Organic Growers School’s Spring Conference builds sustainability, community

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Siblings Althea and Matthew Raiford will share lessons learned on their Brunswick, Ga. farm. The Raifords advocate specializing in a well-curated selection of crops and developing value-added products. Photo courtesy of the Organic Growers School

The Organic Growers School’s Spring Conference is hardly a new event: The annual gathering of farmers, gardeners, homesteaders and assorted sustainability seekers turns 24 this month. But the organizers say that those attending this year’s edition, whether they’re newbies or longtime conference regulars, will surely dig up some novel information.

“It’s a lifelong learning process to try to live sustainably and grow organically,” says Executive Director Lee Warren. She sees the conference as a “constant reminder that it takes a village; that we’re learning from each other all the time … how to care for ourselves, each other and the earth.” In other words, even if the same courses were offered every year, Warren feels there’d be fresh wisdom to be gained from both the instructors and the attendees — local folks who are continuously striving to live healthier, more sustainable lives.

On trend, on track

Warren and her team have made some basic changes this year. First off, the weekend will start earlier, with two free events on Thursday, March 9. Beginning farmers will benefit from a full-day training focused on accessing farmland, offered thanks to a first-time partnership with the National Young Farmers Coalition. And that evening, Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association will speak about nutrient-dense foods in light of the fact that, today, it takes more than 26 apples to equal the iron content found in just one back in 1950.

To help keep things fresh, three new course tracks have been added: Pollinators, which will offer classes exploring the roles of bees and other insects in farming and gardening; Earth Skills, with programs delving into everything from fire building to wild nuts; and Community Food, with sessions focused on racial and age diversity in sustainable agriculture — or, as Warren puts it, “how we’re coming together as a food community.”

Of course, there will also be 13 staple tracks covering such broad topics as farming, gardening, livestock, poultry, permaculture and forestry. Each day, participants can choose from more than 70 classes. That, says Warren, means there’s something for everyone, wherever they are in their quest to achieve what she calls “real wealth”: healthy bodies and communities in a healthy, thriving natural world.

Some people, she points out, won’t be drawn to the herb class on cannabis, and not all participants are at a point on their organic path where they’re ready to explore a more sacred and spiritual relationship with soil. “I love the idea of people starting where they are,” says Warren. “If somebody’s on fire about flowers [for pollinators], then let’s get them on fire about flowers. I want to create space for that. I want people getting their hands in the soil and dealing with growing things on whatever level they want to.”

The journey is key

This year’s keynote speakers reflect those kinds of differences and, in fact, they were chosen so they could share their distinctive stories and perspectives. Neither of the two TED-style talks, says Warren, is to be missed.

Gabe Brown may be the most exciting thing we have going on this spring,” she says. “It’s a real special treat that we have him.” The conventional-turned-sustainable farmer from North Dakota rarely visits the South, but with the help of Living Web Farms in Mills River, the conference is bringing him to Western North Carolina. Brown — who founded Brown’s Ranch, his 5,000-acre livestock farm, back in the ’90s — is a pioneer of the soil health movement and an innovator of the “cover crop cocktail” technique. “He’s building soil at a rate that almost nobody is seeing in this country,” notes Warren. “He’s just famous in the farming world.”

In addition to his Saturday keynote talk on holistically regenerating land, Brown will lead a pre-conference workshop on Friday, March 10, titled “Treating the Farm as an Ecosystem” and will teach weekend classes in animal integration and healthy soil.

Unlike Brown, siblings Matthew and Althea Raiford are relative newcomers, having launched Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Ga., within the last decade. The sixth-generation farmers returned to the family’s land after pursuing other careers, and in their Saturday and Sunday, March 11 and 12, address, “Farming as Lifelong Learning: Celebrations and Challenges of Multigenerational Stewardship,” they’ll share their successes and hard-won lessons.

The Raifords will also lead courses for beginning farmers and in the Cooking track. Matthew is executive chef and co-owner of the acclaimed restaurant The Farmer & The Larder in Brunswick, and his co-owner, Jovan Sage, will lead a class titled “Diversity and Community Resilience” in the Community Food track.

Featuring the Raifords and Sage, notes Warren, is a chance “to celebrate and honor folks of color growing food, to move toward greater racial equity and awareness. We want to be a pioneer and leader in this in the food community.”

Cultivating collaboration

But there’s much more to the spring conference than just tracks and classes, stresses Warren. Attendees often report that two of the top things they get from the event are inspiration and networking. That message hasn’t been lost on organizers, who make a point of partnering with various other local nonprofits and incorporating a seed swap, an exhibitor trade show and social opportunities into the weekend.

“Our mission as an organization is to inspire, educate and support people to live, farm and garden organically,” says Warren. “Our hope is to help attendees build ever stronger connections to get where they want to go along their road to self-reliance.”

That kind of community collaboration also goes on behind the scenes. Each year, she says, volunteer track leaders who are experts in their respective fields spend six months meeting with others in the community to develop the classes. The Organic Growers School, says Warren, serves as the schedule administrator: The region’s gardeners and farmers are the true drivers of the weekend.

And together, she explains, “We’re trying to create an opportunity to say, ‘Look at us: This is our community; this is the juice here.’”


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