ADD–Agricultural Deficit Disorder

18 02 2008

Friday evening Kirby and I drove up to Corvalis, OR, about 2 1/2 hours away because on Saturday there was a Small Farms and Farm Direct Marketing Conference taking place at the Oregon State University campus. We met Kirby’s nephew, Al, for pizza (and then gelato after–it was so yummy!), and we crashed at his place in town so we could be at the conference bright and early on Saturday morning.

The day started with the keynote speech by Fred Kirschenmann, a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center, and rancher from North Dakota. He gave a very good speech about the small farms, where they stood half a century ago, and what seems to be the future for them. He made some really great points about how we seem to be moving into a “Post-Industrial Agricultural Period”, and how the future economy will be based on relationship value–meaning a community will work together to provide for all of its needs rather than depending on large corporations to provide it all. Some interesting facts and figures he gave us:

Over the last decade, there were 2.1 million farmers (this is a smaller number than our prison population in this country, btw). Of this number, in 1997, 1.3 million farmers produced 9% of farm sales, with the largest portion of the crops coming from the smallest number of farmers. In 2002, this disparity was even greater, with 1.7 million farmers producing only 7% of farm sales. This means (not that you can’t deduce it for yourselves) small farms are struggling to survive. And big farms are growing corn for ethanol. Which is why every single person needs to educate themselves on the Farm Bill, and how important it will be to our future economy and food security in this country.

Another set of interesting numbers:
In 1910, the farmers under 35 figured for 30% of the total farmers, and those over 65 were 8% of the total.
In 2002, only 5.8% of farmers were under 35, whereas those over 65 were 27%.

Again–What does this mean for future food security? I urge all of you to please please please look into what is going on with the Farm Bill and if you have any time at all, write to DC and let them know how you feel.

OK, so back to the conference. Fred told some funny jokes, including how our country seems to be suffering from ADD (as defined in the Subject line of this post), and told a great story about a group of inner city kids around 8-9 years old from New York going out to a farm to learn where their food comes from. In the middle of the tour, the guide reached down to the ground and pulled up a carrot, getting ready to pass them out so the kids can eat them and see how great they taste freshly picked. Before she could go any further in her talk, one of the kids goes “Gross! Who put those in the ground?! Now we can’t eat them!”

The first session I went to was on Passive Solar Greenhouses, and growing year round crops. It was really interesting because the guy giving the talk is actually from Michigan State University, and they successfully grow crops 12 months a year there, with temperatures outside, without windchill, getting down to 20 below. That is some impressive farming. The funniest part of his talk, even though it was only funny to me, was when he said that you can get a 30×100 foot greenhouse up in 3 days with four people. Yeah, right. While I was in this session, Kirby was in the one on Farmer’s Markets Sales: Advice from Secret Shoppers. She said the bottom line is to make your booth look pretty and to be really friendly and inviting. And samples never hurt. Then we broke for lunch.

After lunch, Kirby went to a session that was supposed to be on business planning, but ended up being a promo for the USDA Risk Management Agency. I learned a lot more at my session on Grant Writing. There is a lot of money out there if you are willing to jump through the hoops to get it. It just requires a painstaking amount of reading and re-reading the directions for the application so you do it JUST SO. I have a lot to research and follow up on from this session.

In the last session of the day, Kirby learned a ton on Marketing Extended Season Production, while it was my turn to be let down. The session was described as educating you about access to community kitchens (among other things), but ended up being largely about the Ecumenical Ministries outreach programs to low-income and immigrant/refugee farmers. I snuck out and joined the last 30 minutes of a session on Value Added Products. They were talking a lot about internet sales, which is not really applicable to us, but I made a good contact with a professor in the audience who might be able to help us out is the future.

The capnote speaker was Andrew Stout from Full Circle Farm in WA. He started with “3 acres, a 60 foot extension cord, and a beat up pick-up.” They now run a 260 acre fully organic operation. Again, impressive, and really inspirational. His closing words were, “Have a great year, grow good food, and be well.”

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