This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference. We have been posting reflections written by the students over the last few months. This is the last post in the series. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.
The Tilth Producers of Washington annual conference provides the unique opportunity for farmers, industry representatives, scientists, and educators to gather for a weekend of inspiring conversations and idea sharing, and I was looking forward to attending the Tilth conference this year for a second time since starting graduate school at WSU in 2012. This year’s conference was a very different experience for me compared to my first one two years ago, and I think that was largely due to the different perspective and experiences I’ve gained through my graduate program at WSU – an interdisciplinary National Science Foundation – Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (NSF-IGERT) program focused on training scientists to be able to work at the interface of science and policy, effectively communicating science to bridge the gaps between scientists, stakeholders, and policy makers.
Although the theme set by Tilth Producers to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the conference was “Re-Imagine Agriculture”, another theme that I noticed recurring through many of the presentations and in conversations at meals and social events was related to young farmers and the next generation of farmers. This theme was echoed in the fact that it had been named the #1 priority on the policy agenda for the Tilth Producers of Washington this year (Beginning Farmers & Ranchers State-Level policy). This also happened to be the main topic of one of the sessions I attended and one that I have been thinking about quite a bit since that weekend. The session was a two-part presentation titled “The Next Generation of Farmer and Eaters: Changing the Food System Through Education.”
I enjoyed this session for multiple reasons: both the subject matter and the format for much of the presentation made me think critically about what was being discussed. First, Stuart O’Neill talked about the Rogue Farm Corps program, which brought up the issue of farm internships for young, aspiring farmers. I had not previously realized the legal barriers to a legitimate “internship” for an aspiring farmer; living and working on-farm is an invaluable experience for an aspiring farmer and should not be so difficult – for both the aspiring farmer and the experienced farmer mentors. Where better to gain the experience needed in order to take over/start a successful organic farm than on an existing farm? The discussion around this issue reminded me of an experience I had at a previous conference talking with an extension agent about policies that can be implemented to help farmers use sustainable practices. He said that one of the best things we can do is actually remove barriers for farmers. In other words, farmers are intelligent and innovative people that strive to be stewards of the land, but sometimes the regulations and policies in place make it financially or even legally restrictive to implement some of these sustainable alternatives and stewardship ideas. By removing such obstacles – breaking out of the “one size fits all”-type regulations, maybe our agriculture and food systems could experience the type of change necessary for long-term sustainability.
The next half of the session also brought up many thought-provoking topics. Elizabeth Wheat (University of Washington lecturer and Whidbey Island farmer) took the stage and brought our attention to the connection between agriculture and education at urban schools (in this case urban universities). Dr. Wheat had us start with small group discussions, and with introductions had us explain how we are connected to agriculture, or why we attend the Tilth conference. As often happens for me in these type of situations, I started to feel a bit out of place in that I am a “student of agriculture” without any background in farming or plans to enter into farming as a career. I know, however, that if I want my work to benefit farmers (which I do), one of the best things I can do is interact as much as possible with farmers and gain as much experience with farming and agriculture as I can. Beth’s portion of the session, however, got us thinking about how our food system and agriculture (as they are so closely tied) can be (need to be?) changed through training the next generation of eaters along with the next generation of farmers. We can encourage the cultural shifts necessary for such revolution by changing the way people relate to their food and the way people relate to farming. Therefore agricultural education should not be limited only to land grant universities or agriculturally centered programs. Everyone is going to eat, and by influencing the way students relate to their food and decide what to eat will have a large impact on the way our food systems and agriculture are designed.
One of the most memorable and poignant points raised at the conference highlighted how we relate to farmers themselves. One of the audience members pointed out the perception that many young adults (or most of society, for that matter) have, that the life choice to be a farmer has a negative connotation. That is, one should go to a university and get a degree so one can be “more” than a farmer. This is so contrary to the level on which we should be regarding farmers and all they do. This is just one of the many concepts that Dr. Wheat’s program and ideas are challenging; if we can encourage more students to experience what it is like to grow food and relate to good food in a better way, as a society we might value more the wonderful products that are produced by hardworking, local, organic producers.