Agriculture Conference Staves Off Winter Blues

Vermont’s organic farmers association offers workshops and more to people searching for information and a chance to network.

Enid Wonnacott, director of Northeastern Organic Farmers Association of Vermont, welcomes participants to the 27th annual Winter Conference.

Joy Choquette

Enid Wonnacott, director of Northeastern Organic Farmers Association of Vermont, welcomes participants to the 27th annual Winter Conference.

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While late fall and early winter provide a much needed respite from the rigors of outdoor work, by late January or early February, people who love to work the soil with their hands are getting antsy. And in some northern climates, it’s still months before any tilling or planting can begin.

The Northeastern Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) has found mid-February to be the perfect time to offer a three-day winter conference. The event, held the past 27 years, combines keynote addresses, general and intensive workshops, a farmers’ market and exhibition area, a silent auction, entertainment by local musicians, and an eclectic lunch of local and organic foods. At the accompanying Children’s Conference, 6- to 12-year-olds can explore food, crafts, farming, animals and the environment.

In 2010, after years of growth, the conference will move to the University of Vermont in Burlington for the weekend of February 13 to 15.

Kirsten Bower has worked for NOFA-VT for more than 20 years. During that time, she has assisted in the intensive work required to host the mid-winter conference.

“The conference has grown from a one-day event with 625 attendees in 1999 to a three-day event with 1,350 attendees in 2009,” Bower says. Specialized tracts, which serve the needs of experienced farmers, newbie farmers, gardeners and consumers, are an important part of the NOFA-VT winter conference.

Olga Boshart, NOFA-VT’s winter conference coordinator, says the interaction between seasoned and new farmers, homesteaders and gardeners is one of the most important elements of the conference.

“I hope that people walk away with hope and inspiration,” Boshart says of the event, “but also with a sense of community and connectedness. Not just within your community but throughout the state; that you are really connected with this large group of people.”

“There is a new wave of new and young farmers seeking organic growing methods and a sense of community, as well as a growing gardener membership of people wanting to produce their own food and source local, organic food,” Bower says. 

With recent outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli, and other food-related illnesses in the news, more and more people are becoming aware of where their food comes from and how it came to be on their plates. An increasing awareness of the role farmers play in consumers’ lifestyles and an interest in finding out more about the people who produce the food on the dinner table are important focuses for the NOFA-VT conference – it brings farmers and consumers together in an educational setting so each can learn more about each other and their roles in the current food chain.

“We hope conference participants take home information that will inspire them to try something new as well as recognition of the valuable role they play in supporting local, organic agriculture whether they are a farmer growing the food or a person consuming the food,” Bower says.

“So much mentoring happens at this conference,” Boshart says. She gives the example of a college student who wants to start a farm. The student makes contacts at the conference, and this opens doors she otherwise wouldn’t have known about. “That student is then walking away from the conference with resources, real people who are willing to talk to (her) and help,” says Boshart. “Everyone going to the annual conference wants to share and teach each other.”

Inspiration is a key factor of the winter conference. During the three-day event, conference attendees are often seen in hallways or pathways, consulting and discussing which workshop to take next. The decision is challenging. Workshop offerings in 2009 covered everything from beginning beekeeping to hiring migrant workers on the farm. Workshops on pasture management, the best types of nut trees to plant, root cellaring, freedom from oil dependence on the farm and many other topics were covered.

According to Boshart, an intense process is involved in selecting the approximately 100 workshops offered at each conference. First, a theme and keynotes are selected by the board of directors. Boshart works with NOFA VT staff members to develop workshop ideas and determine who might be the best presenter for each workshop. The 2010 theme is “Celebrating the Heart of Organic Next,” which explores how the national “Agenda for Change” has affected local and organic agriculture, as well as how climate change and other concerns are being addressed by growers throughout Vermont.

“My favorite moment at the conference is when I address everyone,” Boshart says. “They have all come through snow and blizzards and sub-zero temperatures and they are all so excited.”

Boshart says conference attendees feel anticipation, excitement and connection at the conference. “We’re all in this with a shared goal of eating locally, seeing our farmers stay vibrant, and wanting our kids to grow up healthy. It propels me forward – it’s just this energy that’s there.”

For more information on the conference, call 802-434-4122, write NOFA-VT Office, P.O. Box 697, Richmond, VT 05477, or visit the website at www.NOFAVT.org .