4 Ways to Harvest Ideas at Farming Conferences

For most of us, winter brings four certainties: Catching up on sleep, completing tax returns, ordering from seed catalogues, and reconnecting with new or old farming friends farming conferences.

by John D. Ivanko
Farm conference floor
Courtesy Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service
Use winter downtime to attend farm conferences, like the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service’s Organic Farming Conference.

For most of us, winter brings four certainties: Catching up on sleep, completing tax returns, ordering from seed catalogues, and reconnecting with new or old farming friends farming conferences. During the first couple months of the new year, as some farm duties lighten, a number of sustainable-agriculture organizations host their annual gatherings, serving up a bounty of ideas and inspiration for all of us craving the arrival of spring planting.

These gatherings engage farmstead chefs in two key subjects: farms and food. Farm conferences give us a birds-eye view of how all the pieces of the growing cycle come together, from seed to plant to harvest to meal. They’re a one-stop shop for resources, inspiration and face-to-face connections.

Being around a crowd of motivated, successful farmers make these more than just conferences—they are celebrations of the good-food movement. Not to mention, farm conferences are renowned for their food! Typically, farmers donate much of the food served at these events and much care goes into menu planning to showcase their local fare.

Here are four ways to achieve a bumper crop of ideas at a farming conference:

1. Be prepared.
First, assess your conference goals. Think about these objectives twofold: practical and personal. What workshops can you attend that will specific information would help your next season? What vendors should you talk to update and improve your farm equipment? Identifying your needs and resource gaps will help you allocate your time appropriately, because many sessions occur concurrently.

Don’t forget to pack more business cards and information on your business than you think you’ll need. The strength of the sustainable-agriculture movement comes from the collaborative spirit among fellow farmers.

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2. Add serendipity.
We call this our “one big new idea” approach to conferences. When we go to such a gathering, we aim to come home with one out-of-the-box idea—something that wasn’t on our initial agenda but could be a fit for our farm. For example, you could attend a workshop outside your area of expertise and comfort zone and see what erupts. Maybe explore agritourism, creating a value-added produce or new pest management strategies.

3. Seek out connections.
“Connecting with others passionate about sustainable agriculture and the good-food movement can be truly life changing, and there’s much opportunity for that kind of cross-pollination at farming conferences,” explains Faye Jones, executive director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, which organizes the largest organic farming conference in the country each February. “Use those informal opportunities like meals to strike up conversations. While some farming conferences, such as MOSES, can be large with several thousand people, they still have a warm and welcoming vibe with very friendly, kindred-spirited people, all sharing the same interests in growing food.”

We’re continually amazed at how we meet new people from own local community at farming conferences and workshops in other regions. At a workshop last year, Lisa met Lindsey Morris Carpenter, who has been running Grassroots Farm for three years just a few miles down the road from us. We simply never had the opportunity to meet before, and thanks to that encounter, have a growing local support network.

4. Process and follow up.
We all know the routine: attend conference; meet fabulous people and fill a notebook with new ideas; jump back into farm life. Next thing you know, you’ve re-entered the busy summer season, and that notebook of ideas sits in a pile on the office floor.

We’ve been through that drill, too. We’ve found it’s imperative to act quickly and follow up as soon as you get home. Entering contact information in your database and sending “nice to meet you” e-mails go a long way in growing the connections you made. Sending a friend invite via Facebook to your conference contacts is another quick easy way to keep in touch.

And while a farming conference isn’t exactly R&R on the beach, do embrace the off-farm getaway feel. Enjoy the venue, linger over meals and take advantage of the fact that you don’t need to get up at dawn for chores.

Key Farm Conferences
Here are some of the biggest farm conferences coming up during the 2013 season:

You can also find upcoming events in your area here.

Attending a conference may take both time and financial resources toward registration and travel. If you already have a farm or food business or are launching one soon, keep all your receipts. Conference expenses, including travel, meals and lodging, are all deductible business expenses.

Savoring the good life,

John and Lisa's Signatures

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