LEAD event participants advised to promote ag

Managing Editor

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (Dec. 9, 2014) — “We need to stop talking amongst ourselves about agriculture. Ninety-nine percent of America that doesn’t farm needs to understand that agriculture is their story.”
That comment from Michael Scuse, USDA undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, set the tone for last week’s “Image of Agriculture” symposium hosted by the LEAD Maryland Foundation.
The intent of the day-long conference was to reach out to people not directly involved in agriculture who want to know more about how food is grown in Maryland.
“It was all about showing how Maryland agriculture is connected to the consumer,” said Shelby Watson Hampton, a member of the current LEAD Maryland class that organized the event, the group’s capstone project.
As the morning keynote speaker, Scuse told the sold-out group of more than 300 that it’s a “demanding but very exciting time” for the nation’s agriculture industry and educating people about what farmers do has to play a big role.
“We need more forward-looking and forward thinking conferences that bring together our producers and consumers just like this one,” Scuse said.
Organizers estimated about 35 to 40 percent of the attendees didn’t come from an ag background.
Class fellow Kathy Zimmerman said as she was greeting people in the morning, she met lawyers, accountants, chefs and commercial food buyers amongst the farmers and farm business workers.
Shannon Caraviello, an informal educator at Bar-T Mountainside, a youth camp center and after school program in Frederick County, said she came to the symposium with Bar-T’s farm manager, Josh Sturdevant, hoping to get information to use as agricultural lessons in the center’s outdoor education programs on its 115-acre farm.
“We don’t want to just talk about best land practices, we want to show and do them,” Caraviello said.
She said she has focused mainly on local food systems but after hearing speakers throughout the day, wanted learn more about other areas of farming.
“I definitely walked away with an interest in the bigger parts of agriculture and want to look into it,” she said. “I love the idea that LEAD brings every facet of agriculture together. You need everyone in the same room at the same time.”
Breakout sessions took on the topics of food labeling and nutrition, finding local food, farming technology and biotechnology in food.
“We wanted to hit some of the hot issues in agriculture,” said Hampton. “We wanted to help dispel some of the ag myths that are out there.”
During the event’s lunch, made with Maryland-grown ingredients, organizers assigned each table a farmer to spur discussion, answer questions and gain feedback.
“There was great dialogue with the farmers at lunch,” Hampton said. “The locally-sourced food made for good talking points.”
A main draw for many attendees was celebrity chef and Maryland native Bryan Voltaggio who talked about his emphasis on using locally grown food in his six restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Voltaggio said growing vegetables in his Frederick County backyard was a big influence in him becoming a chef and while in culinary school, his major project was to plan a restaurant around using local food.
“Fifteen years ago when I was a cook, there was a lot of people that cared (about using local food) but not this much, not this much,” he said. “And that’s great for all of us.”
He said when he was opening his restaurant Volt in Frederick in 2008, he had challenges initially getting farmers to sign on with him and distributors to specifically carry local items but building trust has paid off and he has three more restaurants about to open.
“Just being able to have that conversation with the farmer as a chef is really important to me,” he said. “The only thing we need to do now is continue to support that talk.”
Voltaggio said chefs have a huge platform to reach the public but farmers have a stronger voice and need to be as vocal about what they do as anyone else.
“Without you I have nothing,” he told the farmers in the crowd. “I have nothing to work with. If the ingredients aren’t fantastic I can’t make delicious food. You should be the ones that are being heard and I hope you’re getting every opportunity to do so.”