AmericanFarm.com

Virginia Farm to Table conference expands to three days

By WHITNEY PIPKIN
AFP Correspondent

As farmers settle into a slower winter pace, farming conference season is just ramping up.
For growers, artisans and distributors interested in selling their products locally, the Virginia Farm to Table Conference in early December is becoming a must.
In its third year, the conference has grown to three days and two locations alongside rising interest and participation in the state’s local food system. The conference, hosted by Virginia Tech and Virginia State universities’ Cooperative Extensions and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, will be held Dec. 2-3 at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave and Dec. 4 at Virginia State University in Petersburg.
Almost 250 people attended each day of the conference last year, and 350 are expected the second two days of the conference this year, said Eric Bendfeldt, Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist and organizer of the conference.
Bendfeldt said organizers expanded the conference to include new audiences in the state and to take advantage of the high caliber of speakers it will attract this year.
Among them is Dr. Elaine Ingham, an internationally recognized soil microbiologist and educator. She’ll be leading a full day of in-depth soil training on both Wednesday and Thursday of the conference.
Bendfeldt said attendees of previous conferences wanted more in-depth instruction on specific topics. Last year’s conference offered a track on farm to school policy and practical application.
Soil health also garnered attention at the event last year, as NRCS announced its pivot back toward prioritizing soil health as a way for producers to not only grow more nutritious food in the state but also to improve the environment. 
“There’s a growing body of literature about the connection between the bacteria and micro flora in our guts and how similar that is to bacteria and biology in plants and the soil,” Bendfeldt said. “There’s a lot of connections made from farm to table there.”
Other key speakers at the December conference will include David Kline, an Amish naturalist and organic dairy farmer who has written several books about the intersection of farming, nature and faith.
Kline will speak on the second day of the conference and at the conference’s networking mixer following the first day of programming. The mixer helps meet the community-building goal of the conference, allowing producers and farming supporters to interact and taste one another’s products.
On the first day of the conference, Dr. Elizabeth Dyck of the Organic Growers’ Research and Information Sharing Network will share about organic growing methods and markets in the region, including the opportunity to grow grains for new organic poultry operations in the state.
Other topics on the table for panel discussions: labor issues for beginning farmers, interactions with institutions like schools and how to extend the growing season and make the most of markets.
Each day of training at the conference will include insights and case studies from at least three Virginia farmers who have been implementing these techniques, like using cover crops, no-till or grazing management.
The cost of the conference is $40 each day; attending the soil biology training costs just $25 thanks to funding from Virginia’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development Program.
Attendees are encouraged to register online at conference.virginiafarmtotable.org/register or by mail by Nov. 28.