[The following is a guest post by Valerie Stegemoeller, who, with her husband, has a small homestead northwest of Houston. She is a co-leader of the Houston-Galveston Chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation and recently attended the Texas Organic Gardeners and Farmers Association (TOFGA) Conference. This post was originally published at WAPF Houston]
So, this was my first official year at TOFGA. Last year, I wanted to attend the Austin conference but we were in the middle of closing on our house so I only made the trip for a pre-conference workshop on cover crops. It was readily apparent I was the only one in the room that had no idea what cover crops were and what they did and how to irrigate a garden and so on and so forth. I didn’t know what t-tape was (and my notes said “tea tape?”). About the only thing I understood was compost tea. My husband has been obsessed with it since we went to the Funky Coop Chicken Tour in Austin a few years back and one of the sites on the tour had a Last Organic Outpost-esque variety garden, but with chickens instead of aquaponics.
This year I feel like I have officially graduated from dreamer to novice farmer. I also went from customer to colleague (somewhat), which was just as exciting.
This year’s conference had a good mix of veteran local farmers, homesteaders, small farmers market and CSA farmers, and interested newcomers with some land or just a backyard and a heart full of dreams. I stayed mostly on the livestock track as that was most pertinent to my present situation. (Note there was also urban gardening, community food, business & marketing and fruit/veggie production.) I learned about how difficult it is to meet permit regulations for a goat milk dairy and listened in awe to a gentleman who raises cattle in Texas on grass year-round – attributed to natural cultivation of native grass. Yes, grass, not HAY. The sheep farmer was particularly amusing, because he was my age and having some experience with sheep I could relate to the problems he had and the stories he shared. I even compared his makeshift feed and waterers and mobile shelters to ones my husband constructed.
My husband stood in for me for the compost and pastured pork sessions; his report back: we need compost and we need pigs, haha. I love that he has as much enthusiasm as I do when it comes to this farming stuff. Finally, I ended the conference with a session on garden harvesting where I learned about the importance of washing your hands and not washing your produce or eggs. Also, I have much more appreciation for farmers markets vendors given the ever changing demands of regulators on how to store produce and the requirements for liability insurance. When you think about a small producer at your local market, and the margins on produce, have you thought about the annual costs of insurance, market fees, permits, storage and handling items, soil amendments, gasoline and LABOR it takes to make that happen?? It’s eye-opening.
In addition to catching up with old friends I hadn’t seen since moving to the farm, I met so many people, including a Weston A Price member who makes a living working on various farms in Austin; a gentleman that swapped stories and reminisced with me about old time family hog butchering in the winter and making homemade sausage; a smart young woman who sources local food for farm to table restaurants who explained to me some of the unexpected challenges, many political, surrounding her line of work. Everywhere you turn there is an interesting story, a friendly piece of advice, an opportunity to learn something new and a connection waiting to be made. The booths showcased feed, seed, compost and technology companies, certification services, helpful books, and organizations like FARFA, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance – and so many more.
Overall, three things really hit home for me at the conference. One, true pastured animal farmers are GRASS farmers and SOIL biologists. Their business is optimizing the grass feed on their land (and the soil health that supports it) so the animals have optimal nutrition and cost little in pest/waste control, mineral supplements, and even weather protection. (Good soil keeps the ground warmer in winter and cooler in summer.) Naturally, I hurried out to purchase a book on biodynamic pasture management.
Second, this kind of farming takes true innovation. I am so thankful my husband enjoys that part of the farm. My lack of experience with basic construction puts me at a huge disadvantage in innovating cheap ways to shelter, feed, fence and water these creatures. This efficiency born through creativity inspired me to pick up another book – this time, permaculture design.
The final takeaway is something one of the speakers said – don’t forget to pay yourself a decent wage. The speaker likened working for a low wage as similar to WalMart and McDonalds not paying their workers enough to live on. Now, from a business perspective, a lot of people starting businesses do so knowing they won’t get cash positive for a couple years, often sacrificing salary for future earnings potential. However, we can’t forget that at the end of the day this is a business (if you are looking to live off your farm), and that means you can’t discount your salary, your labor. I have customers that I know sacrifice to pay for quality, local food, and it is difficult sometimes to think about how much more expensive my food is versus the grocery store, but if I want to be able to continue growing good food and for it to be available, I have to provide for myself as well. It is something I didn’t expect when I got into this business.
All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I will certainly be looking forward to next year’s conference in San Antonio. I would highly recommend the conference to everyone interested in urban farming, whether that be someone looking to start a tiny kitchen garden to feed their family with maybe some backyard hens, a local foods advocate with an interest in understanding more about food production, a new farmer who could use some pointers or an established farmer who might be looking for a new market for their goods. Houston’s local foodscape is growing rapidly, but at the same time is also undergoing some major changes which have brought new challenges to the everyday grower.
For more information about TOFGA, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit their site http://www.tofga.org/