Held within a commuting distance (more or less…) from my current Massachusetts home, this year’s NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association) summer conference was definitely on my agenda. It was worthwhile enough I’d have travelled longer and spent overnights, in order to attend and learn.
NOFA has chapters in the following states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. No idea why Maine lacks a chapter, but I did run in to more than just a few attendees from Maine.
The conference runs for three days (Friday through Sunday) on the second weekend in August, should you choose to mark your calendars now. Last year, there were workshops Friday afternoon, but this year there was just the meet-and-greet sort of evening events. You can house on site, or you can camp, or you can find a local motel, or – as I did – you can wake before the chickens and commute.
Two friends from New York joined me for the dates. We’ll be pooling what we collectively learned.
Overall conclusion from the workshops I’ve attended, and people I talked to and networked with: EXCELLENT. I’ve learned a few things I’ve been doing wrong (will slightly elucidate below, but will have more details in posts as I rectify).
About me: I have no real commitment to gardening, farming or homesteading organically, in the legal sense. I do plan to make the vegetative/agriculture portions of my ventures “organic”, or as some say, “beyond organic”. But I’m not looking to certify myself (some may claim I’m already certifiable… a joke probably only understandable if the reader is conversant with American idiom.) I retired in part to minimize certain types of paperwork in my life. BUT long-term sustainability of crops generally involves using organic principles, rather than swishing a plot with pesticide or herbicide. As for the poultry aspects of my operation: I feed organic feed – but they also get kitchen scraps which are often not organic. If they are sick, I’m not above using antibiotics as indicated, with full disclosure. And I may spray my legs with Deet due to disease-carrying ticks in my area.
At any rate, my procedures with chickens will also apply to four-legged livestock when I start running them.
This year, I did not attend any poultry or livestock workshops. It was all Ag here.
I’m going to get the downsides (as I saw them) of this conference down quickly – mind you, these can pretty much be skirted around, and overall I’d give the conference a 4.5 + out of 5.0 rating. Basically, I don’t want to end on a down note here, because the ultimate take-homes were very positive. So… doing this now.
- It would be nice if people arriving would be able to get morning coffee without paying for breakfast, if they don’t want the whole deal. Not everyone has budgeted for the food plan, or for every one of those meals. Turns out one of the mushroom vendors did sell cold-brewed and cold-served coffee, but I didn’t find that until Sunday. I think coffee/tea could perhaps be provided at least through the morning from the site, without having people pay $12 at the door for breakfast? No one knows if those mushroom vendors will be there next year. Or, still providing coffee if they are.
- The organizers did a commendable job in identifying certain tracks of workshop programming. Normally when I’ve gone to conferences, this means a specific workshop or seminar will appear at a specific time slot, and others falling into that specific categories will appear at other times – so the interested attendee can attend ALL things in his or her specific interest panorama. If you were specifically interested in Soil Health – you had to field between THREE workshops at the same time on Sunday at 10 AM. It wasn’t like there weren’t a few open time slots elsewhere for most of these to be scheduled into… ( I DO know presenters do have their own logistics… but figure this out when setting up the brochure…) TBH, this did not affect my own attendance, but just keeping note where others might find it problematic.
- The impression for the write-up of the Sandor Katz keynote speech was that, along with fermented food, there’d be a good section on fermenting soil. He spent about 3 minutes discussing the latter. Yes, I realize there is a food-prepping set of workshops going along with the growing-of-foods, and that the come-on for the event brochure spoke about nutrition — but for one, I’d appreciate a better write up about what he was to focus on in his talk. I’d rather have had another hour out with the vendors… (Note: this is NOT a ding on Sandor Katz, who does great work. Just on how this was written up.) And, yes, I can see food nutrition is a focus for this 2019 event – which does not displease me. The talk might have also been better if he’d gone into a few nuts and bolts on fermenting, as well.
Okay, negatives over with, so now on to where I go from here. With a quick mention that the cafeteria here at Hampshire College does an awesome job with making food, should you decide to purchase any of the meals when you sign up. (I’d do it in advance, costs more at the door – understandably – with pre-enrollment on a meal they have a far better idea of how much to make without wastage.) Food is available for vegetarians, vegans and omnivores. All pretty dang good. Hampshire College (site of the event) uses their regular kitchen staff, and many of their day-to-day college recipes. I DO wish I’d had such tasty food back in my old college days!!!
Last year there’d been workshops starting Friday afternoon. Not this year, so I skipped the social things scheduled later in the day, and arrived on Saturday the 10th.
This year, Saturday morning. My workshop visitations follow below. (Workshops last 90 minutes.) There were a LOT of things to choose from at each time point. In fact, I seriously wished for a return to a Friday afternoon list of choices. I’d have gotten a couple more workshops in!
- 8 am: Principles to Produce Nutrient Dense Foods
- 10 am: From Bubils to Bulbs: Growing Garlic and Saving Propagation Methods
- 1 pm: Making Bio Nutrient Raised Beds and Containers Really Work
- Keynote speaker (see above).
- 8 am: Ventilation in Greenhouses and High Tunnels
- 10 am: Managing Invasive Plant Species without Synthetic Pesticides
- 1 pm: Getting Started with Small Scale Grain-Growing
- 3 pm: Fencing for Gardeners
I learned valuable things from all the above, although the Invasive Plant guy did take 40 minutes to talk about Why Not To Use Chemical Control on unwanted plants. Even though he was interrupted by a woman at the 30 minute mark to tell him he was preaching to the choir, and let’s get to methods, already… I’d say most of us gave her a round of applause… Took him another ten minutes to get there… session nearly half over… (Yes, I did mark the time on my phone, so I am not guilty of any exaggeration.) But he did get to provide useful and actionable information after that point. Best methods depend on what one is getting rid of – in open sun lit fields, a solar method often works – cut everything back, cover with straw or hay, cover that with clear plastic, tack down the sides, and wait about 60 days. More shrubby things – cut somewhere between knee and waist height prior to fruiting / seed formation. Do this two or three times spread out over two years. Then come back in and cut to the ground. Most invasives will not survive that. Then, there’s goats. Or mechanical pulling. Or, if you are careful and know what you are doing, controlled burns. (You may need – and want!- permits, depending.)
Found out I should have set my raised bed soils up more effectively. It’s not a wash. Just a little more time, and I can do it. Working up my game plan from some very useful notes from both the first and third workshop on Saturday, which can be applied both to the ground plants and to the raised beds. I will be renovating those beds as I can. At least for now – since my beds are effectively pretty soil-sterile – I will be adding inoculants with further seeding. Last night I also caught a YouTube video on seeds I can start now in zone 5 — most of the brassica (yes, I have more bok choy I can plant), and of course cold weather crops such as spinach, lettuces, radish, beets, and the like).
Got a multitude of good info for greenhouse setup, ventilation, AND circulation. The presenter touched on both powered and non-electric greenhouse needs. (I plan on one of each.) One of the worst things, and often overlooked, is proper circulation of air within your greenhouse or high tunnel.
I eat mostly Paleo, so going to a grain workshop seems a bit counter-intuitive, but I’m interested in the ancient and landrace varieties anyway. Turns out I’ll be starting up three winter grains in a small segment for each. The presenters promote experimenting to develop best plant stocks and yield. Looking forward to seeing what comes of this. This was a sort of “on a lark” workshop for me. So… I’ll be renovating the soil in three patches (that haven’t already been planted for this summer), and adding in some grains shortly. I’ll take readers along on that venture!
As for garlic – I learned how you can plant the bubils (the things that appear at the end of garlic scapes of hard-neck garlic), and how to optimize size of garlic grown. The presenter prefers to use varieties that make many cloves, rather than just 4 or 5 – since he replants from his own heads. (I’ve liked the large but few cloves per head varieties since I find them easier to peel in the kitchen… but he’s gearing for sale.) He also touched on drying the garlic – each month in storage they dry down further and weigh less when one goes to sell them by the pound. But you can still store garlic and have it in great shape for eating next year, prior to your new crop being ready.
Ultimately, there wasn’t an un-regretted workshop I attended. I just wish I knew how to bi-locate. There are around ten workshops at each time slot.
Apart from the above: there were workshops on animal husbandry, food justice, dealing with climate change, growing and harvesting mushrooms, nutrition, foraging, and so forth. Right now I need to single-focus to my own homestead and its current and near-future needs.
Vendors: A lot of good ones, but the two tractor vendors from last year did not appear this time. (I have saved the Yanmar tractor info – I remain seriously interested.) The solar over your livestock barn people didn’t return either, but again, I do have their info and will be contacting them when I can/am ready. Latest, next spring or early summer.
Only one book purchased this year. Compost Teas for the Organic Grower, by Eric Fisher. Some presenters want us to rely less on compost teas, but none are agin’ it, as the expression goes.
Again, I picked up lots of literature, and I will be sending out soil samples for analysis from segments of my property to the Ag facility at U Mass later this week. Glad I got a kick in that particular nether region of mine!!!