Tuesday, March 7, 2017

2017 Indiana Small Farm Conference

Last week I was given the opportunity through grant funding to attend the 2017 Indiana Small Farm Conference hosted by Purdue Extension in our home town of Danville Indiana.  For a small fee a child can attend, so I brought along my eldest son, Asher, who aspires to be a full time farmer one day.  We were inundated with information, some of which was practically applicable to our current farming operation and some of which provoked more questions than answers.

            First I would like to share some of the practical information we obtained.  We spent Thursday learning how to craft vision and mission statements for the business, and how to prepare financial statements.  Some of this instruction was similar to what I learned at the American Dairy Goat Association (ADGA) National Convention in October, and it was helpful to revisit it.  We are about 50% of the way to where we need to be to accurately quantify which enterprises on our farm are making us money and which are costing us.  This break down by enterprises could be the difference between breaking even and making money.  One of the drawbacks of part time farming is that the urgency of perfecting these records is not there.  It is also difficult with the number of different enterprises we have.  It is not our intention to operate as a hobby, and it is an immediate goal of mine to improve my record keeping and accounting.

            I also learned a great deal at the conference about legally operating a small poultry operation.  Currently we raise poultry for our own consumption and sell eggs to offset the expense.  However, we were in need of the information on safe egg handling that we acquired from Dr. Darrin Karcher, Purdue University Animal Science.  We have been making a few mistakes and have already implemented new procedures to ensure the safety and quality of our product.  I am planning a future blog post about this topic as there is a lot of misguided information presented online.  We also learned about poultry disease prevention and how we can legally slaughter, package and sell chicken from the farm if we should desire to do so at a future date.

            I really enjoyed a talk by Adam Moody of Moody Meats, as well as a highly detailed talk about butchering by Blaine Brown, supervisor of Purdue’s Boilermaker Butcher Block.  I found it fascinating that stress to the animal has a direct, quantifiable impact on the quality of the meat.  It makes an excellent case for kosher kill in my mind, although I question that kosher kill in the slaughter house is as humane as kosher kill on the farm.  Unfortunately while dispatching on the farm is best for the animals, it is not necessarily the best for safe meat handling.  Personally I’m biased toward on farm dispatch, and as a Jew, I feel the spirit of our kosher laws is to eliminate stress for the animal.

            There was quite a bit of information about vegetable production, and I picked up some tips and tricks that I think will help us in our gardening.  My husband Kevin and I find gardening to be too time consuming to be the focus of our farming enterprise, but we do attempt to grow some vegetables for personal consumption each year.  The older kids are expressing interest in gardening, and we are planning to let them try tending their own patches this year.  It definitely sounded from the conference that vegetables can be a cash crop if you have the time and desire to devote to it.

            Finally I learned how I can possibly obtain grant money to improve my farm through North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grant Programs.  I have some research ideas, and I need to do some further investigation to find out if the ideas are unique enough to warrant applying for a grant.

            To this point I have described the practical information I obtained at the conference, now I would like to discuss that which left me with questions.  My husband, Kevin, is a full time Mechanical Engineer, and that income is our living.  I am a full time home school teacher.  Naturally our farm operation is small and part time.  I focus on my livestock – 90% of the effort on my dairy goats, and my soap and candle making enterprise.  Kevin is focused on beekeeping, farm maintenance and coordinating our hay making.  Our original farm is eight acres, and we have recently acquired fifteen more acres which are planted in hay and bee pasture.  (As an aside, we have four kids and our eldest son is interested in farming as a career.  Many of the topic presented at the conference are complex, and there is definitely much industry specific lingo.  I felt like my ten year old kept up decently well.  He has learned a lot about agriculture already and sometimes informs me on topics with which I am unfamiliar.  The conference speakers were very kind to him, took his questions and gave thoughtful answers.  I don’t think I would bring a younger child to the conference unless they introduce programming for children in the future.)

            Up until now, my husband and I have been at a bit of a loss as to how to facilitate a career in agriculture for our son.  We have stretched our resources to our comfort limit to obtain the small amount of land we have.  Listening to the keynote speakers, Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm and Blaine Hitzfield of Seven Sons Family Farm, Jeff and Zach Hawkins of JL Hawkins Family Farm, Adam Moody of Moody Meats and others, I began to realize that our small farm could be viable income for our son and possibly our other children.  I felt myself wishing the entire three days that my husband had attended with me.  I have many questions about the future of Still Waters Farm LLC.  I find it difficult to project out five or ten years.  I feel the scale of our activities is appropriate today, and I have a vision of where I’d like to be in two years, but where should we be when we have kids 7, 14, 15, and 17?  Or 12, 19, 20, and 22?  Or 17, 24, 25, and 27?!  One thing is for certain, we have a precious asset in our trust, and I feel an obligation to steward this trust for the benefit of future generations.  There are many voices ready to tell us we can’t feed the world off the small farm, and yet the small farmers I encountered at this conference seem to be proving that false.  I have a lot to think about after this conference.  I would highly recommend it to anyone with a small farm.

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