Farming is hard work. Running a successful farm without taking shortcuts that sacrifice the health of the land or integrity of the product is even harder, but it’s the balance our local farmers face on a daily basis.
For new or beginning farmers, or for farmers lacking financial or social support, that balance can be very hard to find. In one effort to provide a guiding hand, the Athens Land Trust is hosting its second annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference in February to equip these farmers with the knowledge they need to thrive.
With thousands of small and community farmers working in and around Clarke County who need assistance, this event is important, says the land trust’s executive director, Heather Benham. “Historically, much of the information about resources for farmers wasn't being widely shared to all types of farmers,” she says. “Knowledge is power, so having the information about resources that support farmers allows them to grow their farming business.”
The two-day conference, held in partnership with the UGA Cooperative Extension and U.S. Department of Agriculture, will cover a range of topics, including sustainable farming skills and techniques—unfortunately, a hoop house doesn’t come pre-assembled—developing business plans and lessons on land conservation and land equity.
The Athens Land Trust is familiar with the dedication it takes to grow sustainably and naturally grown produce, managing the 5-acre Williams Farm and West Broad Market Garden, as well as supplying some food for Clarke County schools year-round.
Benham believes that community farms are integral to the local and state economies, and they also play a role in maintaining stable economic opportunities for people living in rural areas. “Small farms are a way to create employment opportunities and economic development in areas of the state that are often struggling,” she says.
Community farms are also key to land conservation efforts, says Benham, with farmers often acting as stewards of the land, protecting it for future generations. “Decisions on these small farms are made locally in ways that benefit local communities,” she says.
As this column has reported, new and beginning farmers face a number of financial challenges when they’re first getting started, and many look to other local farms for help. Another draw for conference attendees is the opportunity to build a mentor network and develop an ongoing support system.
The bulk of the workshops will be held on Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Oconee County Civic Center, but attendees can opt in to a farm tour on Friday, where they’ll have a chance to see and ask questions about the operations at the land trust’s two farms, UGArden and UGA Organic Farm.
On Saturday, following a panel discussion about the current state of Georgia’s small farm economy, attendees will participate in one of four tracks: conservation and land ownership, composting and farm safety certification, farm business development or sustainable agriculture
The conference offers something for everyone—for the person who is thinking about transitioning into farming or the farmer who needs a leg up. The key takeaways center around the culture of sustainable agriculture and how to leverage the resources around them, says Benham.
“They will learn about the power of sustainable agricultural systems, the economics of local spending, the building of local communities and reversing the rural/urban drift,” she says. “They will also have access to information on all the resources that exist to help small farmers succeed.”
For more information about the conference or to register for the event, visit athenslandtrust.org/recent/sustainable-agriculture-conference.