of reassurance for these experienced farmers to see the vibrance of the younger attendees and to know they may actually have people who could come along and give a lifetime of care and attention to the farm they built up.

So why does any of this matter? I think it all matters greatly if we are truly going to change our current food system in a positive way. In fact, it’s quite similar to the diverse lives of the women who write for this blog.

Not everyone can or has the desire to be a farmer. In fact, some of us may never grow more than a small herb garden. Some may have CSA shares, shop their local farmer’s market, shop at a co-op, eat seasonally, and generally support the local food producers. You may want to advocate for sustainable/local food loudly and publicly, or quietly with your wallet.

All of these things are important. They are all pieces of the puzzle. Just as older farmers need younger farmers to replace them, all of them need people eager to purchase what they are producing. People who have the means and the money to support these farmers need to be the voices for those who have no access to these farms and this fresh food. We all need to be positive champions for each other for this to work.

Perhaps I only speak for myself here, but I feel deeply that this needs to work. We are running out of options, and it can be really scary if you think about it too much. We have the opportunity to feed ourselves and communities with healthy, local food. Sure it is still an uphill, often frustrating, battle but there certainly isn’t a shortage of people who want to farm or people who want affordable, ethical food.

I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir a bit here. Chances are if you are reading this you are one of the pieces yourself. Just feel assured that there are many people who desire different means to the same common end. The NOFA-NY Winter Conference was just a beautiful, small glimpse into what the future may hold if we can keep up the good (food) fight.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. I love your blog & community – from here it seems like food & farming heaven. NOFA-NY has so many great things to offer – I have to get to the conference one day.

    Of course, probably like yours my own internet world is made up of people who already have the same food beliefs. I’m sure like everyone else you have Target, McDonald’s & Walmart somewhere.

    The burning question: How to touch the nonbelievers?

  2. Alexis says:

    Well said Erika – thanks! As for Jackie’s burning question, I think one part of the answer is to teach children and adolescents to understand and subsequently appreciate their food sources.

  3. Erika T. says:

    Thanks ladies.

    And to go off of what Alexis said, I think to just lead by example is really huge. I think you could also invite people over for a completely local meal that you’ve prepared or invite a friend along with you to the farmer’s market would be fun.

    I’ve found too that just in conversation you hear people mention things when talking about food that are natural “lead ins” to describe how you eat. For example, if someone is complaining about the high price of organic food you could mention that you have a CSA share that you love and it affordable and it tastes better than most of the organic produce in the store anyway.

    Hope that helps!

  4. nynofabfc says:

    Love the love, Erika! I think you have echoed what I often try to say to myself when I feel a little down about not being a farmer…the advocates and customers and “lapsed farmers” are all part of building a healthier food system. And to Jackie, and anyone else wondering, there are many ways to get involved informally and formally with helping build this food system. Mostly I think not letting people hold assumptions and showing them where they probably agree with certain principles about this food system. (Make sure you’ve done your research and challenged your assumptions, since it’s harder to argue a point you’re unsure of).

    For example, I was on vacation and my brother’s neighbor asked a fairly innocent question, “what’s better about organic? It costs more and goes bad faster.” I perceived he had some assumptions about the meaning of organic (I was right) so we cleared those up. I gently pointed some questions to him about his perception of what’s good for the world (more themes of biodiversity and local economy than farming sciences). I showed him where we had common ground; he was actually an unknowing advocate of organic, sustainable, local farming since he agreed about many of the things that that supports–he just didn’t realize the power he had as a consumer (and that was in california, where they can get fresh produce year-round from farmers). That was mildly convincing, I hope.

    Then I brought (local) crudite to their Superbowl party and the carrots and kohlrabi from the market were such a hit! I just casually drove the point home that those were local, seasonal carrots. So I think taste testing and not trying to convince someone of everything all at once might be the ticket.

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