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Young Farmers Shine at Growing Power Conference

Will Allen, director of Growing Power, giving a tour of his farm.

Recently, I had the chance to attend Growing Power’s National-International Urban & Small Farm Conference in Milwaukee.  It was a great experience, and I’m glad that I had the chance to meet lots of people from around the country interested in urban and sustainable agriculture.

 The workshops I attended were terrific, and many of them were focused on helping young adults learn what we need to know as effective farmers and food justice advocates.  The first one I attended, “Food for Thought and Action,” was hosted by the Food Project, an organization from the Boston area that works with teens and volunteers to grow and sell local produce through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs in eastern Massachusetts.  The participants work in the garden, as well as taking a workshop on food justice.  The Food Project started in 1991, and takes students between the ages of 14 and 18.

At the workshop, we discussed the different steps that it takes food to go from seed to plate, and how there are fewer steps involved in the local food system than the conventional.  One fact that they mentioned was that it takes 18 gallons of gas to feed a family of four per week in an industrial food system.  This translates to 10 calories of gas to get one calorie of food to the plate.

Another workshop I attended was called “Lower Risks for Financial Success.”  In order to develop a plan for making your farm profitable, it is helpful to know details such as what is your household income goal, how many acres of farmland you need, etc.  They also discussed the idea of holistic management, which focuses on lowering expenses, as well as creating a holistic (farm and/or family) goal that represents shard values.

Mural at Growing Power Conference, painted by conference attendees

They mentioned some of the criteria for choosing a farm site, which include size, topography, soil condition, and amount of sunshine, among other things.  It is also important to conduct a market analysis, keep track of income with an income statement, and calculate depreciation.

I also had the chance to attend a workshop about permaculture.  According to the speakers, permaculture involves 1. care for people, 2. care for the earth, and 3. sharing the surplus.  Several of the principles of permaculture include observation, obtaining a yield, self-regulation, using and valuing renewables, and producing no waste, among others.

According to the permaculture speakers, the current world use of liquid fuels is 85 million barrels per day, or 30 billion barrels per year.  The world’s total energy use is 260 million barrel of oil equivalents (BOEs) per day, or 97 billion BOEs per year.  The speakers mentioned that oil is used in practically all aspects of Americans’ daily life, and over one-third of all oil and gas consumed in the United States is used for food production.  Americans are also the world’s biggest energy consumers, since the average American uses twice as much energy as a person from Europe, about 13 times as much as somebody from China, and nearly 34 times as much as a person from Pakistan.  If the whole world lived like the US, then it would consume 12 times as much energy as it does now.

Growing Power conference staff

The speakers presented three different possible future lifestyle paths that the US might choose.  The first is to keep drilling and to continue business as usual.  This path is unsustainable, they said.  The second is to switch to renewable energy but maintain our current lifestyle.  However, even though renewable energy is a better choice in that it doesn’t use fossil fuels, it isn’t able to return the same amount of energy as fossil fuels, and cannot meet the energy demands of the current American lifestyle.  The final choice, and the one recommended by the speakers, is to gradually decrease our demand for energy.  This kind of “powering down” is necessary and inevitable in order to mitigate future effects of climate change, according to the speakers.

 The workshops at the Growing Power Conference gave me the chance to learn many new things about farming and gardening, and I look forward to returning again – it was a great way to meet like-minded people, learn a lot, and become even more inspired!
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