2017 VABF Conference

The VABF conference has become a tradition for me. I’ve asked Tony every year if he wanted to/would be willing to go with me. Every year, he says he doesn’t have time. This year, it was at The Homestead, a place Tony has wanted to go for a few years, so he made time this year.

The drive out was beautiful. The snow from a couple of weeks ago was still on the ground and part of the drive was right on a river. I tried to get Tony to take some pictures, but he didn’t understand what I wanted (his words, not mine), so no pictures.

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The hotel itself was a huge disappointment. The beds were horrible, the climate control was really noisy and didn’t seem to be super effective. It actually made me think of the casinos in Las Vegas – worn out and forgotten (sorry for the broken image links in that post…with Picasa dead, I have no idea how to fix it). Not that  there weren’t pretty spots, but overall, it just felt sad.

The first session I attended was a talk by Meredith Leigh (author of The Big Food Talk). The most useful thing about this session was that she put up numbers for growing pigs (who ever talks about pigs?!). I had my numbers on my computer, so I pulled them up while she was talking. Although she’s from North Carolina and her numbers are probably a little different from mine, my numbers were nearly identical to hers, so it’s nice to know that I didn’t have a huge amount of waste. It felt like her talk was mostly, “Stop beating yourselves up for not producing exactly by your values…you can work into it.” Which was nice, but not terribly informative. While I was in that talk, Tony was in a talk about plants for increasing biological diversity. He said it was a good talk and it made him a little more forgiving (I think) of the piles of brush, logs, and other “unsightly” things in view of the house. A bonus in my opinion. We haven’t talked as much about that as one of the sessions we attended together (I’ll get to that in a minute).

For the second session, I went to Meredith Leigh’s second talk (mostly because nothing else seemed more interesting). It was another hand-wavy talk that didn’t offer much that I felt like I could take advantage of. Tony worked on his own work during this session.

The third session was a talk by Michael Judd about growing a food forest. I had forgotten I’d seen one of his presentations two years ago, but it didn’t take long for things to start sounding pretty familiar. Turns out, I went to one of his talks in 2015 and that’s what started me thinking that I wanted to put an orchard in the circle. The nice thing about his talk was that it was very applicable: “If you want to do this, here’s a way to start…then play with it.” So not only was it concrete steps to get started, but also a reminder that your farm/garden/homestead is a pretty personal thing and the way you do things is also personal. Anyway, his two talks (I went to his other talk on Wednesday) were my favorite of the conference.

While I was listening to the food forest talk, Tony went to listen to Free Union Grass Farm talk about their meat poultry production. It sounds like it was a really good talk with good ideas. They’re on a bigger scale than we are, but some of their ideas (using electric to deter bears) are still useful for us.

The last session of the day (Tony and I went together) was Mark Jones from Sharondale Farm talking about growing mushrooms. Between not eating well (the food for the conference lacked staying power the first day) and doing a lot more hard thinking than usual (brains require energy too, not just bodies), I was wiped out. I don’t really remember his talk all that well. There were a lot of things he talked about that seemed like fun to try, but it turns out our wood is too old to use for mushrooms. While we can’t use any of our ideas right now, there are a few trees we talked about taking out to make just a little more light here or there and we’re wondering if those might be good mushroom media.

Wednesday’s first session was surprisingly good. I wasn’t excited about any of the sessions, but I’d gone to a class Ellen Polishuk taught in town and really liked her style. So, I went to her session. And it was really good. She talked about the physical, chemical, and biological components of soil. The really nice thing was, even though it was really sciencey, it was also really useful. She talked about what nutrient levels she targets in her soil tests (but she also emphasized that a soil test is a tool and not a goal).

Tony and I went Michael Judd’s “Harvesting Rain” class Wednesday before lunch. The one I originally planned to go to was full by the time I got there, so I bailed on that and joined Tony. There was some overlap from the session I went to on Tuesday, but there was a lot of new material too. The thing Tony got the most excited about was the idea of building swales in our yard. I thought it was a cool idea too, but we haven’t yet agreed on how we want to do it.

The last session I went to was called “Making Your Farm into a Business” by Rob Lisenby, who sells herdshares. I was expecting something pretty different from what I got. It was the end of the day and I hadn’t slept well the night before, so I really wasn’t into the presentation. The description made it sound more applied than it turned out to be. There was some practical stuff at the beginning (make sure you eat meals, make sure you rest), but there was a lot of, “I really like this business podcast, you should try it.” Not that that sort of thing isn’t useful, but between being tired and surprised by the content, I was disappointed.

After the conference, we were supposed to stay an extra night at The Homestead, but neither of us slept well the two nights we’d already stayed, so we bailed on the final night we were supposed to be there. They were nice enough to not charge us for the night we didn’t stay. I suppose I should make sure to say that all of the employees were really great. They were always friendly and helpful.

If you’re still here and not bored, I’d like to revisit one of the comments I made last year. The USDA processor talk ended up being hugely helpful. It gave me more confidence when it was time to take the pigs and it gave me some ideas to discuss with Dad about farmers he knows and how they do things. So while it didn’t seem useful at the time, I think that might have been the most immediately useful session I attended last year.


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