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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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PASA Sustainable Ag Conference Draws Record Attendance, Focus on Access to Land and Supporting New Farmers

February 13, 2012 |

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) hosted its 21st annual Farming for the Future Conference February 1-4 in State College, PA. This year, 2,150 attendees representing 28 states and 5 countries crowded into the Penn State Conference Center to attend workshops, listen to keynote addresses and choose from a host of other activities, including live music, a silent auction, discussion sessions and a cheese tasting social.

PASA’s Executive Director, Brian Snyder, introduced the year’s theme, “Breaking Ground for New Agriculture: Cultivating Versatility and Resilience” at the event’s opening session:

“In this PASA family we all stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before us and with that special opportunity comes the equal responsibility to farm not just for today, but to cultivate the versatility and resilience that will make farming for the future, and even the future itself, a possibility for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”

The event’s record attendance speaks to the diverse and growing interest in sustainable food and agriculture. Beyond the 1500 farms in attendance, the event drew educators, landscape designers and environmental activists. In her keynote address, homesteader and cookbook author Shannon Hayes shared her observations of the changing audiences present at “producer gatherings” over the years:

“If you looked out over the audience in the early days, you would begin to see the standard issue uniform: the seed caps, the flannel shirts, polo shirts, belt buckles, steel toed boots and the like. But then over time, the audience profile began to change. We began to see Amish and Mennonites in our audience, we began to see some cowboys and we had some hippies, some hipsters, all of them were coming together under the banner of the word ‘producers’ seeking to grow nourishing food directly for their communities. Then the audience profile changed again. . . suddenly there were all these mothers in the audience. . . there were all these journalists and foodies and citizen activists and homesteaders and home-schoolers.”

The change is reflected in the list of workshops offered at this year’s conference, from Advanced Seed Saving for Added Farm Profit for the mainstay audience of established farmers, to Pastured Poultry 101 for beginning farmers, to Creating an Urban Food Forest for city-livers and suburban growers. The program also included workshops on current issues in sustainable agriculture including the 2012 Farm Bill and Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling in the region.

“Food is emerging as the only solution to so many of our worst problems,” said Friday’s Keynote Speaker, writer and activist Brian Halweil. “It’s farmers who can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by locking carbon in their soils, it’s farmers who can jumpstart small town economies with new, innovative products, crops and ventures. It’s farmers who will help us improve our health and reduce our healthcare cost. But it’s that other share of the population that can really make this happen.”

Brian Halweil, Senior Researcher at Worldwatch Institute addressing attendees at the 21st Annual PASA Farming for the Future Conference

One way non-farmers are participating in the revitalization of small-scale farming is through land leasing. In a workshop held on Friday afternoon, Laura Siena shared her experience as a landowner leasing a portion of her family’s property to farmers Chris Henwood and TJ Costa. The partnership is the result of PASA’s new land leasing program, which matches landowners with farmers. Henwood and Costa started Turning Roots Farm on their own 4-acre parcel. Last year, the couple was looking to expand in order to serve a growing market.

“We had a greenhouse full of seedlings and we didn’t know where we were going to plant them,” said Henwood. The couple was driving around Chester County, PA to scope potential pieces of land and leaving letters of interest in mailboxes to no avail. Through PASA, they were introduced to Siena, and within eight weeks of the initial introduction, they were carting truckloads of seedlings twenty minutes down the road from their home greenhouse to 5 acres of newly leased land.

According to Marilyn Anthony, Eastern Regional Director for PASA, access to land is the first obstacle for many beginning farmers, and land leasing can provide a viable option for starting or growing a farm. “When you’re trying to start a business,” she said, “you need resources to get started without a mountain of debt.”

Though both parties are pleased with the match, Siena, Henwood and Costa all recommended to the packed room at the conference that landowners and potential leasers take their time during the “courting” process. Henwood and Costa advised farmers to develop detailed business plans and to “paint a realistic picture for landowners” of how the land will be used and managed. Though having legal documents is an important basis for whatever agreement the parties reach, maintaining open communication has been the sustaining factor in this relationship between leaser and farmers.

Like so much in the movement, land leasing programs like PASA’s are new and growing models. Snyder called on young farmers in the audience at the conference’s opening address to help steer the future of PASA and sustainable agriculture.

“To those of you in the audience who are just beginning to farm,” he said, “there will be many hardships involved in running your farms. The really hard part will come when it’s your turn to make the tough decisions that will take this community into places we’ve never been before and help us break down the barriers to a more sustainable future that are being erected everyday by the defenders of industry and the status quo.”

PASA, said Snyder, is in place to offer support to these farmers, and events like the conference will continue to provide farmers and eaters the opportunity to cultivate networks, knowledge and the versatility and resilience to grow.

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