Throughout the country each winter, small- to mid- scale diversified farmers travel to their region’s agricultural conferences to learn, share, collaborate and network. Keynote speakers inspire and encourage farmers of all experience levels with their stories and success, special sessions address the latest pest challenges in the industry, and producers mingle with agricultural service providers, seed companies, and conservation organizations. In mid-January in the Mid-Atlantic, the regional conference was hosted by Future Harvest, the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, and brought more than 500 farmers and “ag-tivists” together in College Park, MD.
Unique to the area, the Future Harvest conference draws crowds from Washington DC and Baltimore – where urban agriculture, policy, food access and equity are top of mind – as well as producers from more rural regions of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia. To meet the varied needs of the attendees, this year’s conference, titled A Time to Grow – Regenerative Farming for People and the Planet, offered seven different tracks with sessions ranging from crop production, irrigation, record-keeping, and marketing for the for-profit farmer, as well as programming focused on larger national issues like land and food access, obtaining grants, climate change, and education for the next generation of farmers.
The first day of the conference was dedicated to intensives with particularly in-demand regional experts. Ellen Polishuk, of Plant to Profit, gathered experienced market farmers to address hot topics. Herbalist Ayo Ngozi of The Creative Root reconnected attendees with sacred plant materials while making incense and herbal wands. And down the hall, Stepwell Strategies led a grant-writing workshop, Jared Planz taught record-keeping with Airtable, and the University of Maryland Extension covered all aspects of value-added production in the state.
Keynote Speaker Dr. Gail Myers, who has made it her life’s work to honor past generations of Black farmers in the US while uplifting and supporting today’s sustainable human-scale producers, discussed her vision and work exemplified in her film Rhythms of the Land, shown later that night in a private screening for attendees only.
Tom McDougall and Alice Chalmers of 4P Foods shared news of their USDA funded project to create a replicable and scalable model for implementing a regional transportation network that connects local producers with institutional and consumer markets.
In a short address from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, attendees learned about upcoming initiatives in the Climate Smart Commodities Project, in which Future Harvest is a major partner with USDA.
“I feel joy when I hear that this project brings together 20 farming and agroforestry organizations serving over 20,000 small and mid sized and underserved farmers that are uniquely impacted by climate change. It speaks to everything we are trying to accomplish in terms of the partnerships for climate-smart commodities. The financial benchmark community science piece, the peer-to-peer learning and support that we all know is so important, the expanded implementation of climate smart practices like focusing on soil health, carbon benefits calculation and verification, and really looking for new income stream innovations that are going to result in increased sales on farm and forest land and promote climate smart practices.” – Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture
During locally sourced lunch, select farmers in the region were honored for their excellence in sustainable farming practices, community engagement, and longevity in regenerative agriculture. Rob Young of Young Harvests Farm in Jefferson County, WV was named the Farmer of the Foodshed. Darlene Goehringer and Arthur Wilson of Pop’s Old Place in Hurlock, MD, received the Colchester Legacy Award. And a new Community Award was given to the Quinton Family for their work preserving the agricultural heritage of the San Domingo Community in Wicomico County, MD – a project near and dear to Niamh Shortt, a Future Harvest staff member who passed away in 2022.
Introduced by Future Harvest Board member Thelonius Cook, the closing keynote panel welcomed three farmers to share about their journeys building the spaces they now operate with immense gratitude and vision. Ann Sutton (Farmer Gale) detailed the steps she took and hurdles she faced to make purchasing the land – that is now Deep Roots Farm – a reality. Farmer Chippy (Richard Francis) explained the vision, impact and possibility for Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm (PPHUF), an agrihood in Baltimore, MD. Daniel Firth Griffith told the story of Timshel Wildland, a rewilding project in Central Virginia that nurtures nature’s rhythms while producing grass-fed and heritage meat. To the delight of attendees, each of these speakers led a smaller workshop following the panel where attendees could ask specific questions.
Panelist Daniel Firth Griffith was one of several authors at the conference offering signed copies of his book Wild Like Flowers as well as pre-orders for his upcoming book Dark Cloud Country. Author, local food enthusiast, and TV personality Jonathan Bardzik, who made a generous donation of his cookbook Seasons to Taste for every conference attendee, signed books for participants and swapped stories with farmers during an evening social. Cindy Conner of Homeplace Earth signed copies of her books, Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet before speaking about the transition from home gardener to market farmer.
Recordings of the keynote addresses – as well as sessions from the Soil Health & Regenerative Agriculture Track – will be made available to Future Harvest Members, alongside the virtual keynote address by soil scientist and 2020 World Food Prize Winner Dr. Rattan Lal.