They provide our basic foodstuffs. They grow a dazzling variety of fruits and vegetables. They use their bounty to create tasty and nourishing products that enrich our lives. They grow “non-commercial” or “specialty” crops: what we actually put on our tables, untransformed – i.e., not monocultured corn, wheat, or soybeans. They raise chickens in fields, not by the thousands in huge sheds. They are, mostly, small farmers, and they can be found all over the Chesapeake region. Last week, many converged on the University of Maryland’s Conference Center.
Seeking education and fellowship, about 500 plaid-shirted folks attended Future Harvest-CASA’s Cultivate the Chesapeake Foodshed Conference. They were treated to workshops, speakers, panels, and peer-to-peer sessions – and happy hours, meals and coffee breaks to provide informal mingling while sampling the results of their labors, deliciously provided by many local producers.
The Lunch Crowd
Environmentally Appropriate Water Bottles
Farmers Wanted Job Board
The Thursday workshop topics ranged from growing mushrooms to tractor repair. I took the session on making ginger beer, because: ginger beer! I’ve been making my own yogurt for several years as a result of a similar workshop, and found that making ginger beer is not so different. It involves a ferment called a ginger bug, which can be reused from batch to batch and nourished with ginger, sugar and wild yeasts (alternatively, one can purchase a scoby online, a cultivated colony of yeasts and bacteria, like those used for kambucha).
We learned that naturally brewed ginger beer, despite the name, contains very little alcohol. This disappointed a few of the participants, but nobody left. The samples passed around served to convince everyone that the endeavor could be deliciously rewarding. The workshop leaders, Rachael Armistead and Luke Flessner of the Sweet Farm, are adding value to their farm’s products with ginger beer and other ferments. The workshop participants left with their own ginger bugs. Mine is ensconced on my kitchen radiator, in anticipation of brewing a batch of beer.
Passing the Ginger Bug
Rachael and Luke Fill Bottles
We All Make Our Bugs
The Bugs Rest on Our Chairs
Sampling Several Flavors of Ginger Beer
Friday and Saturday Programs
Now, I have to admit that the sessions I attended skewed sharply towards end products and away from the process and business of farming, so if you are wondering about topics like vegetable crop production, meat and dairy issues, and business matters, you will have to look elsewhere. I can report on the following:
In Growing Herbs for Tea, Henriette den Ouden of Habanera Farm described many factors specific to herb growing, such as the state and county regulations which differ from other crops (keep cats out of the garden! Make no medicinal claims!) and cultivation techniques (use no fertilizer; you’re not growing for appearance). She also covered planning, processing and marketing of herbal teas and blends.
Henriette den Ouden, Herb Farmer
The opening general session speaker, Gabe Brown, gave such a persuasive argument for regenerative farming that I don’t know why his methods aren’t used everywhere by everybody, but then I’m not trying to make a living by farming.
Another session gathered three farmer-entrepreneurs to discuss value-added products. Rachael Armistead of Sweet Farm (from the ginger beer workshop), Molly Kroiz of George’s Mill Cheese, and Gilda Doganiero of Gilda’s Biscotti shared their experiences in developing and marketing products derived from farming.
When I walked into the afternoon’s session on lavender growing by Marie Mayor, of Lavender Fields at Warrington Manor, I knew I was in the right room by simply inhaling. She produces a diverse array of soap, sachets and value-added merchandise, and supplements her income with special occasion rentals and running a well-stocked retail outlet, making her farm a destination for visitors.
Marie Mayor and Lavender Products
The speaker at dinner was Michael Twitty. He has been employed as Colonial Williamsburg’s first “Revolutionary in Residence;” also, he added, “a Black Jewish Queen.” I admired his dashiki. Just back from Africa, where he continues to trace his roots, he claimed that all Southerners are connected “by genes, by soil, by food.” He has traced his ancestry back to an indentured Irish woman and a black African man. “Race is an illusion – food is reality.” Amen.
Michael Twitty Signs Books
On Saturday, at a session on raising native fruits and nuts, Dr. Gordon Johnson of the University of Delaware described efforts to domesticate, not only our familiar produce such as blueberries, cranberries, pecans, walnuts, and grapes, but relative exotics such as pawpaws, beach plums, and aronia berries.
Ira Wallace’s special session provided a real treat: a tutorial on garlic growing in all its wonderful variety. Famous for her YouTube videos for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Foodways Alliance, Ms. Wallace proved just as knowledgeable in person, and the slides with arty pictures of garlic were true lagniappe.
Ira Wallace at the Garlic Session
Garlic Glamour Shot
And she proved just as fascinating in the next hour as the lunch speaker, on heirloom seeds and the history of seed saving. Could we live without the Mortgage Lifter tomato, or the Cherokee Purple? And the story of the lost Native American corn variety recovered from Europe, where it had been exported to make superior polenta, was priceless.
Extra Added Attractions
But there were many attractions in addition to the formal sessions. Awards were given for the Farmers of the Year,
Farmers of the Year Awards
and a meeting of the participants in the Beginning Farmer Training Program (one of the more excellent ideas of the FH-CASA folks) was held. There were 80 beginning farmers – the biggest cohort yet!
80 Beginning Farmers 80
The hallway was filled with exhibitors, providers of products and services for farmers. At first glance, I thought the Full Circle Mushroom Compost company was a mushroom retailer, but no, as I talked to Lisa van Houten, Marketing Strategist, she revealed that she sells mushroom compost, a soil amendment excellent for crops of all kinds. (It was the box of growing mushrooms on her table that led me astray.)
Lisa van Houten Sells Mushroom Compost
But there was a mushroom supplier at the exhibition, and they had many varieties and growing methods on display.
Many Mushrooms at Sharondale Mushroom Farm
Other visually interesting exhibits included a whole fillet of salmon encased in ice. Josh Jensen, Kitchen Manager and Sales Representative for Wild for Salmon, supplies fish direct from Alaska to local kitchens.
Wild for Icy Salmon
The Purple Mountain folks, local (Takoma Park) purveyors of organic garden supplies, were interested in participating in Olney Farmers Market’s Garlic Festival, planned for September. Which brings me to the other added attraction: the eating and schmoozing opportunities.
At dinner, I sat with Damian and Claudia Baccarella of Baccarella Farms, who specialize in guess what? (Yes, garlic, again!) We may see them at OFAM in September, as well.
And at another meal, I met Brian Knox, who runs When Pigs Fly Farm (!), and is a specialist in invasive species remediation. His “eco-goats” were hired to clear Congressional Cemetery of invasives a few years ago. He has problems of his own on his farm, not least, eagles preying on his chickens. This does not stop folks from coming for miles around to eat the eggs he supplies to Easton restaurants.
And About Those Meals
Many of the ingredients for the meals were supplied by the farmers present at the conference. Signs at each station gave credit to the producers.
Lunch Salad Menu
Ice Cream Dessert Menu
And the buffet tables yielded up many treats.
Ice Cream Sundae Bar
Lunch Dessert Goodies
There couldn’t be a better proof of our region’s many blessings, or the accomplishments of our farmers. May they continue to produce everything delicious!