Farmers, homesteaders, and students all tend to be frugal folks, and we work hard to keep the NOFA Vermont Winter Conference accessible to as many people as possible – while still paying our great presenters for their time and managing all the logistical costs of a three-day conference attended by 1,500 people.
One of the ways that attendees can reduce their cost of attendance is by volunteering. Volunteers are critical to making the conference run, from stuffing registration folders on Friday night to slicing bread at the hospitality table, directing people to their workshops, and cleaning up after the ice cream social. Volunteers receive a $15 discount off their registration for each 2-hour shift (max two shifts per person). You must confirm your volunteer role before registering to receive the discount; please contact the NOFA-VT office to volunteer!
The other way to reduce costs for some attendees is through scholarships. There are three scholarship opportunities available from NOFA-VT.
I knew little about Andrea Chesman before the 2013 NOFA-VT Winter Conference. After enjoying her lecture at the Fermenting the Harvest intensive I can give this short description: Andrea Chesman is a firecracker and she makes the best kimchee I’ve ever tasted.
Chesman, author of several cookbooks, presented a demo on sauerkraut preparation at the 2013 NOFA-VT Winter Conference. She candidly spoke with the audience, serving up tips and stories of her early days in Vermont all while nonchalantly slicing a head of green cabbage on a mandolin. We watched with baited breath as if she were walking a tight rope. The tips were useful (use sanitizing powder instead of boiling water to limit jar breakage but the stories were fantastic.
While the air in the auditorium filled with the scent of freshly sliced cabbage Chesman transported us to a time when she and the other “hippies” were encroaching on the old timer’s Vermont farmland. She spoke of bad batches of pickles, awful crop harvests and the helpful hints that the farmers provided that she still uses to this day. While fermentation is a delicious and healthy way to preserve food it is clear that traditional pickling is still near and dear to Chesman(and most other Vermonters as well). By the end of her stories the cabbage had been sliced, seasoned, and stuffed into a half gallon mason jar, sauerkraut could be enjoyed in a few days or weeks depending on temperature. I must say she made the whole process seem effortless.
While Chesman took questions from the audience to wrap up her presentation, she began to scoop up little bowls of brightly colored kimchee she had made earlier that week. As I made my way up to taste my sample I wasn’t exactly excited. The Korean condiment has never been my favorite; it always feels a little slimy and the swaths of cabbage too large and soft to enjoy. This was not the case with what Chesman had presented to me. The cabbage and carrots were crisp and tender, briny and bright, spicy and sweet, they were delicious. I decided to try jarred kimchee from the store again just to make sure I had been mistaken all along. I wasn’t, it was the soft slimy cabbage I had always had before. So kimchee like so many other things is better made with great local ingredients in your own kitchen. I’ll be looking for Chesman’s latest book The Pickled Pantry for that kimchee recipe.
The last thing I expected when I signed up for the Fermenting the Harvest workshop at NOFA-VT’s 2013 winter conference was an education on healthy soda. I admit I had never heard of lacto-fermented sodas until Caroline Homan’s presentation that morning. I had also never heard of a “healthy” soda that wasn’t some marketing ploy from a large multinational conglomerate.
I won’t give you step-by-step instructions on how to make lacto-fermented sodas at home; after all I still haven’t made a batch myself. What I will tell you is this: the whole process seems relatively easy not to mention creative and fun. If you are interested in making a delicious soda that isn’t too sweet and is also good for you the local expert on the subject, the aforementioned Caroline Homan, teaches a how-to workshop at City Market.
While I may not be qualified to give instruction on lacto-fermented sodas as a self-professed foodie I feel more able to give my impressions as a taste tester of Ms. Homan’s recipes. As I mentioned before making your own sodas allow for more than a bit of creativity and many of the flavors I was privileged to taste are representative of that.
Of the eight flavors available, my absolute favorite was strawberry-rhubarb-mint. The sweetness of the berries combined with the tangy tartness of the rhubarb and crisp refreshment of the mint tasted like the perfect summer afternoon. The soda was effervescent rather than fizzy (think sparking water versus club soda) and only slightly sweet. Another favorite was the grapefruit-rosemary. While I would label this particular flavor an acquired taste I couldn’t help but think what amazing Campari or gin cocktails it would make all summer long.
The other flavors that I was able to taste included beet (not my favorite), blueberry, ginger-orange-turmeric (spicy!), sweet potato (delicious!) and hibiscus-rosehip. Even the flavors I didn’t love were at the very least intriguing and begged a second sip. For those of you who have never tried (let alone made) a lacto fermented soda I would highly recommend finding a way to do so. I’m already signed up for my own workshop so here is to a summer of making (and drinking) some delicious and nutritious lacto fermented soda.
The 2013 NOFA Winter Conference held a series of seminars throughout the weekend long event in February. One of these seminars entitled, “Farm in School” functioned to teach educators the link between school gardens and service learning/curriculum.
The seminar began with an explanation that, contrary to popular belief, school gardens are not just to teach students how to cultivate and yield their own crops. The education extends far beyond the greenhouse/garden and into the classroom.
Steve Colangeli, the head of the Middlebury High School Garden Project explained to a room full of educators that school gardens can be beneficial in all subject area. This idea of “farm across the curriculum” makes school gardens more appealing to school budgeting. Colangeli provided attendees with a list of subject areas and how they are related to school gardens.
-Biology: cells and reproduction -Ecology: food chains, energy and limiting factors -Environmental Science: Sustainable agriculture -English: journal writing, farm to school letter writing -Math: Financial Literacy/ Business, Algebra and Geometry -Art: sketch diaries and painting -Social Studies: New World/Old World Foods
In additional to curriculum inclusion, Colangeli discussed the link between school gardens and service learning. For those of you who don’t know service learning is a method of teaching that combines formal instruction with a related service in the community.
School gardens allow students to fully immerse themselves in their school’s community. For example students can supply their cafeterias with local greens while learning how to run sustainable businesses. Colangeli explained that at certain times during the school year Middlebury High School is able to source 100% of their cafeterias salad bar from their garden. The service learning aspect can be taken a step further in that high school students are doing field trips to middle and elementary schools to teach the students the importance of sustainability.
“In the end,” Colangeli concluded, “it is all about teaching these students to be better community members”. This activity in the community is what service learning is all about, it teaches students how to apply the skills they learn in the classroom to real life scenarios and if you ask me that experience is invaluable and something few high school students get to experience.
Before attending the seminar “Farm in School” at the 2013 NOFA Winter Conference, I assumed that only fancy private schools could afford school gardens. I figured that, in a time where arts and physical education were being cut from budgets school gardens were a last priority.
At this event I learned that yes, school greenhouses can cost upwards of $60,000 but they can also be as “cheap” as $7,000. I also learned that for schools just starting out and unwilling to use thousands of dollars of school budgeting for a new project there are alternatives to greenhouses.
One alternative is outdoor seed beds. Creating your own low tunnels or row covers with remay or plastic mimics a cost efficient greenhouse effect. For example, this overlay creates an environment for seeds similar to 500 miles south of wherever the garden is planted.
Another option I didn’t know about before attending the conference was the Lowes Toolbox for Education Grant which has given over $25 million to 5,000 schools in only six years for projects like school gardens and greenhouses.
This seminar taught me and educators throughout the state that “we don’t have it in our budget” is no longer an excuse for why every school shouldn’t have a school garden or greenhouse. These gardens and the experiences students gain from them are invaluable and well worth the school budgeting. No matter how big or how small.
Six years ago, after attending a NOFA conference, Joe Bossen was inspired with a new idea. He wanted to start a business that was not so much profit driven, as it was a “nourishing experience”. That’s where Vermont Bean Crafters Company came into play. This time, at the 2013 NOFA Winter Conference, Bossen was the one providing in the inspiration in his TED style speech, where he explained how Vermont Bean Crafters Co. is the combination of passion and innovation working together to fill a void in Vermont’s agricultural community. At VBC, they choose what products to create based on a) what’s being consumed, b) what’s being poorly executed, and c) what’s available locally. From this framework, they’ve developed tasty, local products, including veggie burgers, refried beans and falafels.
In addition to increasing the availability of local products to the community, Bossen believes that the schools are also in need of more nutritious, local foods. So in spring of 2012, Bean Crafters teamed up with Burlington High School and created Falafel Fest, where they provided white bean and chickpea falafel samples to the students, which was a major hit.
“You can’t just put new inputs into a broken system,” Bossen explain. “You have to get kids excited about it”. This idea can resonate throughout the entire Vermont food system – providing a local option isn’t enough to make a change, you have to motivate people to be on board. Bean Crafters, and other local agriculture businesses have the responsibility to “be activists and create this type of culture,” where we “re-imagine daily reality”. Bossen stresses the amount of untapped potential in agriculture, reminding us how much we can do with just one simple product, like Bean Crafter’s does with beans, in order to create this new food revolution. He reminds us to “think about inputs over outputs, and quality over quality,” and continuously strive to innovate and grow both as individuals and as a community.
On a long dirt road in remote East Dorset, Vermont lies Someday Farm, a diversified farm stand that is 25 years in the making. But Someday Farm is more than just a farm – it is also one of the thriving community supported agriculture (CSA) connected farms in the state. Scout Proft, one of the owners of Someday Farm, was one of the scheduled speakers for the TED style talks at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, but was unable to make it. However, Maria Reed, a Someday Farm partner, stepped in for Proft and delivered an awesome speech that was both educational and inspirational.
“Scout and I have determined we were separated at birth,” Reed joked, as she began to dive into the passions that she and Proft share for farming and innovation. I found Reed’s description of what innovation means to Someday Farm and why they do it to be the most meaningful piece of the presentation, and would like to highlight a few key areas that I think can resonate with farmers throughout the state.
Reed introduced the topic of innovation with one simple question: Why do we innovate? There are countless answers to this question, but there are three main reasons that Someday Farm focuses on, and examples of each:
1. Maximize land usage and increase productivity.
-They strive to use each building to its full potential, for example, using the sugarhouse to dry herbs in the summer when it’s not being used for sugar.
-They barter with and lease from another farm in the community that shares their mutual dreams and goals to increase productivity
2. To keep themselves “refreshed, challenged, and engaged”
-Consistently growing new crops and adding new livestock to see what works. For example, they started with green beans, and have since added bib lettuce and mesclun greens (previously uncommon in Vermont!), asparagus, bees, chickens, and more.
3. For educational purposes. “We view education as a product; a service we can provide to the community”.
-Started a program with the local schools
-Started a community farmstand
-Have hosted and trained young people for 20 years now.
Reed’s speech on behalf of Scout Proft and Someday Farm showed how a strong passion and commitment to do what you love combined with a little innovation can lead to a thriving farm that benefits the community on so many different levels. This can range from an increase in availability of fresh, local food, to educational purposes, and just having a community hub to come to and share knowledge and passions. Continuing to innovate and and grow Vermont communities is “more of a responsibility than a challenge”, Reed states. “We all need to demand Vermont products everywhere we shop.” And of course, “support NOFA!”
While attending the NOFA winter conference, I noticed that much of the conversations that were being held were about the most effective way for small farmers to reach their desired audience. Recently The American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a study that looked more in depth about organic foods and what food is worth buying organic.
When parents are shopping for food whether it be at a grocery store chain, local farm stand, or co-op they want to purchase the food that will have a positive impact on their families. So when choosing between the conventional options and the organic labeled foods parents that can afford the organic foods are more than likely reaching for those choices. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently conducted a study about the advantages and disadvantages of purchasing organic foods for children. On average the cost of these foods are about 10 to 40 percent higher than the non-organic foods and in the case of purchasing organic milk there seems to be little difference. With a high dependency on the cows daily diet and the scale of the farming operation raw milk could have higher rates of antioxidants which is a positive for small children and families. However the report claims that there is no evidence of ‘clinical relevant difference’ between organic milk and conventional milk. It’s not all doom and gloom surrounding organic foods and if they have a better effectiveness than conventional foods.
When incorporating organic food the study found that a significantly lower percentage of pesticides were found in children who ate organic foods. These low levels can contribute to a healthier immune system and the ability for children to have a greater chance fighting off sicknesses and disease. Other bright news, organic foods will not have the high costs forever! With the rise in oil prices things like pesticides and herbicides will become more costly to farmers, which could allow for dropping organic prices. Along with the high costs of pesticides improvements in organic technologies will also lead to decreased costs for consumers.
Most would think that the actual planting, growing, and harvesting process is the hardest part for many small local farmers. However, that seems to be the easier part when it comes to trying to distribute and sell these fresh, local products. There seems to be a slight disconnect between the farmers, their products, and the consumers who want and love these locally produced goods.
This problem was recognized and addressed at the recently held Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont winter conference. In a classroom setting farmers were able to gather valuable information from a professional on how to most effectively market their farm products to consumers. One issue that seemed to be a major problem from the consumer side was not realizing that ‘organic’ and ‘local’ do not mean the same thing. Consumers just assume that if something was grown local than that must mean it is organic. This leaves consumers wondering why they are paying so much more for ‘organic’ so they choose to not support local. This was a big point that the farmers should really take the time and educate their customers on the difference.
Another big talking point at the workshop was the understanding of whom the farmers are selling to and what are their average customer’s demographics. For example, the main motivator for parents when buying organic food is they are trying to provide healthy options for their family as much as possible. It was discussed that this could be a great selling point and some farmers did admit that once they started posting recipes using the food they were selling either at a farmers market or food stand it had a positive impact on sales.
As a non-farmer in a room full of farmers I began to realize that they were unaware of how great their product actually was, they almost took the high quality of their products for granted. Consumers are not used to buying the freshest products from a place like price chopper however once the realization is made that fresh food is at their fingertips I think the conversion would be a easy one to make for the consumer.
The Farm to Institution Forum: Advancing Access to Local Foods workshop stood out among the plentiful list of inspiring and informative discussions during these years Winter Conference. The forum kicked off with an informational presentation providing hard numbers behind the demand for local produce and eggs by local Vermont Institutions. NOFA’s study showed that over 70% of institutions purchase local fruit and vegetables, and want to purchase more. This research also showed that institutions would rather purchase from their primary distributors or directly from the farmer, which provided a perfect transition into the discussion about to take place.
The open floor, discussion based forum got down to the nitty gritty of the Farm to Plate program and addressed how we may bridge the gap between local farms and large institutions. The fishbowl panel of speakers, prompted opinions from institution reps, local and large-scale farmers, distribution agencies, and a number of sit in attendees, providing a wealth of perspectives. One of the biggest points made by Paul, a local farmer panelist member, explained that local farmers couldn’t compete with the low prices of large scale producers. The representative from a school institution responded that he would rather purchase locally for higher quality and longer lasting food, despite the higher price. It was surprising but refreshing to hear such a large institution advocate for purchasing local food throughout the entire workshop. The question still remained; how does this sector cultivate direct relationships with farmers and institutions?
A representative from Upper Valley Produce remarked, “they should be putting pictures of local farmers up on the walls in school cafeterias!” While this may have evoked laughter among the diverse audience members, she certainly had a point. Maybe institutions would be more likely to buy local if the distribution process was more transparent, and consumers were more connected to their food. The discussion element of this workshop revealed just how essential it is to bring the multiple members from all sides of distribution together in one room. The fishbowl discussion allowed opinions from panelist NOFA members as well as attendees in the workshop, which promoted a diversity of topics and discussion throughout. The three hours spent juggling costs and benefits will surely help reach their goal of 10% Farm to Plate distribution by 2020.
Guest blogger: Laura Friedland
Local Farms • Healthy Food • Strong Communities • • • the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont