Sunday, January 31, 2010

Notes on the SSAWG Conference

I love the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference! I did not expect to be able to go this year because, frankly I'm broke. I got an email from my friend Judith Winfrey, the hardest working person in Atlanta local food, a month before the conference asking me if I wanted to be a facilitator at the conference in return for free attendance. Of course I said yes. As facilitator I got to pick the sessions I most wanted to attend and then my job was to introduce the speaker, hand out evaluations, count attendees, manage the lights, etc. How awesome is that?

SSAWG is about 2 things; educating farmers and building local food systems. They do a great job at both. The best farmers and food systems builders in the Southeast come to the conference as both speakers and attendees. Everyone is eager to share knowledge and information. In the sessions you learn from both the speakers and the audience. At lunch you learn from the people sitting with you. At the bar in the evening you learn from your drinking buddies. Non-stop learning.

Here is a synopsis of the sessions I attended and/or facilitated:
Cliff Slade: Drip Irrigation 101- He was an extension agent for many years in Virginia. He grows for market on a few acres using drip irrigation under plastic. I am not a fan of the plasticulture but it works for some people. He showed us how to easily set up a low-cost simple drip irrigation that maximizes water use. He also had great insight into strategies for making money in market gardening without working too hard. This guy made drip irrigation interesting and entertaining. What more needs to be said?

Richard McDonald: Stump Dr. Mcbug: I heard Richard speak about farmscaping at the first SSAWG conference I attended 6 years ago in New Orleans. I was blown away by the concept of planting beds of flowering pants for the specific purpose of attracting beneficial insects. When I introduced myself before the session he said he remembered meeting me back then. I must have asked a lot of question. I told him how the first thing I did when we started the Funny Farm was to plant our bugscaping beds. He loved it and told the audience how that was a good strategy to get the good bugs working before you plan you crops. The intent in this session was for attendees to bring bugs, diseased leaves, etc. for Richard to identify and suggest ways to control them if they were pests. That did not happen but it did not matter. He set up his computer and started talking about his specialty which is attracting beneficial insects to the farm. People would ask questions about specific pests and he would search on the internet or go to his crazy web site, and find out the information. This approach was great because it demonstrated his thinking process for finding solutions to pest problems. One of the attendees was Alison Weidiger. SSAWG made an instructional video about growing in high tunnels a few years ago on her farm. She shared their strategy for controlling striped cucumber beetles. They use pheromone lures (think Axe Body Spray for bugs) and yellow sticky traps to catch the buggers. We learned that there is a pheromone for attracting squash vine borer. She buys them from Johnnys Seeds. We learned that there are nematodes that attack flea beetles and squash vine borer larvae. Richard pulled up the web sites that are sources for purchasing them. This was a great interactive session in which everyone participated. I took home several techniques that I will be implementing on the Funny Farm this season.

Linda Chapman- Growing and Marketing Cut Flowers- Linda has developed some great strategies that streamline the process of growing and selling flower bouquets. She breaks down by variety her flowers for specific uses in a bouquet. She uses dramatic center flowers, secondary flowers, filler flowers. As she described this you can visualize the construction of a bouquet in her hand. She has developed color schemes to create specific moods or to reflect the seasons She grows over 100 varieties of flowers for specific uses in her bouquets. She says with her techniques she commands the highest price at the markets she attends.
Rose Koenig- Weed Control and Soil Fertility Management - The first thing Rose said in the weed control session was if you are here to find out what pieces of equipment to buy you are in the wrong session. She taught us how to think critically about weed management in an organic system. She said you must learn the life cycle of your weeds; how they reproduce themselves, when they show up, what type of soil they grow in. By doing so you can devise strategies for controlling them; when to intervene, how to intervene. Her other session about soil fertility was not very focused unfortunately so I did not get much from it. Again, however she taught a strategy for critically thinking through the processes of soil fertility management so one can develop a plan to meet one's own unique situation.

Gerald Larson- Extension Agent at Fort Valley State University here in Georgia- Gerry was not a presenter but had a booth in the exhibitors hall. He is at all the conferences I go to. He has been doing trials on organic fruit production for over 12 years. He is a quiet, almost shy fellow. I have talked with him 3 or 4 times in the past without really succeeding in making a connection. I always pick up his papers and pamphlets whenever I see him. When we started the Funny Farm I used his techniques and variety recommendations for our budding fruit production. This year I sat with him at lunch both days. I told him what I was growing and asked him lots of questions and finally broke through. The second day after lunch he took me to his booth and gave me some information on strawberry production. He said he wanted to do a workshop on strawberries but the farmer he had set it up with had dropped out so I suggested we do it at the Funny Farm! So this October he is going to come out and start a strawberry trial here.

Pat Richardson- Rainbow Soil. Managing for the Ultimate in Soil Quality- She described herself as an urbanite and biochemist who married and cattle rancher and and became a shit-kicking dung beetle lover. She is a dynamic, enthusiastic, engaging and entertaining speaker. She showed us lots of cool pictures of dung beetles. She has now developed a keen interest in meso-soil fauna the bugs that are a little too small to be seen with the naked eye. She showed a video she made through a dissecting microscope of ants licking mites, tiny spiders and all kinds of interesting and colorful creatures that no one really knows much about yet. I have to get a dissecting microscope now so I can study these creatures too. At the end of the session I walked up to her and told her I had something to show her. I pulled up the sleeve of my shirt and showed her my dung beetle rolling a flaming ball of shit tattoo. She freaked out and said it made her day and would I please email her a photo of it. Of course I said I would. She is a big fan of citizen science. Many of the dung beetle photos were sent to her by a retired guy who became interested in them and started going out into the fields, kicking over piles of coyote shit, photographing the dung beetles he found and sending them to her. He has found 7 species of dung beetles that no one knew existed in the area where he lives because no one has taken the time to look.

In closing I want to give a shout out the the city of Chattanooga Tennessee where the conference was held. They are doing great things to make their city more sustainable and have been for many years. The conference center captures rainwater from its roof that is used to irrigate the plantings in the downtown area. They have a free electric shuttle bus that runs up and down the downtown district. They have curbside recycling twice a week for businesses in the downtown area. I imagine they do other things as well but these were the obvious things I saw during my 2 days there.

Thank you JUDITH WINFREY!!!! You are AWESOME!!!!


Lady Rogue said...

Nice wrapup ... good form to include all the speaker's full names so folks can look 'em up!

Kelly said...

Duane, can you please share some of your bugscaping secrets? I'm especially interesting in how to conquer cabbage worms!! They ate all my broccoli last spring before they even had a chance to flower. Thanks for the great posts!