Farm-to-Table Conference Covers All the Food Economy Bases

12/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

WEYERS CAVE, Va. — Spend enough time at farming conferences and you’re bound to hear people talk proudly about how American farmers feed the world.

Last week at Blue Ridge Community College, nearly 250 farmers, entrepreneurs, policymakers and others party to the state’s “food system” gathered for two days to talk about how Virginian farmers can better feed Virginians.

“I thought we had a really nice mix of people,” said Kathy Holm, a resource conservationist with the NRCS, and co-chair of the Virginia Farm-to-Table Conference.

The event featured numerous presentations and panel discussions on a wide variety of topics geared toward putting more local food on more local plates.

One of the Wednesday afternoon panel discussions, on small grains and flours, included two Shenandoah Valley farmers with experience growing and marketing small grains and Georgie Young, co-owner of Wade’s Mill, a Raphine, Va., mill that specializes in stone-ground flours. After short talks by each of the panelists, the remainder of the session was spent on questions from the audience about growing techniques, marketing opportunities and related topics.

While the conference as a whole focused on future growth and opportunity for an even stronger regional food economy, attendees also highlighted the progress that’s already been made.

Young, who opened Wade’s Mill with her husband in 1992, said that wholesaling accounted for just 10 percent of their business at the beginning. Today, that figure stands at 50 percent, thanks to new demand from area restaurants and bakeries that emphasize local food.

Polenta, she said, is an example of an increasingly popular item on local menus that she’s unable to source locally. (During the panel discussion, Young invited anyone growing white or yellow corn to contact her.)

The conference also included several sessions geared at young or beginning farmers looking for ways to establish themselves.

“It’s nice to speak with other people who are doing it successfully, to learn from their trial and error,” said C.J. Isbell, a young farmer from Hanover County who direct-markets grass-fed beef, pork, chicken and eggs.

On Wednesday evening, attendees socialized over local appetizers and refreshments at a “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” mixer event. It created more informal opportunity for farmers, retailers, restaurateurs and others to sample local foods and talk shop.

“Farming is all about marketing. If you grow it and don’t market it, it rots,” said Mitch Wapner of Paradox Farm in Rockbridge County, handing out samples of his ginger marmalade at the mixer.

Wednesday’s keynote address was delivered by Michael Shuman, the director of research at Cutting Edge Capital and the author of several books, including “Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money From Wall Street to Main Street.”

Shuman spoke about a study he’d recently completed with several colleagues to analyze the local economic impact of a 25-percent shift toward a local food economy in the Cleveland, Ohio, metropolitan area. His study found that shift — defined as moving one quarter of the way from current spending and employment in the local foods sector to total self-sufficiency — would create 27,000 jobs, generate $828 million in new wages and boost local and state tax revenues by $126 million.

“This would probably be the most significant stimulus that could come to this or any area,” Shuman said.

His presentation also covered barriers to accomplishing that local food shift, among them infrastructure and needed capital, estimated at $1 billion for the Cleveland area. While that seems like a huge amount of money, he noted that it represents just 1 percent of the total sum of personal bank accounts held by residents in the study area, and just 0.25 percent of the total amount invested in the area’s pension plans. Financial investment from sources like these, Shuman said, will be critical to the development of stronger food economies.

After the event, Holm, the conference co-chair, said she and other event organizers plan to review participant feedback and may develop a set of goals or steps Virginia could take to further strengthen its own food economy.

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