WEYERS CAVE — For a first-time event, the Virginia Farm to Table conference held Wednesday and Thursday saw strong attendance.
More than 225 food enthusiasts from across the state gathered at Blue Ridge Community College for the latest opportunity to promote the local food movement.
While guest speakers flew in to the Weyers Cave campus from around the country - including noted food economics author Michael Shuman - the bulk of the input on stage came from area farmers, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and the like.
The two-day conference was the first of its kind since Virginia's Farm to Table plan was launched a year ago to help develop and promote healthy farms in the commonwealth and strengthen connections with customers.
The plan is an initiative of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Food System Council.
The conference focused on five issues: developing young and beginning farmers; helping farmers gain access to capital; exploring value-added processing opportunities; getting community members more involved in local food, and investigating possible cooperative models.
Next to a model illustrating the importance of no-till practices, a panel of five agricultural leaders led one of the conference’s more lively discussions about on an oft-debated topic in the Valley: the best way to clean up local streams.
"We have not taken a whole-systems approach," argued Buff Showalter of Fox Run Farm in Dayton, a comment that prompted much nodding across the room.
The best way to clean up the heavily polluted Chesapeake Bay watershed, when it comes to farmers, is to put into practice a number of measures, so "you're not just trying to stop all the runoff 30 feet from the stream bank" with riparian buffers, Showalter explained.
Grottoes poultry grower Richard Morris put it in terms of health care, as did a few other speakers throughout the discussion.
"I understand the patient's not getting better quickly enough," Morris said. "We need to change our approach."
Other common themes were presented during the panel discussion, namely that simply throwing money at cleanup initiatives wasn't enough and that education is key to success of the overall program.
"We miss opportunity after opportunity to do some creative things with the [federal] farm bill," said Dale Gardner of Annapolis, Md.-based Water Stewardship Inc.
"Part of our puzzle here is our representatives," added Augusta County farmer and conservationist Bobby Whitescarver. "We've got a Congress that forgot how to compromise."
Money is an important aspect, though, other speakers said. In particular, they said more should be done to teach small farmers how eco-friendly initiatives are actually cost-effective in the long run.
"Farmers respond to economic signals," Gardner said. "We need to put conservation in terms of how it can save you money."
Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, talked throughout the conference about the importance of healthy soil.
"You can't fix water quality unless you fix soil quality first," Archuleta said.
Two panels devoted time to the subject of developing young and emerging farmers.
Among the questions discussed: What were some of your greatest startup obstacles and how did you overcome them? How did you garner the capital and skills necessary to be successful?
Overall, a general consensus emerged: Farming is not, and never will be, an exact science. You just have to get your hands dirty and work out the problems that arise.
"I used to be indecisive and now I'm not sure," said Evan Showalter of Portwood Acres, a small organic dairy in Port Republic, to a room full of laughter. "That's sort of my story of farming."
David Sours of Public House Produce said he didn't even know what a community-supported agriculture program was when he started farming full-time two years ago, and now he has a 50-member CSA in Luray.
First-generation farmer Jordan Green of Shenandoah County's J&L Green Farm originally thought poultry would be his centerpiece operation, but it turned out to be hogs.
"You need to jump in with both feet," Green said. "You've got to have a head on your shoulders and it's got to be on a swivel."
Various speakers acknowledged the recent drift toward the local food market in America, including Shuman, who's the director of research for Cutting Edge Capital and director of research and economic development at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, among other roles.
He explained some recent research findings he and a team compiled regarding the city of Cleveland. If the locale were to move only 25 percent toward meeting local demand for food produced locally, the shift would create more than 27,000 new jobs, which is enough to remploy one in seven workers in that area. That would represent almost 127 million fewer dollars going toward dishing out unemployment checks.
"This would probably be the most significant stimulus that could possibly come to this area," he said.
Shuman noted that local food prices, which are often criticized for being comparably higher than prices found on non-local items, will decrease as the demand for local food is met.
"We are in a situation right now where demand for local food greatly exceeds supply," he said.
In a separate panel discussion, area cooperative leaders spoke about their organizations' ability to stay afloat, partly because of an increased demand for local food produced by smaller companies.
Steve Cooke, general manager of the Friendly City Food Co-op, said that after only being open for 16 months, the small grocery store, which is packed with local food items, is looking at expanding at the end of 2014.
Jim Mason, president of the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative Inc., said only 151 growers showed up to the organization's first interest meeting in 2004. Now, the cooperative boasts 550 employees who help to produce 130,000 40-pound toms each week.
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