Local Food Workshop, Olds, Alberta

October 24-25, 2013. Put on by the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association, with keynote speakers Joel Salatin (polyfacefarms.com) and Doug Weatherbee (soildoctor.org)

An interesting mix of people gathered to talk about to talk about farming on a small-scale. Topics ranged from pastured poultry to direct marketing to chicken breeds and potato varieties to soil microbiology to portable farming equipment.

Joel Salatin gave the keynote addresses, inspiring us with his visionary farming model. He blends permaculture, organics, pasture management and modern marketing methods a mix of new and old-world technology that results in a scalable farm. Always searching for more efficient, cheaper and more integrated systems, he showed his latest “Eggmobile” design that can be neatly folded into itself and driven down the highway. Lightweight structures on wheels create a shade-cloth canopy for pastured cows, citing the latest research which shows about 0.1 to 0.5 lbs gain in cows per day with access to shade. There is nothing more exciting that seeing how cutting edge science meets practicality in an efficient, affordable, beautiful, easily managed, portable, and eco-friendly manner. This is agro-ecological farming at its best.

The takeaways from the conference were summarized by Joel:

  1. Theatre of Marketing: Farmers looking to direct market products excel when they can entertain consumers. However, we rarely see the importance of this quality in agriculture schools, government programs etc.
  2. Importance of starting: Taking the first step is essential, and the first step is the hardest step.
  3. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly”: No one does anything right the first time, but the trying is what matters
  4. Diversify: Diversify production methods, diversify your market (retail, wholesale, direct, online), diversify your team (agronomist, marketer, accountant, distribution, processing), diversify your production seasons (season extension), diversify!
  5. Collaboration: Networking, teamwork, partnerships. Create “fiefdoms,” by sharing your resources (land, equipment, CSA box, market table, freezer space, truck space) with others (neighbors, interns, family members, friends) to allow them their own niche. As a few examples: partner with a neighbor to share shipping to town drop points; partner with beekeeper to improve pollination and allow access to pollen; let interns on the farm create their own projects to sell at your market table. WOTBY (working on the business) instead of WITBY (working in the business). The payback is far greater when you spend your time planning, analyzing and improving efficiencies of the business than it is working the day-to-day chores.
  6. Creativity and innovation leverage passion. “The world always stops to look at a burning bush”. What excites you? Invest in what you love. “Money is a cheap way to run your engine”.
  7. Savviness of customers: Customers know more about food pathogens, soil health, food density etc. than ever before. We can leverage this by using our proactive story: soil building, healthy food, animal welfare, ecosystem maintenance etc. Use the internet to tell the story.
  8. Local markets allow low capital entry. There was no discussion of plant diseases, pathogens, weeds etc., items typically covered at agriculture conferences. Organic and ecological methods don’t fret over these issues. And there are no big equipment sales reps either: local systems increase productivity and income per acre and create “embryonic prototypes” that shift, change and respond to the environment, climate and market. Instead of a massive cruise liner, this kind of farming is more like a speedboat that deftly and quickly turns and maneuvers.
  9. A lot of opportunities in this area: There are endless examples of farming opportunities on the small scale. An example is a therapy farm that “sells caregiving and grows food”.
  10. Strength and power of multigenerational operations: “Tribes develop wealth by leveraging wealth with youthful energy.” The older generation has wisdom and experience, but the younger generation has the energy and enthusiasm (not to mention the flexible spine!). The older generation can relive their youth through the bodies of young partners. These youth are appreciable assets!

Other speakers at the conference included local farmers that shared their success (and not so successful!) stories:

–          John Mills of Eagle Creek Farms: His father runs a seed potato business in Bowden, and John runs a 500 member vegetable CSA. He spoke of his direct marketing techniques, emphasizing the importance of customer relations that comes with direct marketing. The CSA model affords him some insurance against disastrous weather, as customers pay up front. As long as customers are aware of how the model works, and are regularly updated with newsletters about the progress, they are generally content with the model. He also spoke passionately (and theatrically!) about his love of potato varieties.

–          Daniel Chapelle of Country Tyme Farm: Farms next to John, and partners to supply poultry (heritage breeds of duck, chicken and their eggs) and heritage grain to the CSA. Daniel is well-versed in the breeds of chickens and ducks, and is a staunch advocate of heritage breeds, as the more modern breeds are not adapted to our regional climate or pasture-farming conditions. He uses the Chanteclaire chicken that was bred in Quebec and is the only Canadian-bred chicken (Canadian here meaning cold-tolerant!)

–          Rick Kohut of Kohut Farm: Grows sweetcorn in the cold climate (but excellent soil) of Didsbury using black plastic mulch. The cold nights give the ripening corn added sweetness. Local food is the first concern for customers (organic is second, followed by GMO-free). He has come up with some creative marketing ideas (eg: selling small corn typically unsaleable as “baby corn; travels around doing corn boils with his “corn hut”). He uses compost tea made from worm casting on the growing corn.

–          Doug Weatherbee the Soil Doctor: Doug gave a rousing talk on how soil microbes are affected by disturbance (tillage, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides) and how to recover microbial populations using management and compost. Doug explained the difference between a bacterial-dominated soil (high levels of available nitrogen, characteristic of an early-succession ecosystem) and fungal-dominated soil (where there is an abundance of more complex carbon molecules that fungi feed on, indicative of a more advanced stage of succession). Highly disturbed soils (high-tillage or high inputs) favour bacterial-soils, as the availability of nutrients for bacteria dominate, and fungi are disadvantaged. Obviously this is a topic of interest for this crowd, as he was swarmed by a curious crowd immediately after his talk, and pretty much until the end of the conference!

–          I missed some other talks that were very-well received: Tim Hoven of Hoven Farms, an organic livestock grower, spoke of meat processing and government regulations, obviously an area of great interest for small farmers. Livestock, particularly small livestock, can be a significant source of income for small farmers, and government regulations make it very difficult (if not impossible) to make processing available and affordable. Farms are being shut down by governments across Canada because they do not conform to the strict regulations that are placed on them. Processors have closed across the country, and shipping distances and processing costs make meat processing incredibly difficult for small farmers.

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