How can agriculture transform our food system, save the planet and create a just global society? In mid-November, I attended a gathering of more than 400 farmers, industry professionals and food activists all seeking to answer that question. They gathered at the 4th National Conference for Women in Sustainable Agriculture in Des Moines, Iowa organized by the Women’s Food and Ag Network. For me, the answers lie in common-sense strategies.
The conference and trade show had participants from across the states, Central and South America and myself as the lone Canadian. Des Moines is a mere 10-hour drive to the edge of our Lake Winnipeg watershed, reminding me of our shared neighbourly ecological and economic interests.
In Fargo, I met up with Holly Mawby, a culinary herb farmer as well as the director at the Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture at Dakota College in North Dakota.
Between the two of us we had a truckload of experiences to share, so the last seven hours of driving passed quickly.
With no less than seven consecutive workshops at any given time, numerous tours and inspiring keynote addresses, the three-day conference was packed with information and insight.
The first workshop I attended was on tractor repair and maintenance. For myself, learning the basics enough to manage a 120-acre hay crop, a windrow-composting yard, bale stacking, feed delivery and yard work has been a painful and expensive learning curve. Surely, this one factor can make or break a beginner who has not grown up in farming.
I attended workshops on urban agriculture and seed saving — good reminders to build more gardens and to do my part in protecting heirloom varieties. As my own farm is on the edge of Winnipeg, I am often called on to support city folks wanting to grow their own food.
While at the conference, I received an email from Food Matters Manitoba asking for input on the idea of building a rentable commercial kitchen for producers to increase value-added products. My travelling companion Holly told me of a government-owned and -managed mobile commercial kitchen that has been operating successfully in North Dakota for several years. Imagine — a kitchen gets dropped off at your farm and all you have to do is plug it in and hook up with a food-grade water hose. A small cash crop of salsa, pesto or raspberry jam could make a great extra revenue stream.
A workshop called “Profitable Niches,” led by Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market listed her pick of top cash crops. As a good Canadian, I got excited when she mentioned hops for the microbrewery market. We could make a small U-pick with great sex appeal for the home brewing market. So look out for an Aurora Farm Home-Brew U-pick Hops Festival. You heard it here first.
The workshop I gave called “Ideas in Action” invited participants to create an action plan for their farming passions. I based my talk on my own experience over the past nine years building Aurora Farm. My own creative and ethical drive has been tempered with many hard knocks.
I often think about the pioneering farming and homesteading spirit of my grandparents. I think they must be looking down bemusedly at my herd of dairy goats and goat-milk soap business, my alpaca herd and crafty alpaca products, my heritage chickens, my daughter’s horse boarding and coaching business, my gardens, my composting yard, my rainwater collection, my activism. I am living my dream, and it is action packed!
An unexpected bonus for me was sharing a hotel room with Leigh Adcock, the executive director of Women Food and Ag Network. To see the dedication that she and so many other women demonstrated advocating for sustainable farming was truly inspiring. It is something that we simply do not have with such abundance here in Manitoba. It felt great to be surrounded by that energy. I look forward to crossing paths again with Leigh and the other women I met.
I came away from the conference empowered and excited by the new vision for growth. But mostly, my focus is on the next generation and how to provide younger women the mentorship to fulfil their visions. Community building must be at the heart of farming.
Yes, there is a special role that women can and do play in transforming our food systems towards eco-system health and social equality — putting an end to profit through exploitation. I am excited to have a part.