WEYERS CAVE, VA — This year’s Virginia Farm to Table Conference was highlighted by the participation of renowned soil biology expert Dr. Elaine Ingham.
As part of the multi-day conference focused on the burgeoning local foods movement within agriculture, Dr. Ingham, The Rodale Institute’s chief scientist, helmed a special day-long soil biology track, a series of discussions on the practical specifics of managing soil biology. The day of learning covered topics ranging from nutrient cycling to compost teas to pest control.
This year’s conference also had a couple of features which distinguished it from the event’s previous two occurrences. First, the event was expanded to include a third day, at Virginia State University, in Petersburg, where Dr. Ingham repeated her soil biology training day.
“We recognize that not everyone can come to the Valley to see Dr. Ingham,” said Eric Bendfeldt, Community Viability Specialist with Virginia Extension and a prime mover behind the conference.
This year the conference also featured the first annual presentation of the Carl Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Award. Last year Luebben was recognized at the conference for his lifetime achievement in promoting resource conservation. This year he was on hand to present the first award that bears his name: to Mike Phillips of Rockingham County’s Valley View Farm.
A visibly touched Phillips credited Luebben for being one of his “top mentors.”
Over 300 people attended day two of the conference at Blue Ridge Community College, which featured both Dr. Ingham’s soil biology track and a second, parallel series of sessions covering diverse topics relevant to value-added agriculture and sustainability.
Anna Beebe Sachs, a teacher from the Roanoke area, attended the conference to learn about how to manage the soil in the steel-framed raised beds she uses to teach agriculture to her special education students.
Damon Brangman, also an agriculture educator, came all the way from New York to network and look into ways of advancing his career.
Bryce Blosser, who with his older brother is preparing to take over his grandfather’s cattle backgrounding operation next year, came to the conference to learn about how to transform a farm which supports one family into one viable enough for two.
“Me and my brother both want to make a living farming,” he said. “We may market to the local economy,” something they’re already doing on a limited scale, in order to permit them both to farm.
Amy Hicks, a successful organic vegetable farmer from Charles City, attended the conference both to learn practical lessons from Dr. Ingham and to participate in one of the conference’s many panel discussions.
While Dr. Ingham was a big draw for conference attendees, the various other presentations also provided information and stimulation.
Dr. Elizabeth Dyck, founder and coordinator of Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN), spoke about using small grains and cover crops as value-added products.
The agronomic value of using small grains as a cover crop is clear, Dr. Dyck said. They mitigate erosion and runoff, they soil with organic matter, suppress weeds, scavenge nutrients and in the mid-Atlantic it can be mixed with legumes. In these ways and more small grain cover crops enhance the sustainability of field crop and vegetable systems.
Yet they’re not used as widely as they could be, because when grown in the mid-Atlantic they don’t typically yield at levels that are competitive with the regions where grains are grown as a large-scale commodity crop.
The way to bring more small grains to mid-Atlantic farming, Dr. Dyck suggests, is to find ways to add value to small grains.
“Grains are one of the last foodstuffs to the locally grown party,” she said. Regional producers who market grains to the community of consumers who prefer locally grown food will be able to overcome their production shortfall vis-à-vis the commodity market, Dr. Dyck said.
But being locally grown is not sufficient, however — you also have to grow grains of high quality, with high enough protein and a good falling number.
Another way to tap into the farm-to-table movement, Dr. Dyck said, is to grow heritage varieties of grain. Varieties such as spelt, emmer, and einkorn all have what Dr. Dyck calls “market cachet” while also have nutritional advantages and “can get big retail prices.” Those three varieties all do contain gluten, so would not be suitable for gluten-intolerant consumers.
On-farm processing is another way to add value to grain, Dr. Dyck said, whether making puffed grains of milling grains, even baking.
Reaping grains for harvest does require the investment in a combine. For more information about sourcing equipment suitable for your operation, contact your local extension agent, or email Dr. Dyck, who can be contacted at ogrin.org.
For more information about the research and teachings of Dr. Ingham, visit www.soilfoodweb.com.