Food and Farm Conference inspiration for seasoned and budding farmers | TheUnion.com

Food and Farm Conference inspiration for seasoned and budding farmers

Laura Brown
Special to The Union

Aspiring farmers Lindesay Greene, 28 and Danielle Etl, 26, sat near the front of the Grass Veterans Memorial Hall filled with about 500 people for a presentation by Virginia’s celebrated “Lunatic Farmer,” Joel Salatin, at last weekend’s Sustainable Food and Farm Conference.

“It’s really inspiring to see these people doing what I’ve been wanting to do so long,” Etl said. “It’s daunting starting out. Young people need to be involved.”

In October, the former vegetarians moved from the “ghetto” of downtown Sacramento to a plot of a few acres in Grass Valley, where they hope to raise chickens and start a farmstead.

“We’ll see how they go; we want to specialize in heritage breeds,” said Greene.

In the city, Greene and Etl grew a small apartment garden using companion planting techniques in a neighborhood where drug exchanges were common.

When Etl found a hypodermic needle near her children’s toys, it was time to move.

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Last fall, Greene took a two-week intensive permaculture certification course in Penn Valley with Cathe Fish. She hopes to incorporate what she has learned into her own farm and help other local farmers as well.

“It just makes sense. It needs to be done. I have the capabilities … I’m still young enough I feel I can make a difference,” Greene said.

In its second year, the farm conference has doubled in size, attracting an enthusiastic crowd from near and far to hear big name speakers, authors and farmers like Salatin, Michael Ableman, Nicolette Hahn Niman and Patrick Holden, in an intimate setting at the Veteran’s Memorial Building in downtown Grass Valley.

“It’s another fantastic mix. You have successful established farmers, newbies and foodies and everyone in between,” said organizer Dennis MacDonneil.

“We had folks come from as far away as Illinois this year,” he added.

Within the new venue, an expo of local vendors set up in the hall, creating a neighborly atmosphere where folks could gather information about everything from raw milk and the local food freedom movement to solar electricity, county agricultural programs and garden supplies.

After striking a nerve with his audience and winning a standing ovation for his humorous and down-to-earth presentation, Salatin took a seat and signed stacks of books for an eager line of fans. Local rancher Chuck Shea waited among them. He came out to the conference to show support for local agriculture and hear what speakers had to say.

“We’ve gotten away from our food. I think people are looking for an answer. They’re looking for a solution. Hopefully, they’ll find light and guidance here,” Shea said.

In particular, Shea enjoyed the discussions about heavy-handed government regulation, something he sees as a real threat to local food systems.

Sara Snider, 25, a student from UC Davis, came to the conference because she is interested in a career in agricultural economics after living abroad in Mali, Africa, where “everyone was a farmer.”

“Agriculture is something so pertinent, no matter where you’re living. … The domestic implications are huge for the entire world,” she said.

She sees a need for more discussion and compromise between small, regional “grow local” communities and big industrial agriculture.

Veterinarian Wayne Wulf also came to hear Salatin speak. He raises pigs on pasture near Marysville and supplies Fowler Family Farm with his sustainably raised animals.

He first began subscribing to the organic method in high school, 40 years before he started his current operation. No hormones or antiseptics are given to his animals.

“You are what you eat. We eat what we raise,” he said.

On Sunday, diehards braved a winter storm to meet for a second day of workshops and a chance for community members to connect and look at the broader picture of farming.

“It’s good to have a chance to bring the community together, to network and mobilize,” said Malaika Bishop, in the lobby after a Michael Ableman workshop.

“It’s inspiring to me to hear from this quality of speaker. Usually you have to go to Bay Area to hear these folks speak,” she said.

Bishop is the garden manager at the Woolman Semester Farm and is co-chairing the farm-to-school committee for Live Healthy Nevada County, a program that provides 10 area schools with farm field trips, tasting and nutrition education. Messages echoed at the conference gave validation to her work.

“It makes me feel good about what I’m doing,” she added.

Sipping coffee in the hotel lobby, waiting for the first year farmer workshop to begin, sat three friends who journeyed from the Bay Area to be part of the conference and what they see as an important movement.

Egyptian born graphic designer, Hussein Ibrahim Shekara, 33, of San Francisco was intrigued by the way speakers linked political and economic issues with subtle daily life lessons about food – like the value of finding joy in waiting for a strawberry to ripen.

In the small farming village where he grew up, Shekara has witnessed the construction of houses on top of fertile farmland.

“We have to adopt old ways,” he said.

Maggie Thomas, 21, is attracted to the food revolution but also wary of it. She is concerned companies may latch onto a “gimmick” to lure in consumers reluctant to make any real change to their lifestyles, yet easily pay the higher price of “green” or “organic.”

After studying theater and performing arts, Thomas has shifted her path and now takes classes on sustainable farming.

She and her partner Robyn Gerbaz, 23, built farm boxes at their Marin County apartment where they grow broccoli, kale, spinach, lemon verbena, Swiss chard and rosemary.

“It never feels like enough, but it’s a start,” Thomas said.

Ken Roberts lives on a ranch in Gold Run.

He and his wife moved to the “hill country” to raise their daughter and do the “back to the land thing” in 1998.

“Some of these same people inspired me way back then,” Roberts said of Ableman and Salatin, speakers who would bring in top dollar at other venues, including the pricey Bioneer Conference.

“We get a mini version in Nevada County for 30 bucks. It’s an unreal opportunity,” said Roberts, who felt he was re-inspired by the Nevada County conference and reminded that he was on the right track.

“Really it is about food. For me, it’s about taking care of the land. … This was like coming to the well,” Roberts said.

Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at (530) 401-4877 or laurabrown323@gmail.com.

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