Monday, February 06, 2012

Feast Down East Conference

A few weeks ago, while perusing compost at Progressive Gardens, I came across a flier for a conference called Feast Down East, which was being held in early February right on the UNCW campus. It sounded interesting so when I got home, I did some Googling to find out more. From the website:
The mission of Southeast North Carolina Food Systems Program is to join farmers, agencies, institutions and businesses together to support, coordinate, expand and sustain the production, processing, distribution and consumption of local foods Doing so creates an economically-viable, regional food system that benefits farmers, businesses, food services and consumers in Southeastern North Carolina. 
If that doesn't sound up my alley, then I don't know what does. Plus, registration was free (!). Obviously, I had to sign up and this past Friday, finally attended the conference.

I've been to a lot of conferences but this was by far the most interesting and relevant to my interests. I was able to attend four sessions and had possibly the best lunch to ever be served in the history of conferences. Here's a brief run down of the sessions I attended, just to give you an idea of what the day was like.

Seasonal Menu Planning: Three people spoke about different aspects of cooking and eating seasonally, but my favorite was the final speaker, Linda Watson. She's the author of Wildly Affordable Organic, which provides a plan to eat a healthy diet of organic foods for just $5.00 a day. She was a great speaker - funny and personable - and had a slideshow of some of her cheap but delicious meals, which caused my stomach to rumble loudly. (To the lady sitting next me - I apologize.) Even though I am on a strict budget these days, I bought a copy of her book. I'm thinking of it as an investment.

Irrigation Methods - Plasticulture and Hydroponics: I was more interested in hydroponics than plasticulture, so that was the part of the session I paid better attention to. Basically, hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil (and I'm talking all plants - not just marijuana!) The presenter did a thorough job of explaining how hydroponics work, but I won't go into the details. Instead, I will say I was surprised to learn that, using hydroponics, it's possible to grow far more in a smaller space than you can with traditional methods, that you can grow hydroponically outside (I assumed you needed space indoors and a special, expensive light), and it's pretty cheap to try it out, as long as you start small. Nathan and I will probably experiment with this at some point, but I want to get our raised bed gardens going first.

Lunch break!

All the food was local (naturally) and while there was an impressive "surf and turf" spread (rabbit stew, anyone?) I stuck to the vegetarian friendly options, of which there were plenty. My plate is above, and it includes a delicious salad of mixed baby greens, candied walnuts, and pickled red onion, a sweet potato hash topped with corn and edamame, and pickled collard greens. I cleaned my plate. Also, I need to learn how to pickle, ASAP.

On-Farm and Vermi Composting: Composting is probably not the best way to follow lunch, or maybe it's the perfect way? In any case, this was my next session. I realized half way through that I know a lot more about composting than I thought, but did learn a few things about the worms. Such as: once a worm population reaches capacity, it will level off. This is why I must take worms from my hotel and put them in the garden - otherwise, they'll stop making new worms. Worms prefer the temperature to be a cozy 60-85F. Any colder, and they'll slow down. Any warmer, and they will die. (They disintegrate at 100F, which is why you shouldn't put them directly in your compost bin.) Worms can live up to seven years and they like to burrow in shredded paper, not soil. (This is true for the red wigglers used for composting, not night crawlers.)

Permaculture:  Again, a familiar word but a hazy understanding. This session was basically an overview of the tenets and ethics of permaculture, which is defined as "a design system based on ethics and design principles which can be used to establish, design, manage and improve all efforts made by individuals, households, and communities towards a sustainable future." (From Permaculture Principles, a website the presenter recommended.) There are twelve principles and they're mostly common sense things - produce no waste, observe and interact, catch and store energy, apply self-regulation and accept feedback, etc. If you want great explanations of each principle, visit this page and check out the flower graphic. It's full of links that provide an excellent overview of the design principles of permaculture. I enjoyed this session, because permaculture provides a nice way to organize the values I already hold dear.

And then the conference was over, and I proceeded to collapse at home with a glass of wine, my head spinning with compost, worms, recipes, hydroponics, and plans for a big, wonderful, sustainable future. All in all, a very good day.

Apologies to any readers who don't care about this kind of stuff, but I thought it was a fascinating conference and was proud of myself for taking the initiative to register and attend. I feel like this is the kind of thing that helps to bring us closer to our dream of an urban homestead and a life lived within the rhythms of the natural world. We may not be able to buy land or build a house just yet, but learning everything I can in the meantime is equally productive and important.