Larry Wright leaned to his right and said, “I just realized that when I was up there introducing the conference, I forgot to tell everyone who I was.”Larry is the Oklahoma area coordinator for the Great Plains Resource Conservation and Development’s (RC&D) and worked tirelessly for five months planning a conference that would help build the rural communities his council serves. After his first Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Conference and Gala more than 250 attendees know exactly what Larry does, and will be telling their friends about him, too. The event was organized to help farmers and landowners learn about the opportunities offered by local and regional markets, and how USDA can help communities develop local and regional food systems. It also brought together staff from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Cooperative Extension, and other agencies to meet and learn about producers and each other.
The sessions for the conference moved from more topical content, like getting started with organic gardening, to more specific topics for those needing something more in-depth, like third-party verification. You could tell by the questions asked that this conference met the aim of serving a range of people, including producers, aggregators, farmer’s market organizers, and school nutrition professionals.
Some of the attendees were like Glynis Coleman. She is a small scale producer originally from Denver, Colorado. As a child, her only exposure to agriculture was through her grandmother’s small garden. In the last few years, family obligations made it necessary for her to find some way to make money working from home. A former nurse armed only with a small acreage and the ability to keep house plants alive, she set out in search of knowledge that would make agriculture a viable option for her. Her first stop was a conference held by the Kerr Center.
At the conference, Coleman and her son placed generously filled pint-sized baskets of black berries and peppers next to Melvett Chambers’ tomatoes in a miniature farmer’s market stand set up in the foyer. After Chambers told her the price of small and large fruits, Coleman suggested the entire crop seemed to be abundantly sized when she asked with disbelief, “Which are the small?”
It is one of many questions she has asked Chambers over her four years in the business. Chris Kirby, with the Oklahoma Farm to School Program, matched them up in a sort of unofficial mentorship. Coleman was not at the conference only to sell produce. She also attended the plasticulture session, an agricultural system she already uses, and learned more about expanding her operation through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative.
Coleman says that there have been a few set-backs for her business, but she has been successful enough that her sister has left a career in the construction industry to add chickens and possibly goats to the operation. For beginning farmers, Coleman says conferences like this are a good place to begin gathering information. She offers this advice, “Make sure you want to do this, it is hard work. Be willing to make mistakes. Diversify your crops. You become reliant on the weather and God so you have to have some faith.”
The conference exceeded everyone’s expectations. Larry Wright was asked by many of the excited attendees if there will be another conference next year. “There will be a conference for as long as it is needed.”
(You can learn more about the Great Plains RC&D council and keep an eye out for next year’s conference and other events online at: http://www.greatplainsrcd.org)