The Story of Our Conference Food

This is a re-telling of the story of how our conference food program came to be. It is dedicated, in gratitude, to our wonderful conference food donors.  Read on for the tale of the NOFA-NY conference meals, as told by Bethany Wallis (Education Director, Conference Food Coordinator).  If you’re inspired to help us meet our menu wishlist, please be in touch!

Amazing food is the underlying pillar of NOFA-NY’s Annual Winter Conference. True, it’s not the first thing that might come to mind when you hear “farming conference,” but maybe it should be.  Yes, each year a new theme is chosen for our beloved winter conference and our staff works tirelessly to put together education around that theme that informs and represents our organic farming community.  This ever-changing and constantly-evolving conference is a venue for new research to be shared, farming techniques to emerge, friendships to begin, collaborations to blossom, and families to grow.  The constant is evident: this conference exists because everyone in attendance seeks to support the growth, distribution, and enjoyment of delicious, wholesome food grown in a way that supports the environment and the people who toil to bring it to the masses.

While many conferences offer delicious food, the NOFA-NY conference food stands apart because the ingredients provided for all of the meals, breaks, and social gatherings is sourced organically and locally, almost all donated by our farmers and business supporters.

I first came to NOFA-NY as a volunteer to assist in procuring the food for the winter conference many years ago when the conference was still held in Syracuse and boasted an attendance of over 300 farmers.  It was the best way to be introduced to the greater organic community of New York State.  Then and now, the generosity with which people are willing to donate is unbelievable.  Farmers in our midst wholeheartedly want to share the products they know are the healthiest available–making their actions speak for their ideals.  They care deeply that the food they grow and produce can be enjoyed while participating in an event that helps to strengthen the organic community.

child at buffet John-Paul Sliva 007

I am excited to once again be organizing the food donations for this great conference.  Each year, over 1200 attendees walk through the door, ready for 80+ amazing workshops, engaging keynote speakers, and plenty of social activities.  They’re hungry, too.  This year we will feed over 7200 meals, provide snacks for more than 900 people on Friday and Sunday and 1300 on Saturday, make sure that the 500 folks who attend our receptions also have munchables while they network.dining hall

That is no small feat with a farmer’s appetite!  The kitchen and service staff at the City Center often stand in the dining room, amazed at the way the crowd (respectfully, patiently) descends upon the trays of roasted vegetables and salad just as much as the heartier foods–we know about balanced and abundant plates!  Curious as to how many potatoes it takes to feed this hungry bunch? 500 pounds! Milk?  Only 125 gallons.  Then there are eggs (600 dozen, so get crackin’) and over $3000 worth of locally baked bread.  Everything is donated from the salt and pepper on the table to the transportation of the donated products from across the state.  The list goes on.

city center kitchen scene 2

buffet line with green veg

It is an intense experience to find all the needed items based on the menu and to confirm all the donations.  For example, if in late November we have 5 of 6 main ingredients to make a roasted pork dish, but we’re missing the meat, we have to decide whether to change the menu and use the 5 procurable ingredients in a different way, or to keep looking for organic, local pork.  We are so fortunate that the Saratoga Hilton and Chef Vik are so willing to work with us to make all of these meals possible without compromising our community’s values.  From September forward there is almost daily communication to nail down all the bits and pieces.

City Center Kitchen CrewOnce we arrive on site, everything is different than the norm of hotel food management.  The food is not pre-prepared for the kitchen staff, and sometimes comes in very close to meal time.  How quickly can one staff peel butternut squash before it needs to go in the oven?  The kitchen and service staff is involved in listing all the donors and ingredients in the dishes on the buffet line; I’m behind the scenes with key volunteers checking off and labeling deliveries, ensuring that snacks and products are left in their packages so folks associate farms and brands with the delicious food they’re eating and reminding kitchen staff to please NOT peel the carrots and to let the artisan cheeses come to the right temperature before serving (do not serve our Board President’s famous cheese at refrigerator temperature!).  We are for certain an interesting group!

I would personally like to thank each person in this amazing circle of food for a feast.  Thank you to the farmers, to the transporters, to the preparers, to the servers, and to the educators who keep us coming back every year to learn more, fueled by such delicious food!  I manage the intensity of this job because I am so rewarded to see how we unite in the love of food, in our support of each other, and in our commitment to work today for a better tomorrow for our ever-growing community.

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NOFA-NY Winter Conference Breakfasts are a hearty, healthy affair. Roasted potatoes, organic fruit including citrus from Thorpes Organic Farm citrus grove in Florida, meat, yogurt, granola, and milk!

A Collection of Farmers’ Passions and Projects

This time of year, I have the privilege to read about so many farmers’ hopes and dreams, and their thirst for education.  I read these testimonials as part of the NOFA-NY Winter Conference scholarship application decision-making process.  We read each application fully, multiple times with multiple criteria in mind.  We hear from people exploring the idea of farming to seasoned farmers who know how much farmer-to-farmer education means to their farm’s success.  In light of the approaching scholarship award deadline (Midnight on 12/1/14), I’d like to share a few quotes that remind me of the passion and projects that farmers share willingly, in hopes of receiving one of our scholarships.

When asked what you hoped to get out of attending the conference, you answers were along these lines:

“I have one season of farming under my belt. Most of what I have learned has been by trial and error. I hope to gain as much knowledge as I can from those with far more experience so I can make this upcoming season a success. I also hope to meet other farmers in my same situation to see what steps they have taken to get to where they are and the steps they plan to take to get them to where they want to be. Being a novice, my book is full of blank pages. I would like to start filling up those pages with useful information. There is so much I want to learn but do not know where to start. I thought this would be a good place!” -2013 applicant

“Being able to exchange ideas about different growing practices with other organic farmers. Specifically looking for a better cover crop rotation for my farm. Want to learn more about the expanded marketing venues available to us for local retail and wholesale sales. Want to learn more about saving our own seed. Want to learn more about how our farm can help new farmers become established.” -2014 applicant

It’s so interesting to find out what people identify as their short- and long-term goals in the moment they apply for a scholarship–these goals are in flux each year, so this really shows the mindset of a farmer.  These goals range from lifestyle aspirations to technical specifications:

“I would like to expand the farm to six acres and acquire another good market. Eventually I would like to install a commercial kitchen where my sister in law can make prepared meals for value added production. I am planning at least two more acres of fruit trees and small fruit to round out the farm stand. I am very curious about primocane raspberries in combination with movable high tunnels. Eventually, I would like to have a mixed marketing strategy with some direct sales and some wholesale accounts. I see no reason to have a vow of poverty with this life based on the farmers I have been exposed to.” -2013 applicant

“In the short term, I will continue to work on farms with vegetable CSAs, continue to gain machinery skills, attend workshops, CRAFTs, conferences, classes, etc. to learn and to meet other farmers. I am also looking for land to lease and potentially buy. On my future land, I will run a vegetable and herb farm that utilizes sustainable and organic agricultural practices while managing the space that is not cultivated for wildlife conservation.” -2014 applicant

“I want to raise Certified Organic pastured poultry including ducks, and Certified Organic berry crops. I want to work towards the absolute minimal use of fossil fuel inputs. On-farm composting of poultry manure, bedding and ecologically sound composting of poultry carcasses. I want to bring to the customer a healthy, earth-friendly, superior tasting product at a fair price. I want to maintain the natural aesthetic of my property, while moving towards farming as my full-time passion.” -2013 applicant

“[Our farm] is a small family operated fruit and vegetable farm. We sell our products at farmers markets and to farmers market vendors. This year we are leasing land across the road and expanding to offer a CSA harvest share. We are currently Certified Naturally Grown but hope to complete the organic certification process this year or next. We are still only field farming but hope to have infrastructure, such as a high tunnel or greenhouse, in a few years that will facilitate our desire to be year round farmers in upstate New York. We love farming and we love the farming life-growing healthy food for us and for others.” -2014 applicantLuke and Cara inspecting window

And while some things show up in almost every application (and are probably on every farmer’s mind), I love seeing the interesting combinations when we ask farmers what three topics they are most interested in learning about at the conference.  For the 2014 conference, that elicited these responses:

  • “farm business planning, soil science, compost”
  • “Food Safety, Cover Crops, Sustainable Financial Planning for the Farm”
  • “Small-scale farming, how to address food insecurity, and value-added production”
  • “grains, pigs, and business sense”

No, copying these answers won’t guarantee you a scholarship.  But I hope that reading these inspires any potential applicant and ALL our community to evaluate where they are, and where they’re going, and how farmer-to-farmer education can play a role in that.  Each attendee at our conference adds to its value, whether an eager learner, a presenter, a trade show participant, or someone involved behind the scenes with NOFA-NY.  You each contribute to the greatness of New York (and Northeast) organic agriculture when you open your ears and minds to information during workshops, when you fill pages of notebook paper with ideas and contact information, and when you bring your energy to the larger group for a few days each year.

YayForFarming_ErinBullock

No matter if you apply for a scholarship, I hope you participate in this year’s conference.  Here are a few things to remember:

Apply for a winter conference scholarship by 11:59pm EST on December 1st

You may contribute to our NOFA-NY scholarship funds when you register yourself for the conference!

Fall For Brussels Sprouts

Dave the Dog with this year's harvest

Dave the Dog with this year’s harvest

According to some, there is only one good way to serve Brussels sprouts – on someone else’s plate.  Dave the Dog disagrees, and will faithfully guard and gratefully eat any you send his way.  I just recently began to understand his perspective.

As a child growing up, Brussels sprouts were in the “no thank you” category in my house – the one dish my mother would allow us to politely decline.   While the overly processed, canned, and severely boiled Brussels sprouts of my youth were hard to stomach, the truth is that Brussels sprouts are a nutritious and versatile vegetable, abundant in both Vitamin C and Vitamin K and containing many antioxidants.

Aside from being good for you, I have discovered that fresh Brussels sprouts are delicious!  Brussels sprouts can be prepared using many different methods and they do not require many ingredients or skillful cooking to bring out their flavor.  If you are still in doubt, here are my two favorite ways to prepare and eat Brussels sprouts.

This first method is an almost sure-fire way to convert even the most reluctant Brussels sprouts eater to a raving fan:  Brussels sprouts braised in cream.  Here is a simple recipe for this amazing dish.  All I can say is that whoever first decided to try simmering Brussels sprouts in cream was a culinary genius.  For very little effort, you end up with a dish that melts in your mouth – and it even smells good when it is cooking!  Some of my favorite on-line reviewer comments of this recipe include “bewitching”, “self righteously easy”, and “makes the toughest man purr like a kitten”.

The second method is the most versatile – roasted Brussels sprouts.  This gloriously simply approach involves just tossing your cleaned and trimmed Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting them in a 400 degree oven for 35-40 minutes, until the outside is caramelized with some burnt-looking edges.  (Editor’s Note: It’s best to try to get your sprouts to be the same size so they will cook evenly–halving or quartering the larger ones to be about the same size as the smallest ones should do the trick.  Depending on the size of your sprouts, or if you’ve halved/quartered the bigger ones, you may find they are done in only 20 minutes.)  Roasting Brussels sprouts brings out their sweet, nutty goodness and creates a wonderful “tooth” with a tender inside and slightly crispy outside.  There are scores of variations to meet your mood and your taste – try roasting with balsamic vinegar and honey, with garlic and pancetta, with bacon and mustard, and with other root vegetables.  Pretty much your imagination is the only limitation with roasted Brussels sprouts.  Some of my favorite on-line comments about roasted Brussels sprouts include “effortless,” “fell in love,” and “tiny nuggets of joy.”

So next time you see those great stalks of Brussels sprouts at your farmers market or in your CSA box, go with confidence and happiness that you are soon to enjoy this delicious fall treat!  Dave the Dog guarantees it!

More to try:

Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Lemon and Pecorino, Food52 (use any  NY aged hard sheep’s milk cheese to locavore-ize it)

Crispy Fried Brussels Sprouts with Honey and Sriracha, Food52 (use NY honey and a local hot sauce)

Oregano Brussels Sprouts, 101 Cookbooks (great photos of prepping the vegetable, if you’re not accustomed to it)

Vote for Food Policy

Tomorrow–November 4th–is election day! This run-down of research tools for policital action comes to us thanks to Education Department Intern, Brittany Mendez:

Researching politics online may seem like a shot in the dark, so we wanted to do some of the work for you. Below are some links that will cut the research process down for you, so you can focus on finding out which representatives value the same things you do. Food policy does trickle down to affect us all on the local level, so let’s use this Election Day as an opportunity to influence it for the better.

greens in sunlight

YOUR CURRENT REPRESENTATIVES:
GovTrack will help you identify who is currently representing your district in the House of Representatives. This is based on your Congressional District, which you can find by inserting your address in the search bar. Follow the links of each of your Representatives’ names. These will provide you with their contact information, websites, and the bills they have supported in the past, as well as their recent legislative activity.

To find out how your current representative has voted on food and agricultural issues, use the Food Policy tool that allows you to enter your zip code and see how current representatives have voted on legislation (represented as a positive or negative vote for food policies, based on that organization’s values).

WHO IS RUNNING TO REPRESENT YOU:
Vote Smart is a great way to find out who is currently in the running to represent you, as well as where they stand on some general topics.

OTHER RELEVANT FOOD POLICY LINKS:
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition can keep you informed on what is currently going on in food and farming policy on the federal level.

Environmental Advocates of New York will provide you with a summary of bills that were recently introduced in Legislative Committees or the State Senate and Assembly and how they will impact the environment.

REGISTRATION:
For future reference, if you are not yet registered to vote, this link will bring you to a page where you can find out where to register, based on what county in New York State you live in. The office that corresponds to your county will also be able to tell you where you need to go on election days in the future.