12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent
Organizers of the 2012 Virginia Farm to Table Conference say the event will offer opportunities for farmers to network, learn about new marketing opportunities and come away with ideas about how to grow their operations along with the local food economy.
The two-day event, held at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, runs from 9 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, through the end of the afternoon Thursday, Dec. 6.
Both mornings of the conference will feature presentations by a variety of well-known experts in sustainable agriculture and economic development based on the growth of a local food system. The schedule each afternoon includes panel discussions on a wide variety of topics, including dairy processing and value retention, issues facing young or beginner farmers, small grains, alternative markets, cooperatives and more.
Among the scheduled speakers and presenters are Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture; Leslie Schaller, who supports specialty food producers through the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, and Francis Thicke, an innovative organic dairy farmer from Iowa. On Wednesday evening, Michael Shuman, author of “Local Dollars, Local Sense,” will give a talk on local food systems and community economic development.
Kathy Holm, a resource conservationist with the NRCS, said the Buy Fresh Buy Local Networking Mixer, held on Wednesday afternoon from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., will allow farmers to meet and talk with food wholesalers, retailers and institutional buyers looking for new sources of local food.
“That’s going to be a really interesting event that we’d really encourage producers to attend,” Holm said.
The panel discussions, she said, will be moderated to encourage back-and-forth exchange between presenters and the audience. Conference organizers have also set up special “digging deeper” rooms, where attendees can sign up to talk at greater length with the speakers later in the afternoon.
Eric Bendfeldt, a community viability specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, said interest from buyers looking for specific products played an influence in some of the programming. One example, he said, is the inquiries he sometimes gets from people wondering where they can buy small grains and locally produced flour - crops well suited to the region but no longer grown here in great quantity.
Another focus of the conference will be development of infrastructure necessary for “scaling up” the local food system from farmers markets and CSAs to meet the needs of larger retailers, restaurants and institutions. Several featured speakers will bring expertise on the issue of access to capital and financing that allows farmers and communities to develop strong food systems.
In addition to nationally known presenters, the Farm to Table conference will also feature plenty of local knowledge, including speakers from local farm and food cooperatives that have set successful examples in the Shenandoah Valley.
“The conference will provide some examples for folks who are interested in working together in larger groups to sell (more) product,” said Tad Williams, a board member of the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative.
Williams will speak about the beef cooperative’s development over the past several years during a panel discussion on Thursday afternoon. By combining resources, the beef farmers in the cooperative have opened doors to markets that demand a volume that would have been beyond the individual abilities of any of the members to meet, Williams said. The group now sends 10 animals every other week to a group of restaurants and a meat company in the Washington, D.C. area.
Joining Williams on the cooperative panel will be Jimmy Mason of the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative and Steve Cooke from the Friendly City Food Cooperative.
Producers can attend the entire conference at a discounted registration rate of $50. The discounted one-day rate is $25, and a discounted ticket to the Buy Fresh Buy Local Networking Mixer and evening talk by Michael Shuman costs $15.
For more information, visit http://conference.virginiafarmtotable.org.