Friday, February 3, 2012

So far so good at Dakota Grown Conference

(photo via here.)
Hello there friends. It's me, Farmhand Kirsti, blogging live from the Dakota Grown local foods conference in GreaterDakota, as I promised I would in yesterday's post.

After weeks of snow-free days, winter conveniently surged just in time to make conditions interesting for anyone traveling to the conference. Drivers from around the state are still arriving because of the somewhat treacherous conditions.

Thankfully my sister Katie--who works for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture--and I arrived last night before the snow fell. Katie's taking an active roll in the conference, as the department sponsors the event. She'll be speaking tomorrow and as her younger sister I'm really looking forward to sharing embarrassing photos and stories from her presentations. Come back tomorrow for more content!

Despite the road conditions, the sessions have been well attended and interesting. We've heard speakers discuss community building, agri-tourism, the regional food system, northern hardy plants, local farms and more. We've been learning about how to connect with our consumers and how to grow our markets.

It's been a great opportunity to network. Attendees vary from organic farmers, you-pick berry farmers, organizers of farmers markets, state officials, educators and interested consumers. Everyone brings different perspectives and viewpoints. And while some of the ideas are a bit new age for this conservative, traditional farmer's daughter, I've appreciated learning about the varying markets.

And all of the presentations, discussions and literature have me thinking about the whole local foods movement.

North Dakota is an agriculture rich state. It's our number one industry, our heritage, and our future. But the local foods movement, the growth and development of specialty crops for sale at a local level, is different. It's smaller scale, feels more exclusive, and is less practiced statewide. Even though they're one in the same--we both grow something, we both work to feed a hungry population--there's a vastly different approach in the two sectors.

When I've been introducing myself today, I share that my family farms. One woman, who owns a small organic farm with her husband, implored further.

"What do you grow?" she asked.

I began with the list.

"Oh, beans, peas, corn, wheat--"

"You're a commercial farm." She cut me off with her statement. I could feel her bristle, which surprised me.

"We're a fifth generation family farm," I replied, trying to find a commonality. She nodded and changed the subject. Turns out she and her husband moved back to live and work on the same land his ancestors homesteaded. Not too unlike my family's history.

A little later on, as I was sitting in a chair, typing on the MacBook in my lap, another woman came up to me and asked about our farm in a similar fashion.

Again, I told her what we grew. Again, she nodded. Then she politely dismissed herself and moved on. I felt like an outsider, which I wasn't expecting.

Why is this? Why does an iron curtain exist between the two types of farming? Would they respond differently if I talked about the gardens we grow, the raspberries we pick, the juneberries we freeze and use throughout the year? Or what would they say if I told them the cows in our pasture would be finished on a diet of corn--that the meat was of better quality because of it?

Instead of considering all the speakers have implored us to think about in reaching new consumers, I'm wondering about something else.

Yes, there are different farming practices in the United States. Yes, some ideas oppose others. But why have ravines of disconnect been eroded between the two when bridges would serve all of us better? Why can't we embrace our similarities, unite in our commonalities, and leave or differences behind? The reality is that the majority of farms in North Dakota are more like ours than not. Why aren't small specialty farms seeking relationships with these farms? What's the difference between those of us who grow barley for beer and others who grow apples for cider?

That's my local food for thought.

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  1. Not unlike the mommy wars, no? I think sometimes we are our own roadblock towards working together. Thank you for helping break down barriers.

    1. Thanks DakotaPam. You're so right--it's easy to focus on differences instead of work together. Hopefully that will change.

  2. This hits the nail on the head! Great post!

    - Joe

  3. Great post, Kirsti. I've experienced the same thing. I've attended conferences like this where I've also felt like an outsider because my family farms wheat, canola, barley etc. rather than having a small organic farm. I feel there's a place for all of us in agriculture and we need to make more of an effort to work together.

    1. Thanks Theresa. I'm optimistic that we can bridge the divide and create bonds that unite us!

  4. I would LOVE to talk with you about this!! Tomorrow, my friend, tomorrow!

  5. It's interesting to me to read this. My family doesn't farm, but my husband grew up on a farm and works in ag. I can see the divide on the consumer side. Never considered it exists on the farmer side too. I mean that it exists in real life in farming communities, not just in Food, Inc. or NYT article.

    There seems to be a call among conventional ag for everyone to pull together as a means to survive. I wonder if specialty farmers will come around to this way of thinking as well. Good post.

    1. Thanks Aimee. For me, as a conventional farmer's daughter who never really thought about the local food movement before, it was a surprise to encounter their behavior. But I recognize that past experience sometimes dictates people's reactions. And I'm also sure that not all conventional farmers are as respectful of specialty farmers as they should be. The path to understanding goes two ways. I'm grateful to have learned a little more about the broad ag community.