2016 VABF Conference

I’ll warn you now that this entry is really long (relative to my usual lately).

At the end of January, I went to the VABF conference. This was my third year and it was very different from the first two years I went. Previously, the VABF conference was in Richmond; this year, the conference was down near Smith Mountain Lake. The atmosphere in Richmond was way more PARTY! This year was much more laid back. There seemed to be fewer urban and/or wannabe farmers and more transitioning or experienced farmers. It was an interesting dynamic.
The trip down was beautiful. It was at the 4H camp and VABF offered camp-style rooms to attendees. Since I wasn’t sure how well that was going to work for me, I decided I’d leave home early Friday and stay Friday night only. I had to leave early, so I got to see the sun come up while I was in the mountains. I didn’t get a picture of the sunrise, but I thought this was pretty.

I got to the camp about 20 minutes before the first session was supposed to start. It took a really long time to find parking (I don’t think 4H camps are set up for programs with a lot of adults, who all drove their own vehicles) and I had about 10 minutes to throw my stuff in my room and find the room for my first session.

I didn’t do a great job choosing sessions on Friday and I did a bad job sitting where I could get out if it didn’t work for me. The first session was “USDA Meat Processing Options for Virginia’s Organic Producers.” I learned a little about two processing facilities in the Shenandoah Valley, which was interesting, but it wasn’t as broad as I was hoping (one of the presenters listed all of the USDA plants in the state once). I learned a little about the difficulties processing facilities have in trying to offer certified organic processing, but I don’t think I want to be certified and I’m not ready to process now. I also learned that they aren’t all that fond of goats, but since I’m not going to choose an animal just because the processor, who offers to process those animals for a price, doesn’t like them, it was just another one of those “that’s interesting, but so what?” moments.

At lunch, I found my friends and it was awesome. I saw most of them only once between conferences. I look forward to seeing them almost as much as the rest of the conference. The lunch plenary was the state Secretary of Agriculture. As always, his session was followed by questions and people had plenty of questions for him. Like, “When will we be allowed to grow hemp?” and “When will we be allowed to sell raw milk?” I don’t think most people were satisfied by his answers, but I don’t really know that he could have said anything to satisfy them.

The second session I went to was “Organic Pasture Establishment and Improvement.” Which sounded like it was right up my alley. I’m trying to establish a pasture. Organic is cool, even if I’m not going to certify it. The presentation was beyond my scope, though. I felt like there was a lot I was missing and I don’t know if there was just a lot of information that wasn’t really included or if I just don’t know enough to catch it. There were interesting things in that session too, but again, not terribly applicable for me where I am.

Dinner was awesome – more time to hang out with my friends. Forrest Pritchard (whose book Gaining Ground I really enjoyed) was the speaker after dinner and his talk was pretty entertaining. After dinner was, as you might have guessed, more hanging out with friends. It turned out that some of my friends had a room with a spare bed and there was someone who needed a bed, so I moved to my friends’ room and we hung out until really late. Which was a mistake, since we had to be up early for sessions on Saturday. Oops.
But who can complain about having to get up early with a view like this? I was kind of glad I had to put my truck kind of far away; I’m not sure I would have noticed how pretty the morning was if I just had to walk from the lodging building to the breakfast building.
Saturday’s sessions were much more successful. The first one of the morning was about poultry production. There was a guy from not too far from us who was talking about his turkeys and how they handle them and sell them. They do super fancy packaging when they sell it and honestly, as $12.50/pound it’d better be a freaking amazing turkey. The other guy who was there has a website that sounded like it’s a support network for poultry farmers, basically. Kind of like the Livestock Conservancy. I wish I’d gone to their first session on Friday, but like I said, I couldn’t get out of the ones I went to.

Saturday’s second session was Barbara Pleasant talking about preserving and using the things you grow in your garden. It was a rush to get through everything; fortunately, I knew some of the stuff she was talking about, so I could spend more time writing down the things I didn’t know. That talk reinforced my interest in growing more fruit.

The lunch presentation (the final plenary) was John Boyd, from the National Black Farmers Association. It was mostly a preaching to the choir talk that was difficult for me to really engage with.

The final session of the weekend was a really interesting talk. Autumn from Tomten Farm and Lee O’Neil from Radical Roots Farm talked about their methods of marketing. One of the things that I really enjoyed about that presentation was that they weren’t just talking to the audience, but they each were responding to the things the other said. If they agreed or disagreed, they shared their experiences with a particular method. This talk was not really suited to a summary of things I learned as each person/farm is going to have different preferences, but that was kind of the idea – everyone should do things that fit their personality, time, experience, etc.

The drive back on Saturday was really long. I was so tired. But I’m really glad I went. And I’m already looking forward to next year.

There are more pictures from January/February (but no more conference pictures).

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