2020 Farm conference and workshop season winds down

Northeast Minnesota farmers took the opportunity to network and connect around current issues in sustainable agriculture at a Grand Rapids Farm to School workshop last week.

Starting with the University of Minnesota-sponsored Minnesota Organic Conference on Jan. 9 and ending with Happy Dancing Turtle’s Back 2 Basics event on Feb. 15, the farm conference season was packed with informative events this year.

On Jan. 15-16, a number of local producers attended the Northern Growers Conference in St. Cloud.  Keynote speakers talked about climate change and how it affects growers of all stripes. Changing and unpredictable climate affects farmers in ways that range from increased pests and diseases to unpredictable planting and harvest dates due to weather, and many others.

Another key message identified ways to improve the success of farmers’ markets. A trade show gave attendees access to new tools, information and resources to help them keep pace with developments in agriculture.

On the evening of Jan. 20, the Greater Mille Lacs chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota held its annual meeting at Hazelton Town Hall south of Aitkin. David Abazs, regional director for the northeast Region Sustainable Development Partnership, who is himself a farmer in Finland, Minn., gave a keynote address in which he shared data showing that it is feasible for northeast Minnesota growers to produce the vast majority of food needed to feed residents of the area. Chapter members voted to support a workshop demonstrating targeted grazing by small ruminants to control exotic invasive plants.

Gabrea Anderson, events coordinator for the Greater Mille Lacs chapter of SFA-MN, coordinated a workshop at Long Lake Conservation Center in Palisade on Feb. 4. That event brought together food service staffs from a number of area schools, school garden coordinators, Statewide Health Improvement Project coordinators, school board members and local growers.

Brett Olson of  Renewing the Countryside and Jane Jewett of Minnesota Institute for Sustainabele Agriculture spoke about the Farmers Market Aggregation Project in which the Aitkin Farmers’ Market is participating for the third year.

The Aggregation Project enables small producers to participate in supplying larger institutions such as Riverwood Healthcare Center, Aicota Health Care Center and the Aitkin School District. The LLCC event was supported by a grant to the Aitkin Farmers’ Market by Compeer Financial.

On Feb. 8, beginning and experienced farmers attended the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota’s annual conference in St. Joseph. This year’s conference marked the 30th  anniversary of SFA-MN and speakers reflected on the many ways the association has grown during that time.  Many members of the local Greater Mille Lacs chapter of SFA-MN attended that conference. SFA-MN board members Joe Gans and Chris Gamer travelled from Aitkin. Local chapter members Jane Jewett, Mathew Nix, Allison and Scott Rian, Lynn Mizner, Erik Heimark, Wayne and Gabrea Anderson and Jay Rigdon attended, among others.

A new feature at the SFA-MN conference was a roundtable on the needs of emerging farmers. Aspiring farmers from underrepresented demographic groups gathered to talk about their needs, aspirations and dreams for careers in sustainable agriculture.

A series of workshops targeting growers and farm to school program participants took place in Grand Rapids from Feb. 12-14. Sponsoring organizations included SFA, University of Minnesota, Renewing the Countryside and the Blandin Foundation.

The Grand Rapids series included a Farm to School event at the Blandin Foundations in which a panel of growers, buyers and educators answered questions about the program. Many of the questions came from school districts that are considering initiating a Farm to School program but have not yet figured out how to make it work. Networking among participants helped create a community of support for existing and prospective Farm to School programs. Jane Jewett led a Grand Rapids workshop on local food regulations and licensing for growers. She has developed an educational program to help new and experienced growers and vendors navigate the complexities of food licensing and regulations and has delivered it all over the state over the past two years. Jewett is also a farmer. She lives in Palisade.

On Feb. 15, the Happy Dancing Turtle annual Back 2 Basics event in Pine River featured keynote speaker Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin from Northfield. He spoke about poultry-centered regenerative agriculture. In his address and in an afternoon workshop that followed, Haslett-Marroquin emphasized collaboration and the repeatability of the system his team developed to raise poultry under a canopy of perennial woody crops such as hazelnuts, elderberries and apple trees. The system has been duplicated  in Canada, Guatemala and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A unifying message from this year’s farm conference and workshop season is that local, sustainable agriculture is a growing sector in Minnesota.

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