Organic Growers School Spring Conference moves to Mars Hill University

GROWING EVENT: Saplings wait to be shared, bartered or traded at last year's Organic Growers School Spring Conference Southeastern Seed and Plant Exchange. This year, the conference will take place at Mars Hill University. Photo by Donnie Rex, courtesy of OGS

Now in its 26th year, the Organic Growers School Spring Conference is set to welcome over 2,000 participants the weekend of March 8-10 to its new venue — the campus of Mars Hill University. The conference offers region-specific workshops on farming, gardening, permaculture, urban growing and rural living, and includes a trade show, a seed exchange, kids program, special guest speakers and a Saturday evening social.

“If you’re going to farm this land for decades, you need to learn how to hear what it is telling you,” says Lee Warren, executive director of OGS, an Asheville-based nonprofit that offers education on organic growing practices. This year’s conference attendees can expect workshops on year-round gardening, site assessment for potential farmland and homesteads, and how to grow food on even the smallest land holdings. Many of the classes, she says, provide a “deep dive into how to start thinking about land” taught from a variety of perspectives.

Over three days, the event will offer more than 150 classes, including a full day of pre-conference workshops on Friday, March 8, hosted at multiple sites around Western North Carolina. The main event, which previously took place at UNC Asheville, happens Saturday-Sunday, March 9-10, entirely on the campus of Mars Hill University.

“We’re thrilled to be moving to Mars Hill University for our 26th annual weekend event,” says conference coordinator Kiera Bulan. The new location, which is about 20 minutes north of downtown Asheville, offers free parking, large classrooms, centralized indoor locations for exhibitors and registration, and more food vendor options than previous locations. “In addition,” Bulan says, “the venue is more affordable, which allows us to keep our expenses down and continue to offer extremely low registration fees to participants. It’s a big win for everyone.”

Classes are divided into 17 tracks designed to cater to a range of skill levels and interests, including herbs, earth skills, homesteading, mushrooms, poultry, permaculture and more. Workshops will be led by a diverse group of local and national experts, including authors, farmers, and sustainable food and food justice activists. The list of special guest speakers features internationally known author, permaculture authority and Earthhaven Ecovillage co-creator Peter Bane, Ira Wallace of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and local author and butcher Meredith Leigh.

The conference’s Southeastern Seed and Plant Exchange, a perennial favorite with attendees, offers a community forum for swapping heirloom and staple varieties of flowers, vegetables and herbs. Conferencegoers are invited to bring along their extra seeds to share, barter or trade with fellow seed savers. Those bringing seeds are asked to include stories and notes about the variety they’re sharing as well as basic information such as the scientific name and the date harvested/packaged.

Warren says the appeal of the seed exchange goes perhaps deeper than what meets the eye. Over time, she explains, the vast majority of heirloom seeds have been lost. “Saving seed is a bit of an oral tradition,” she says, noting that many of the heirloom varieties still in existence were carried over from the “old country.” “There are stories in those seeds. Seed exchange is an opportunity to share seeds and stories people still have in their families and communities.”

The conference also accommodates children ages 12 and younger through a collaboration with Asheville Farmstead School. The OGS Kids Program offers crafts, indoor and outdoor play, and science experiments led by trained staff educators from the Farmstead School. Though mostly geared for ages 2 and older, a few spaces for those who are not quite potty trained are also available. The cost for the kids program is $35 per child for one day, $50 for the weekend.

The N.C. Rural Center’s Rural Food Business Assistance Project is offering full scholarships for the conference to residents of Cleveland, Polk, McDowell and Rutherford counties engaged in rural small businesses related to food or farming. Details about these and other scholarship and volunteer opportunities can be found on the Organic Growers School website (see below for details).

WHAT: Organic Growers School’s 26th annual Spring Conference
WHEN: Saturday-Sunday, March 9-10, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with pre-conference workshops on Friday, March 8
WHERE: Mars Hill University; Friday locations vary by workshop
DETAILS: Registration is $129 for the weekend, with add-ons and single-day tickets available. Visit organicgrowersschool.org.

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