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Tilth Producers Annual Conference: The art of storytelling and its place in science

Posted by Zack Frederick | April 6, 2017

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

The Tilth Producers annual conference represents a mix of growers, industry stakeholders, educators, and students, each with their own perspective on a variety of sustainable and organic farming practices. As is the case in any heterogeneous audience, the challenge for a presenter is to find a way to engage individuals with different learning styles and interests and spur thoughtful discussion, while relaying the nitty gritty detail in the data. This is not easy.

One of the more inventive approaches to presentation that I attended was a workshop on hedgerow agroecology by Eric Lee Mäder from the Xerces Society. A typical approach for many workshops is to have a solid claim or goal, copious amounts of supporting data or observations, and an argument that assembles data or observations into a story to support the claim. Eric did not start with the claim; he changed the formula. Eric started by telling the story of the history of hedgerows; he moved on to their modern benefits; he then continued with how to construct different types of hedgerows; and finally ended with which types of plants are good candidates as hedgerow species. In other words, historic storytelling rather than a claim or goal set the stage for the workshop and served as the hook to engage the audience.

Eric started with a story of how farmers outside the US have traditionally laid living hedgerows as a means of sectioning off land in a manner that is a barricade to herbivores. How thick are these hedgerows? Allied tanks in the Second World War couldn’t drive through some of these hedges on their own, and required a modification to cut through.

The audience seemed to be wondering, at this point, what these hedges had to do with modern organic agriculture after all this history. Eric proceeded to show the audience how hedgerow construction with native plants helped tree fruit and nut farms on the west coast with crop pollination and pest management. By carefully selecting native plants that would either be in bloom or provide shelter, the hedge attracted insects from outside the farm to work their way inward. These hedges also protected from sand and dust and subsequently had fewer problems with spider mites.

This is usually where the final case for the whole workshop would be presented. While Eric did present his case for integrating hedgerows on diversified farms, he also moved quickly to how the traditional tank-stopping hedges in Normandy were constructed. This was followed by pages on native plants cross-referenced by what pollinators they attract and what types of hedges they can be used in.

Normally cramming this much data and instruction into the end a presentation can lose a crowd fast. What I observed instead was a crowd that was sold on the storytelling and was much more invested in the content of this data. Eric’s attempts to move quickly through the pages on native pollinator plants at the end was stymied by an inundation of questions, comments, and critiques on the combination of plants in certain types of hedges.

I have learned to gauge the quality of a presentation based on the number and types of questions the audience asks of each other and the presenter. Despite the novel approach, this hedgerow agroecology presentation succeeded in sparking conversation and numerous questions – a success!

This same storytelling approach was applied in other presentations at the Tilth Producers annual conference, such as a workshop on sustainable rabbit production. There are still many ways to engage an audience, but these presentations had the audience invested and interested. This investment is key to establishing the connections between and among attendees and presenters. Once the connections are formed and the conversation is sparked, new ideas can be created.

2 thoughts on "Tilth Producers Annual Conference: The art of storytelling and its place in science"

  1. Bertie Weddell says:

    Zack, I like this post a lot. Do you think that your point about the value of storytelling can be expanded to include stories from other cultures that may not specifically deal with agriculture but that embody ecological insights? You might be interested in a blog I wrote for CSANR on Traditional Agroecological Knowledge: Where Does Cultural Wisdom Lie? It is posted here: The ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan has written about this. Also Nancy Turner’s Chapter “Passing on the News” in the book Women and Plants: Gender Relations in Biodiversity Management is relevant. Thanks for your contribution to this important topic.

  2. Cepishmohnoril says:

    The annual conference provides a great venue to recognize people who have “gone the extra mile” to promote the organization and its mission. This year, instead of the usual two recognitions, a third was presented. Every year, it is more and more obvious that there are a lot of smart, energetic, and dedicated young people who want to farm. The audience at the Tilth Conference seemed to be leaning toward the under 40 set – especially important since the average age of a Washington farmer is closing in on 60.

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