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2016 Virginia Farm to Table Conference

by Katie Gilman, Senior Fellow

This year’s 5th Annual Virginia Farm to Table Conference kicked off with a day of pre-conference tours at three different locations in the Shenandoah Valley. Twenty or so farm-to-table enthusiasts braved the wet, cold, dreary day starting off at Cool Breeze Farm in Mount Sidney (http://www.coolbreezefarms.com), then on to Staunton to visit the AMI Urban Farm at the VA School for the Deaf and the Blind, and lastly to Sunrise Farms in Stuart’s Draft (http://sunrisefarm.net). We felt privileged to be on the route and thrilled to have a group of curious visitors and fellow farmers to show around our operation and share stories of our endeavors.

Day 2 started bright and early, and drier than the previous, at Blue Ridge Community College with an opening speaker that was able to pull everyone onto the same page: Dr. Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program spoke on “Does the Food System Really Need Fixing?” Although many of us at AMI have heard a lot on this topic and have debated it among ourselves many times, to me it’s always good to expose everyone to it, as well as get a refresher on some of the facts that contribute to the ways in which our food system is failing and what we can do to improve it. 

The majority of food produced in the US (corn and grains) goes through many levels of processing and marketing before it ever reaches the consumer. This is where a lot of money along the chain is being distributed, not back to the farmer. By creating more local food systems through CSAs, Farmer’s Markets, Food Hubs, Food Cooperatives, and any other form of more direct sale from producer to consumer, we increase the economic wellbeing of those along this chain that are experiencing economic inequality. This also helps to create a healthier culture as the chain shrinks and food becomes less processed. One would also hope that by creating a food system where people consume more locally produced, seasonal, whole foods with minimal processing, that we could begin to heal parts of our curable health crisis (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc). Food is then consumed according to what is grown in a local/regional area and according to season, decreasing the amount of energy in the form of fossil fuels we use to transport food across the world.

I enjoyed hearing Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm in North Carolina present on soil health management. He focused on how diversity, balance, and sustainability are crucial components at his 3-acre farm. He maintains these principles through cover cropping, crop rotation, variation in tilling depth, compost with and without worm castings and running animals through his field.

Our farm manager, Trevor Piersol, spoke on a panel that addressed improving connections and access to local food. AMI alum, Jenna Clarke, presented in a panel on “Forging Connections for Nutrition and Community Health”. We were proud to hear them talk about the important work they are doing in our local food system.

The highlight of my Day 3 was a panel discussion entitled, “Reducing Food Waste, Embracing Ugly Produce”. Representatives from the DC Central Kitchen, Capital Area Food Bank, and Misfit Juicery were there to share their experiences using “seconds” or produce that is not able to be sold in grocery stores or restaurants due to superficial blemishes, damages, size, etc. This produce is perfectly fine to eat, it just isn’t as “pretty” to look at. 

The DC Central Kitchen runs a culinary training program, which has a large population of previously incarcerated folks, and processes this “ugly produce” for local food systems. They also rely on gleaning produce from farmers’ fields that wouldn’t be economically viable for the farmer themselves to harvest and attempt to sell- due to quality or quantity remaining in the field. Capital Area Food Bank has the funds to purchase seconds produce directly from local farmers which it then distributes to the public. Misfit Juicery purchases seconds produce and collects food scrapes that are then turned into juice and sold in 50 stores between DC and New York. 

No one at the VA Farm to Table Conference went hungry! The whole event was catered by A Bowl of Good (Harrisonburg, VA) and Homestead Creamery (Wirtz, VA). All the food served was delicious and beautifully displayed.

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