The winter months usher in an inspiring annual line-up of farm conferences from coast to coast, some tailored to small farms, including EcoFarm in California, PASA’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Pennsylvania, and the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in the Midwest. And there are the Mother Earth News Fairs at numerous spots around country throughout the year, too. But add in the cost of conference fees, lodging and travel as well as time away from the farm or homestead, and the stakes are high that you want a strong knowledge return on the investment it takes to attend, especially if you are a beginning farmer with limited resources.
What’s the best resource to help navigate these conferences and make the most of your attendance? Advice from fellow farmers and homesteaders seasoned in attending such events. I tapped into the network of women farmers I write about in Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers and via my hats leading the MOSES In Her Boots Project and Soil Sisters Wisconsin event for easy and accessible tips to maximize your investment in attending a conference or fair.
Given the collaborative spirit of our sustainable and organic agriculture community, not surprisingly, most of these ideas root in connecting with the people who are there. But don’t leave these connections to just happen. Read on for creative and strategic ways to amplify conference encounters to both harvest new knowledge peppered with new friendships.
One key thing to remember when attending any conference: all of the costs associated with your trip can qualify as legitimate, deductible, business expenses as my husband, John Ivanko, and I write about in our book, ECOpreneuring. This is an important distinction in your evolution from hobby to business owner: education and new skill development related to your operations can be a deductible expense. From the registration fees to lodging to meals that you eat out while traveling, save your receipts and consider deducting these expenditures as an expense item on your profit and loss statement.
Here are six tips on maximizing your farm conference attendance:
1. Seek out attendees with similar interests. “When you attend a session topic that is specific to your interests, look around at who is in the room and seek out these kindred spirits to talk with during breaks and meals,” advises Cherrie Nolden of 1dr Acres Farm. “When people ask questions or make statements regarding their experience, that gives a lot of insight on their level of skill in that area of production, so that can guide what you may be able to learn from a side conversation with them.”
Deb Jakubek of Moos Farms adds that she purposefully sits next to strangers at meals and introduces herself. It may seem awkward at first, but remember everyone is in the same boat. It always amazes me how at a conference with hundreds of people, how often I end up sitting at lunch with someone from my home area that I never met before.
2. Create Facebook Group meet-ups. “I participate in a few pastured pigs Facebook Groups, and I always post to see who else is going to a conference I’m attending. It is fun to meet folks that you have been learning from online and exchange information in person,” imparts April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range. “Last year at the MOSES Conference, I met fellow pig farmer Dayna Burtness of Nettle Valley Farm, who I had just known online. Meeting folks in person solidifies a relationship and now I value her words of wisdom even more so.” Since the conference, Prusia and Burtness have messaged each other back in forth to help each other identify and treat sick pigs.
Prusia adds another interesting way to connect: When you are at a workshop, take some photos of the farmers presenting and share them via a private Facebook message. “It’s always appreciated to have photos of yourself speaking, but it’s something that when you are in the moment often don’t remember to ask someone to do and it’s an easy thing to do while sitting in the audience.”
3. Tap into the conference app to connect. Increasingly, larger conference like the MOSES Organic Farming Conference provide a free conference app for your smartphone that can really help navigate beyond just the program schedule.
“Download the app and familiarize yourself with it before the conference as it is kept up-to-date with any changes that happen to the schedule, has a lot of great information, and connects you with other attendees,” shares Lauren Langworthy, MOSES executive director. “For example, folks might post when a workshop room is getting full or quotes or pictures from a session they're really enjoying.”
4. Volunteer. “Find a company you believe in and use their product or a non-profit organization you are connected with and offer to help staff the booth for a couple hours,” offers FL Morris of Grassroots Farm and the South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative. “My experience is that when I stay in one place with a lot of traffic, I connect with more people flowing past me than when I myself am milling about.”
At the You Grow Girl! Celebrating Hawaii Women in Agriculture event, Nicole Correa of Double D Farm and Ranch volunteered to coordinate buffet flow during supper, walking from table to table and sending each one to the food line systematically so no one was waiting in line long, just as you often see at wedding receptions. “This gave me opportunity to chat at each table and meet just about everyone at the event, which was a fabulous networking opportunity,” adds Correa.
5. Go to Keynotes. “Always listen to the keynotes,” adds Katie Micetic Bishop of PrairiErth Farm. “It’s easy to use that time to hit the trade show floor, but I find those keynotes are always gold and have become one of my favorite part of conferences.” Conference organizers typically strive to bring in keynotes with perspectives that are out of the usual farming box that can send you home with new visions.
6. Follow up. “Remember to make the most of networking while you are there by asking for business cards,” offers Sherri Dugger, executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) and Dugger Family Farm.
“When you get someone else’s card, make a note on the back of it about what you discussed or why you would like to follow up with them.” Give yourself a deadline of say two weeks after the conference to actually do that follow-up, or, as Dugger and all of us have experienced, it never happens. “I have hundreds of cards at this point, and I wish I had always done this.”
Paper or plastic? How about neither! Use a Mother Earth News tote bag instead. Made entirely from recyclable and reusable material, these sturdy bags are perfect for the next time you’re at the grocery store or farmers market (or just need to carry around your belongings). They can be used again and again, so you should never leave home without one! Show your support for Mother Earth News and support the environment with these bags!
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, and millions of ladybugs. Read all of Lisa’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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