County sustainable farm conference draws from far, wide |

County sustainable farm conference draws from far, wide

Farmers and foodies are gearing up to hear from some of the biggest names in the international slow food movement at a two-day event packed with lectures, workshops and lively discussions during the third annual Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference.

“There’s folks coming from as far away as Ithaca, N.Y., Tennessee and everywhere in between,” said organizer Dennis MacDonneil.

So far, more people from out of state than from Nevada County have preregistered for the event. About 60 percent of attendees who have registered are from outside Nevada County.

The event is designed to bring awareness to broader food issues, educate established and aspiring growers and homesteaders and shine a light on local farmers and organizations within the community.

“Hundreds of thousands of people now want to participate in a different kind of food system.”
— Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power

“It really brings the community together on issues of food and farming,” said Malaika Bishop, farmer, educator and one of about a dozen volunteer organizers of the event.

The Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference begins early Saturday morning, with an intimate four-hour, hands-on workshop with celebrated “lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin and his family at Grass Valley Charter School.

“His name and family remain a very strong draw,” MacDonneil said.

This is the third consecutive year Virginia farmer Salatin of Polyface Farms has come to Grass Valley to attend the event. It is the first time ever that Salatin, his son and wife have left their Virginia farm together to share details about their multigenerational operation in a workshop titled, “Polyface You.”

“This is kind of new territory for them,” MacDonneil said, adding that seating is limited and tickets are selling fast.

A full day of workshops by local food and farm experts is scheduled for Sunday.

The rest of Saturday afternoon in the Veteran’s Memorial Building in Grass Valley is dedicated to a series of lectures by an international panel of sustainability activists including: Salatin, Michigan rancher Mark Baker, advocate Temra Costa and author of the book, “Farmer Jane,” and Milwaukee urban farmer and CEO of Growing Power, Will Allen.

“Will Allen is someone who I’ve been inspired by for many years,” Bishop said, who co-founded the People’s Grocery, a organization created to meet the local food needs of people living in West Oakland.

In 2003, while running the People’s Grocery, Bishop traveled with a small group of youth from West Oakland to Milwaukee to visit Allen’s urban farm, Growing Power, for several days.

“We were just kind of blown away by the work Will Allen was doing,” Bishop said.

“It involves all of us”

Allen, a former pro basketball player who grew up on a small Maryland farm, is the author of “The Good Food Revolution- Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities.”

Time Magazine has called Allen one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He has visited the Obama White House on more than one occasion.

His message is clear: “Everybody, regardless of their economic means, should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that is grown naturally.”

Allen established his three-acre urban farm in 1993. It is the last working farm within Milwaukee city limits. The farm, with six historic greenhouses, year round hoop houses, farm animal pens, fish and worm projects, is designed to maximize production and feed many on a small piece of land.

The farm attracts visitors from around the globe. In 2010, more than 15,000 people visited the farm and thousands volunteered.

“Hundreds of thousands of people now want to participate in a different kind of food system,” he said.

Though he can’t bring his farm to Nevada County, he’ll talk about the food system work he has done at Growing Power for the last 20 years. In the last five years, Allen has noticed a greater interest in small-scale agriculture as the environmentally sustainable way to feed a growing population.

“I think there’s a lot of people paying attention. It’s something that’s real. It’s going to be here because it’s about survival… Many people say if we don’t solve this problem, we don’t survive,” he said.

Among those attracted to his urban project is the growing number of people from the under age 40 generation who are educated and want to farm.

Allen sees sustainable agriculture as an untapped job creator with the potential to branch out into hundreds of different categories of employment, into areas such as engineering, education and health.

With diminishing agriculture land available, Allen eyes vacant urban lots as farms. He sees waste going to the landfills as a source of compost to grow soil.

His idea is to grow nutrient dense food in areas where people limited by income are living in what Allen calls “food deserts.”

Many of the country’s urban poor live in these “food deserts” — inner city neighborhoods devoid of grocery stores, where minimarts and gas stations filled with costly unhealthy processed foods is the only option for families.

“There are numerous opportunities for folks to grow food inside these city food deserts. … This is an opportunity for people to be proactive and grow their own food,” he said.

With access to healthier foods, communities are built and the environment becomes healthier as a whole, said Allen.

“This is about social justice and food justice and environmental justice,” he said.

Allen says such changes are not going to occur overnight. It requires patience and collaboration with unlikely partners such as corporations and government.

In 2008, Allen was awarded the John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and named a McArthur Fellow – only the second farmer ever to be so honored.

“Farmers can’t do it all. We need these partners,” he said.

Allen has trained and taught in the Ukraine, Macedonia and Kenya and has plans to create community food centers in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Haiti. In the U.S., Growing Power has set up 15 Regional Outreach Training Centers throughout the country.

Far from a passing fad, Allen sees the global interest in his good food revolution as something that everyone has a role in.

“It involves all of us. Everyone in the community has a responsibility. It’s something we can do,” he said.

Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at or (530) 401-4877.

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