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Farmers Talking To Farmers

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Cold, biting cold. In the still, winter cold that settles just before a blizzard, farmers from all over Indiana gathered at the Montgomery Co. 4-H Fairgrounds. Farmers talking to farmers.

The 2007 Midwest Small Farm Conference was held in Crawfordsville last Saturday. Sustainable Earth, a “not-for-profit membership organization committed to the development of sustainable family farming systems and community food systems involving family farms” hosted the event.

Farmers talking to farmers.

This year’s conference featured experts from Purdue University and St. Mary’s of the Woods. Jerry Nelson and Jim Lazar, Purdue Cooperative Extension demystified business plans. Rick Foster, a Purdue entomologist, explained insect management. Mark Trela of White Violet Center, St. Mary of the Woods, talked about correcting deficiencies in market gardens.

Small farmers shared their experiences, successes/ failures, and solutions. Andy Hamilton talked about transitioning Musgrave Orchard in Bloomington into an organic orchard. Moe Parr, a Lafayette farmer, shared his success in converting cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. Kerry Estes of Fountaintown told how he manages grazing systems for dairy cows.

Steve Bonney, farmer and founder of Sustainable Earth, explored the nutritional value of foods and how small farmers can position it to command fair prices. Greg Gunthorp, LaGrange shared his family’s experiences processing livestock, selling across state lines and niche-marketing to high-end, white tablecloth restaurants.

The advice was sensible and practical. To a city slicker like me, the challenges farmers face are beyond my ability to imagine (let alone manage). Experts gave their audience valuable information, but exchanges among and between farmers were just as important.

As information-packed as this conference was, the highlight was what else? Lunch. Tables covered with red-checkered cloths and arranged community-style allowed us to mingle and get to know each other. Lali Hess, owner of the Juniper Spoon, catered: seasonal soups, fresh bread, a winter salad and a cobbler of mixed berries topped with Trader’s Point Creamery yogurt. I can’t help it, I’m a cook and the purpose of this day’s discussion is to produce, distribute and cook good food. Lali’s food is clean, clear and crisp.

The conference was farmers talking to farmers, but in the spirit fostered by Sustainable Earth, the farmers reached out to the rest of us. They know that they need to us to remain in business and continue the traditions and lifestyles they cherish. Members of the Weston Price Foundation had an information table. I Farm took applications from farmers.

Conspicuously absent from the conference was Director Miller or any member of the staff of Indiana Department of Agriculture. Miller has repeatedly turned up his nose at small farmers; he prefers the corporate life. Too bad, he could have learned, he could have shared. He could have had a lunch that Governor Daniels and State Health Commissioner, Judy Monroe, are trying to trying to get Indiana citizens to eat.

Most important, Director Miller could have learned this: Greg Gunthorp, a small farmer and conference presenter, has turned away from CAFO and commodity farming that ISDA promotes. He couldn’t make a living; he couldn’t continue his family’s tradition. Instead, he turned to Chicago chefs. Each week Greg delivers fresh hogs, chickens and ducks to Chicago’s best restaurants. He sells to an upscale Mexican restaurant, as in Frontera Grill, as in Chef Rick Bayless. And Greg’s first customer? Charlie Trotter, the chef who put Chicago on the culinary map.

If he had attended the conference, he would have learned that Charlie Trotter wants the hogs Greg Gunthorp raises and is willing to pay for them. He would have learned that Charlie Trotter doesn’t want the hogs Director Miller is trying to bully rural Indiana into producing.

Written by Susan Gillie

February 15, 2007 at 12:19 am

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