By Christy Ottinger, Manager of Little Gunpowder Farm

As a beginning farmer, I try to seize every opportunity to further my education and learn more about all aspects of farming. Thus far, I have done this by attending conferences during the winter, participating in NFU’s Beginning Farmers Institute, and enrolling in short workshops during the season. I didn’t study agriculture in college – I did study environmental science and policy, so my career choice wasn’t a huge leap – so I appreciate the breadth of topics covered at these types of sessions.

I am very fortunate to belong to a robust and active small-scale, sustainable vegetable farming community. Folks are generally very willing to share resources and open their farms up for tours, field days, and discussions. Many of us participate in our regional sustainable agriculture organization, FutureHarvest CASAto support the educational opportunities in our area.

For the past two years, I have attended Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture Young Farmers Conference in Pocantico Hills, New York. It has been one of my most formative educational experiences. The event isn’t hyper-local to my area, since I’m based out of Maryland, but it draws people from all over the country. So many of my personal heroes present and speak at the conference, and it is inspiring to meet so many other young people involved in innovative and exciting farming around the country. I’d like to share a little bit about the most recent Young Farmers Conference, which was held December 7-9.

Christopher Wayne led a session called “Customer Behavior at Farmers Markets,” which I found very enlightening. I realized that so many direct-marketing farmers are going about the process without access to the same research and data as grocery stores and other large companies. Wayne presented data gathered from many hours observing customer behavior at one of New York City’s Greenmarkets, providing concrete information about successful marketing strategies in regards to signage, stand layout, and customer interaction. I know I am going to use a lot of what I learned in this session at my markets this season.

I also attended an amazing workshop led by Connor Stedman, called “Carbon Farming: Regenerative Agriculture for Climate Stabilization.” Stedman discussed how farmers can use specific  farming practices to sequester carbon from our atmosphere and mitigate climate change. I left the session feeling empowered with the knowledge of how I could personally make a difference on the small piece of land that I manage. This season, I plan to boost the organic matter in my soil and grow more successful cover crops. Because I do not own the land I farm, I’m not in a position to implement many of the other practices discussed, but it was mind-blowing to hear about the amount of carbon that can be removed from our atmosphere with agroforestry, silvopasture, and management-intensive grazing.

You can watch a recording of both of these presentations at Stone Barns’ website.  They’re somewhat lengthy, but definitely worth watching this winter.

I encourage you to seek out other educational opportunities locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. There are many amazing conferences, workshops, classes, and organizations out there that will help you meet your farming goals. For me, it has not only been a valuable learning experience,  but it has also been a way for me to connect with farmers from  diverse backgrounds and reignite my passion for farming during the off-season.

Christy Ottinger manages Little Gunpowder Farm in Monkton, Maryland with her husband. Little Gunpowder Farm is a sustainable and diverse operation that produces fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs from pasture-raised heritage breed hens. The products are directly marketed in nearby Baltimore City. Before managing Little Gunpowder Farm, Christy served as an AmeriCorps member at an urban farm in Baltimore, completed an apprenticeship at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems Small Farm Unit in North Carolina, and received her B.A. in Environmental Science and Policy from The College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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