A few weeks ago, I attended a local one day conference called Farmer2Farmer, with workshops all day presented by local farmers and lunch provided by the Island Chefs Collaborative from local ingredients. For $30, how could I not go? The most valuable outcome of the day for me was the connections I made and learning about resources on the Island that might be helpful: a slaughterer who is very small scale but does about 10 sheep a week and can do the same number of pigs (and is within an hours drive of here), a butcher who specializes in charcuterie for the high end market and cannot get his hands on enough pasture raised, heritage breed meat. Or the guy who is the current president of the national Small Scale Food Processors organization, which guides and supports small producers through all the licensing and legal requirements to sell their products anywhere other than farm market.
To open the whole day, we had the Lieutenant-Governor (provincial representative of the Queen, for my American friends), her Honour Judith Guichon, who was just back from an agricultural trade show in Paris, and pleaded jet lag as her excuse for what might be a slightly disjointed speech. It was, but charmingly so. With a background as a rancher from BC’s cattle country in the Interior, she was probably supposed to say something pithy about the benefits of farmers getting together to support each other, and the importance of regional food security, but she got a little sidetracked talking about the varieties of cattle she saw in Paris that she’d never heard of in a lifetime of ranching, and from there got into the benefits of holistic management and her admiration for Allan Savory – and as a result, she was a highlight for many of us.
The keynote speaker, Brent Warner, was brilliant – 40 minutes of a fast paced and entertaining slide show and spiel in which he addressed the importance of food safety in relation to small producers. With a background in government, his perspective on regulation was different from most of us in the room, but he was compelling nonetheless. It may seem obvious that if we sell meat (if it’s even legal where we live) at a farmers market, it should be kept cold/frozen, wrapped hygienically, labelled etc. Yet he had several pictures from farm markets around the continent showing people displaying meat without any effort to keep it chilled, some of it not wrapped. And people buying it like that. Apparently this stuff is not obvious to everyone. His point was that there is a place for some regulation, a need for food education both for producer and consumer, and a responsibility on the producers part to make sure we are selling produce to a very high standard of cleanliness and safety. He also addressed professionalism both in appearance and business practice for small producers, who (and I feel some guilt here) have a tendency to hope that our customers will accept the authentic rusticity of our farms (read thistles, piles of stuff everywhere, barn doors hanging from a single hinge, etc), as proof that we are so busy producing this amazing good-for-you produce that you’re paying a premium for, that we don’t have time to keep our place of business in good repair and presentable. His point was that if we can’t keep on top of maintenance and general tidiness (he wasn’t talking white board fences and golf course grass), then we probably aren’t as businesslike behind the scenes either – record keeping, budgeting, planning, regulation adherence, etc. He had slide after slide of farm stand signs that really ran the gamut of professional to crude – from something done in a sign shop to the sign clearly felt penned by a child. He showed farm stands at markets that covered the same range – the folding card table with a few bunches of carrots and wilting lettuces, to the table draped in gingham, laden with crates of nicely bunched, crisp looking produce, each clearly marked with price. The people manning the stands? There was the guy clearly just in from digging the carrots – covered in dirt, including his hands, cigarette in one hand, Styrofoam coffee cup in the other, taciturn and unsmiling. There was the dude with dreads, funky farming slogan on his T-shirt, grinning as he chatted to a customer, showing her different bunches of greens – with clean hands. The difference in energy and customer attraction was obvious, even from just a picture.
A highlight for me was the talk on Charcuterie and specialty meat markets, as the main speaker was Tom Henry. If you’re in farming in Canada, you probably know his name – he’s the editor of the magazine Small Farm Canada, and his editorials are worth the price of the issue all by themselves – I don’t always agree with him, but he can be hilarious and always thought provoking. He owns Stillmeadow Farm, about an hour away from here, primarily pigs and sheep, but also, as I learned during his talk – grain. And the grain is for the pigs (mostly). He’s raising about 200 market hogs a year, all slaughtered and butchered locally, from his own breeding stock. He spoke about the learning curve of feeding pigs on commercial feed, saying that doing so pretty much guarantees that you will spend more on feeding your pig than you will earn back selling it as meat. He punctured the balloon of optimism that most beginners (like me) have that we can get bakery and produce waste easily to offset the cost of feed: the truth is, most of the grocery stores are now leery of doing this, in case something litigious comes back at them – a produce knife might get dropped in the box of wilted cabbage or something, and either injure the farmer or the pig. He has tried getting scraps from the kitchens of some of the institutions around, notably a swanky local private school – and it’s the same issue, with the added concern on the institution’s part about the optics of swanky private school food being fed to pigs. So Tom started growing grain, to see if he could economize that way. He is in a long term cooperative farming arrangement with Parry Bay Farm down the road from his own farm, and with both properties, as well as what he leases, he figures he has about 35 acres in grain on an annual crop rotation with pasture and hay, which does indeed supply enough for his pigs. He owns a combine, albeit a somewhat old, cranky machine, which gives him more flexibility on harvesting, and also allows him another farm revenue by contracting combine services for other small grain growers in the area. As an added bonus, he is also able to sell some grain to a couple of local artisanal bakeries. He has a good relationship with The Whole Beast, a local butcher shop; Cory Pelan of that business also spoke to us about market preferences and a little about the inspection requirements for small scale locally produced meat.
All in all a great day. As those who follow my blog will know, the learning part is fun for me, it’s the doing part that’s a little harder, so of course the challenge has been to take the next steps – take what I learned, form some plans and start acting on them. Well, I did order the piglets as a result of that day, which forced me to go buy electric fencing supplies, and we also finally painted a pretty nice road sign to sell eggs – believe it or not, in all the years we’ve sold eggs, we’ve always managed to sell out by just selling to colleagues and friends, but egg production is up, so we had to do something. In our second week of roadside selling, we are averaging 2 dozen daily, which supplements our regular sales just about perfectly, and gives us a toe in the door if we decide to sell surplus of anything else. So, two immediate actions. Be proud of me.