A grassroots education

Every year, I’ve attended at least one workshop that has absolutely blown my mind.

I don’t have a favorite gardening book — I have about 20 of them. One is Gardening for Profit, written in 1886. The author, Peter Henderson, grew veggies year-round on his intensively planted farm in Jersey City Heights for his customers in New York City. An unusual chapter titled “The Use of the Feet in Sowing and Planting” minutely details the ways a be held on uring sowing and planting to make the process more efficient and the results more dependable.

This chapter actually began its life as a paper that Henderson presented at the annual conference of the National Association of Nurserymen in Cleveland in the early 1880s. At once esoteric, practical and statistically compelling, Henderson’s lengthy discussion testifies to how obsessive he must’ve been in his observations, experimentation and thinking to come up with so much to say about his subject.

But the true beauty of that chapter is that it enabled a bunch of nurserymen to sit down for about 45 minutes and get the benefit of years of learning on a specific subject, distilled to its very essence. That’s what a gardening conference is all about — a chance for folks to improve their own skills by listening to speakers sufficiently obsessed with a particular activity to learn it inside out.

Here in the mountains, a similar opportunity comes around each March: the Organic Growers School, a one-day conference sponsored by the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, Blue Ridge Community College and the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. But it’s not just for gardeners or farmers or professional organic growers. And though the overarching goal is helping folks become better home gardeners, there are also whole tracks dedicated to exploring such diverse subjects as livestock, cooking and home landscaping, to name just a few.

Year by year, this annual production (now in its ninth edition) has broadened its appeal; you can see it in the extremely heterogeneous group of people who attend. Event coordinator Elly Wells was working the registration table last year when she looked up to see two attendees standing side by side, waiting to register. “One was a big-bearded farmer sort of guy wearing bib overalls. The other was an older, gray-haired lady carrying a patent-leather purse and wearing pumps. They couldn’t have been two more different people in appearance,” Wells told me, “but they were both there because the Organic Growers School has something for everyone.”

The first Growers School I attended was the second year, when only four classes were offered — two each for farmers and gardeners. Each year, however, more tracks have been added, often in response to attendees’ specific requests. This year there are nine tracks all told, each comprising four classes. And as usual, the volunteer committee that plans the conference has come up with some really tantalizing subjects.

One that really caught my eye is the specialty-mushrooms workshop. The idea of growing edible ‘shrooms amongst my veggies and in my compost seemed too good to be true. So I called co-presenter Pete Whelihan, and when he told me about a Hungarian strategy in which gourmet mushrooms are grown with potatoes, my heart soared like a turkey buzzard. But that’s another story (and best left to Pete and his co-presenter, Carol).

The first time I met Tom Elmore (a local organic-tomato grower) and Dr. Jeanine Davis (a researcher at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Center), they were working the registration table at the Growers School. That was seven years ago, and these two dedicated volunteers are still part of the committee that puts the conference together each year. I’m always especially impressed by the way these folks consistently offer workshops of cutting-edge interest to local folks.

This year’s livestock track is a case in point. Over the past year, no less than four different people with an interest in using goats for dairy, pack animals or meat have quizzed me on the subject, thinking I might know something about it. Before that, I don’t think anyone had ever asked me about raising goats, and truth be told, I know absolutely nothing about it. Clearly, however, the planning committee’s members have their fingers on the pulse of the community — this year’s offerings include two workshops on different aspects of goat management for hobbyists. Needless to say, I wasted no time in calling up those four people and telling them about the Growers School.

Every presenter, it seems, has a tale to tell. Like Pete Whelihan’s passion for edible fungi, Carolyn Tolley‘s adventures growing roses started innocently enough. “In 1980,” she explained, “we bought a house on a large piece of property. I had the idea that I would turn the entire property into an English cottage garden.” Daunted by the scale of the project, however, Carolyn started setting up raised beds across the property and planting flowers instead. After buying her husband three roses for Father’s Day 20 years ago, she was off and running. Carolyn grew hybrid roses exclusively for about 10 years. Then she started branching out into the hardier, more insect- and disease-resistant English shrub roses, which also have the fragrance that’s been bred out of the others. She’s been active in the Blue Ridge Rose Society for a number of years and has apparently figured out how to grow roses without relying on chemicals — a rare feat, I gather.

Kevin Ward was pursuing a degree in studio art at UNC-Chapel Hill when he became fascinated with sustainable agriculture. After taking some courses and interning at Harvey Harmon’s Sustenance Farm in the Piedmont (where he got a firsthand look at a viable, sustainable, intensively organic commercial operation), Kevin went on to found Southeast Ecological Design — a collaborative effort that pools the talents of designers, landscapers and builders to create a holistic, sensible approach to land use, building and development. Recently, Kevin and local permaculture guru Chuck Marsh have been teaching a course in sustainable forestry at A-B Tech.

I’ve never attended a Grower’s School class from which I didn’t come away with a clear understanding of the basics. That’s because the presenters are sharing things they’re passionate about, and even someone who’s never led a workshop before will generally do a great job when they’re talking about a subject that truly stirs their soul.

“That grassroots nature of the Organic Growers School,” says Wells, “is what really has … made it special.” Although some of the workshops will be led by Cooperative Extension Agents, many of the presenters are ordinary folks who have a solid understanding of their particular subject. Besides the two tracks (eight workshops) on gardening, the other tracks are cooking, lawn care and landscaping, special interest, herbs, livestock, organic-certification issues, and commercial fruit-and-veggie production.

Every year, I’ve attended at least one workshop that has absolutely blown my mind. Some folks are just naturally dynamic speakers, and several who have revved my motor in the past are on the schedule again this year. Richard McDonald is effervescence incarnate when discussing beneficial insects. Patryk Battle, drawing on years of applied learning in commercial organic gardens, is an enormous reservoir of answers to the question “Why?” Chuck Marsh’s enthusiasm for permaculture methodologies provides high-level inspiration. And an encounter with master storyteller/herbalist/legendary wild man Doug Elliott is always memorable.

Doug will lead a weed walk during the first session after lunch. Readers who’ve spent any time around toddlers and young kids will probably know his name from his popular children’s tapes, which typically get played over and over again. Doug’s tapes combine storytelling, songs and woods lore; similarly, his weed walks use plant identification as a springboard for launching stories. This Saturday’s meander across the Blue Ridge campus will be titled “Weeds for Your Needs.”

So whether you’re a cooking enthusiast, a home gardener or a commercial grower; whether you’re looking to win a blue ribbon for your sizzling salsa, beautify your yard or raise a herd of goats, meander on down to the Organic Grower’s School this Saturday for a sure-fire shot of inspiration and learning and a guaranteed good time.

How to get there…

The ninth annual Organic Growers School happens Saturday, March 16. It’s too late to pre-register, but you can register that morning if you get there before the first class (which starts at 9 a.m.)

To see the outstanding lineup of workshops, check the CFSA Web site (www.main.nc.us/cfsa_mountains/orgs). Blue Ridge Community College is 30 minutes south of Asheville on I-26. Take exit 22, and turn right (toward Flat Rock). Go one-half mile to South Allen and turn right. Go one-half mile to College and turn left. Follow the signs to the Killian Building. Bring your lunch.

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