I will forgo the excuses for my prolonged absence and get to some of the growing mountain of info I want to post here. The most exciting part of the past week was attending the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism, & Organic Conference in Springfield on Jan. 6-8. First of all, a big thanks to Jerry Bradley & Dayna Conner of Food Works for encouraging me to attend, and to Dayna and her family for providing a place to lay our heads and cook some real food, a true pleasure when on the road.
The conference was broken up into two main parts, with pre-conference workshops taking place on Wed. and the conference track sessions on Thur. & Fri. On Wed., I chose to attend a workshop focused on some of the basics of market farming, from insect and pest management techniques to marketing and liability issues.
I spend most of Thur. in one of the organic tracks offered, dealing mainly with integrated vegetable production systems. This was where I met the two most inspiring farmers at the conference.
Pete Johnson of Pete's Greens in Craftsbury,VT gave an amazing presentation, detailing some of the methods that have allowed them to grow from a 1/4 acre greens farm to a 50 acre, $1.4 million enterprise in just 10 years, selling to 375 CSA members & gourmet restaurants as far away as NYC. Even more impressive is the truly local micro-economy that has been created by folks just like Pete in his area, allowing residents to spend more of their money supporting small local businesses, on items as diverse as cheese and furniture.
Next on the agenda was Steve Pincus, of Tipi Produce in Evanston, WI. His experiences selling with a cooperative CSA, as well as through his current personal CSA, provided many insights into the changing marketplace. With a progressive mecca like Madison nearby, it would seem that such business would grow without any problems, but each endeavor presents unique challenges. Most interesting was his discussion of tractor implements and farming methods that reduce the use of organic pesticides and fertilizers while increasing soil fertility.
Friday I spent much of the day learning about organic fruit production and new varieties of vegetables that seem more suited for larger scale production, and talking with some of the folks I met throughout the conference.
There seems to be a promising future for specialty growers in the area, with an increased focus on direct marketing to consumers. It truly is a non-stop effort, from education and outreach, to the actual growing, marketing, and consumption of good food. There is a role for us all.