I don’t know why I don’t like conferences. Maybe I’ve been to too many with poorly-trained presenters, or too many that are barely 60% relevant to what I am doing or want to be doing, or maybe it’s just the tables and the notepads and the boring small-talk.
The Vermont Grass Farmers Association Conference is different, somehow. They really understand how to balance the presenters at a conference, and how to respond to community needs. I was lucky enough to go to both days of the conference last week. It’s a fine opportunity to connect with other farmers facing the same opportunities and challenges as me.
The Friday panel of speakers addressed marketing, with a panel that included four farmers doing direct-marketing of their products in urban environments and one registered dietitian who studies the nutritional benefits of meat. While the four farmers gave great tips for managing sales and customer relations in a fast-changing environment, the dietitian had lots of useful information about how to sell and how not to sell grass-fed meat. I did not know that while the Omega-6/Omega-3 proportions are much better in grassfed animals, both fats still make up a tiny amount of the total fat in red meat and are not really nutritionally relevant relative to, say, Salmon.
While some Vermont farms are really adept at modern marketing strategies, many more have neglected websites, no social media presence, and an expectation that people will come to them for product. Some of us are farmers because we enjoy being out in the woods, not crafting messages for a suburban marketplace. Many of us are farmers because we eschew the harried urban culture that our customers belong to. But we ignore current culture at our peril – we need to make our products as available and ubiquitous as conventionally-farmed meat and processed pseudo-foods are now. Several presenters at the conference had unlocked that market.
The panelists also addressed how to handle displeased customers and how to talk to people who question the value of animal agriculture. While most of my own customers have seemed satisfied with my lamb and wool products, I sometimes encounter a self-appointed animal rights crusader who is appalled that we slaughter and eat sheep. While I don’t mind explaining why I do what I do to anyone who will listen, the presenters pointed out that for some, animal rights has transcended the idea that animals should have good lives and moved on to the idea that animal agriculture shouldn’t exist in any form and furthermore that we need to use synthetic substitutes for all of the animal products in our lives. She then suggested that we should respond to such opinions as we respond to any kind of closed-minded zealot – just block and move on. That was a relief to me.
The afternoon session on the first day of the conference addressed how to write your recipes for how consumers cook now. I have to admit- I cook entirely on cast-iron and enjoy making all-day recipes and eating old-fashioned stuff. Since cooking was all I could easily do for entertainment while my foot was broken, I experimented with all kinds of cooking that people don’t do at home, like puff pastry. I had never actually touched an Instant Pot and didn’t know what they did. Now, I almost want one. Not quite, but almost. And I know that recipes I write need to address the popularity of this implement. I need this occasional reminder to address my marketing to the prevalent cooking practices in society.
Day two of the conference was on Saturday and attracted a broader crowd. I spent my morning at a chat about Beef Cattle Genetics Management. Those of you who know me personally are aware that genetics are my nerdy happy-place. Even though I don’t really have plans for cattle, it was good to understand the genetic challenges faced by our cattle herd and how breed stock producers are encouraging farmers to strive for genes that will finish in a grass-based management system. Many cattle owners are making the same mistakes I did with my original flock- diluting hybrid vigor into unmanageable genetic stew. The result is tall cows and small cows and efficient and inefficient eaters. The presenters gave strategies to avoid this. They also had tips on evaluating feed efficiency. This is the project that I need to complete with the Bluefaced Leicesters- I need to take all of their amazing traits and add grass-feeding thrift without losing the rest.
In the afternoon, I participating in a panel of three presenters talking about opportunities for beginning farmers to access land. One of my co-presenters talked about her experience on a cooperative, group-owned property, and the other spoke about a dairy farming internship. I spoke about my journey raising sheep on rented land before we were able to settle in our current location. While our panel was well-organized and effective, I am not sure that our audience had that many people looking to enter farming. Have we passed through the golden moment of young people entering farming? I hope not.
The final session I went to concerned weighting and RFID animal management techniques. It was a little glimpse into the future of what we will be doing, where we can see if an animal is sick just by being alerted to interruptions in weight gain! Sheep hide illness, so this is a fantastic tool to improve humane practices on the farm.
Going to the conference also allowed me to connect with other farmers. On Friday, I carpooled with Maria Schumann of Cate Hill Orchard. We talked sheep and marketing all the way down, and all the way back up. It feels so good to make a sheep connection.