At the start of December, Vance and I had the opportunity to travel to Louisville, Kentucky for the 2012 ACRES USA Conference. We'd heard about this conference from a few of our farming mentors who have gone several times and have talked about how important its become in their farm journey.
ACRES USA is the leading magazine on sustainable agriculture; for over 35 years they have been publishing information on nutritious crops, healthy livestock, and managing farms using holistic approaches. Every year they host a 3 day conference and trade show that also includes pre-conference study workshops.
As 'Farmkids' who have recently married and returned to farming after years of being away from the farm and from Canada, it was perfect timing for us go to this conference. We have spent just over a year on Vance's mother's farm and are now establishing our own farmstead on land nearby. The theme of the conference was “Restore-Refine-Reinvent” and the information and connections we have taken away from it are allowing us to look at our farm plans and future with new enthusiasm and knowledge.
One of our key reasons for farming is to be a part of restoring health to the soils and the ecosystems that have been mined of nutrients by years of tilling and commodity-agriculture. Vance has been taking courses on soil health and composting and so much of his focus at ACRES was on learning more in this area.
One of the sessions that he took the most from was with Arden Andersen on Reams-Style agriculture for large-scale production. Arden is educated as both an agronomist and medical doctor and now works with some of the world's leading farming operations. The Reams methodology and Arden's work brings together knowledge of soil chemistry, biology and natural energies to create programs for effective soil and crop management.
The key message is that restoring our soils and ecosystems must go beyond the recommendations of 'put some of X' or 'throw as much compost on as possible' approaches: one needs to understand the cycles of soil life and what gets into the depth of soil nutrition. Anything you add can have positive and negative effects in the long term as well as on short term fertility. Vance's quote after the session was that it is about learning to “see what you are looking at.”
We've come home with the DVD series of Arden's Soils and Agronomy course which we are starting to work our way through when we have time together.
2013 will be a big year for us as we plan to move onto our own farmstead and begin to shape it based on what we have learned through permaculture, holistic management and other eco-agriculture practices. Our plan includes planting a lot of trees including fruit and nut trees, returning land back to pasture and creating systems that include animals as key to fertility and production.
Mark Shepard runs New Forest Farm in Wisconsin, a 106-acre commercial-scale perennial agricultural ecosystem that he converted from a row-crop grain farm. He has applied the principles of permaculture, holistic management and other lessons from his mechanical and ecology training to develop processes for the cultivation, harvesting, and processing of forest-derived agricultural products. Over the past few years we've learned about permaculture and also visited various farms in Central and North America. However, at least by what we've seen so far, Mark's model and approach align the best for us on our own land. His presentation and book “Restoration Agriculture” are both pragmatic and inspiring at the same time.
Much of what we learned at ACRES will help us refine and build this plan. But in terms of looking at our overall design – meeting Mark Shepard and hearing him speak has given us a lot to talk about and work with for our own farm plan.
Our gateway animal into farming has been the chicken. Vance started with some laying hens which quickly made way for doing pastured poultry meat birds. His first layers were Brahmas and we were pleased with their hardiness, quietness and the fact that they are meant to be a dual-purpose bird - meaning one can also raise them for meat and get a decent meal from them. This year we decided to try raising some for meat, alongside our regular operation of cornish-cross chickens (the standard broiler). We had a good response from customers and have plans to do more next year. That said, I was pleased to join a full morning session with Jim Adkins of the Sustainable Poultry Network. He is dedicated to promoting and protecting standard bred poultry for sustainable farming and the workshop went through an enormous amount of information. It was mostly aimed at breeders of heritage chickens but still incredibly useful for us as growers. It affirmed our commitment to continuing to grow more and more heritage birds and I am working to find a breeder (or breeders) who can supply us with enough heritage chicks for our pastured system. Working together (breeders and growers) we can build up the breeds that have been neglected and thus have left behind many of the traits that would make them suitable and viable as meat birds. Along with the chefs and cooks who are bringing these birds to kitchens and tables, we are reinventing what our generation understands chicken to be.
These are only two examples of the many workshops we took in and new teachers we met. Sandor Katz, Jerry Brunetti, and Janisse Ray are also a few of the names that are now common to hear in our household.
We have friends who go to this conference almost every year and we can now understand why: attending during a time during the year when farm-work is a bit lighter, the ACRES USA conference provides farmers with the opportunity to restore, refine and reinvent their practices as well as to deepen their relationship with each other. We hope to become part of the 'regulars' and make the trip to Illinois next December.
submitted by Brenda and Vance Barritt, Earth Works Farm