The Homestead team spent all day Saturday attending OrganiConn, an annual conference for farmers, gardeners, eaters and all fans Organic, held at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, CT. Myself, My mom - Jackie, Cait and Emmi were all up and at 'em early in the morning to make the hour and forty minute trek, bright eyed and well coffee'd, ready for a day of "dirt tasting"!
Beginning at 9, the conference was a series of four sessions, all with about 10 workshops per session. We split up, to cover more ground (hurr hurr). Workshops ranged from our openers like business basics, Common vegetable diseases and management and the medicinal uses of garden plants to the "heavy stuff" like no till transition techniques, worm composting, soil fungal inoculants and soil fertility workshops. We learned so much about everything from what a balance sheet is, to how to graft varieties of apples onto the same root stock, to how the fungi to bacterium ratio in soil directly effects the biomass of plant life! (uye!)
I was particularly interested to learn that, generally speaking, as long as plants or trees are of the same family, they may be able to be grafted together. In some ways I was aware of this, but to actually learn that I could graft multiple varieties of apples onto the same trunk given enough patience and practice was absolutely fascinating. And you don't need a Ph.D in plant science to do it!
Knowing that the more I learn, the more I realize how much more learning I need to do I went into this conference looking for ways to improve the soil health here on the Homestead. I had already been interested in a minimum tillage system and discovered on more than one occasion that many of our garden spaces do better when we keep active disruption to a minimum. That said, this space of ours was used for conventional agriculture for many, many years and for all the richness and life here, it does sometimes show me signs of distress. Our main garden, to my horror, exhibited a cracked and clumped surface texture about midsummer last year. Initially, I thought that perhaps this was just a texture problem, and did some experimentation with soil amendment. This helped, but it wasn't until I had introduced rich compost into several beds, crawling with worms and beetles and all manner of little critters, that I noticed an almost immediate difference. This observation was absolutely cemented in the no-till and soil fertility workshops. Organic farmers and scientists are spending a lot of time looking into soil micro-biology and their findings are incredible. As Adam Squire put it, we need to start paying attention to the livestock beneath our feet. More on this in a later post...
After lunch, we attended an absolutely phenomenal keynote presentation by David Chapman of Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, CT. Long Wind Farm has spent 37 years growing from an oxen-powered field vegetable concern to quite a successful greenhouse operation. A founder of Vermont Organic Farmers and awarded "Farmer of the Year" by NOFA in summer 2017, Dave "walks the walk". His presentation, "The Fight For Organic Integrity & What Savvy Organic Eaters Need To Know." was filled with images and stories from his recent work about "keeping the soil in organic" ( a movement against hydroponic intrusion into the organic label that you can read about here), and the activism he has helped organize in launching The Real Organic Project. Modern Farmer covered the story here. I don't know that describing him as soft spoken is the correct adjective, but despite proclaiming himself a poor public speaker, we felt captivated and moved as he denounced the USDA's muddying of the organic label and the current Administration's inclusion of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) under the umbrella of "organic". He called upon us to "Just Ask". Next time you're in your favorite grocery, ask an employee where the produce comes from, whether or not it's hydroponic. Through no fault of their own, they probably don't know. But if you ask, most of them will be moved to find out and, according to Dave, if we all went out today and asked we might just change the industry overnight. By the end of his presentation, Dave had the audience on it's feet and I, personally, felt like my tiny farm and I were precisely on the side of the fence we needed to be.
The boil down from the whole conference, for us was this:
We're on the right track. More worms. More Fungus. Less disturbing our soil. Our philosophy that as long as we take care of this little patch of green, it will take care of us, has been validated in the best way. Over the next few weeks, as the crew comes back together and we compare notes, I'll try to break down some of what we learned and present it here, so that as we learn to utilize it, so can you.
Don't get discouraged by all this snow! Our seedlings are starting in the sun room, and we'll all have our hands in the dirt soon enough.
We'll see you out there,