The halls and conference chambers of the Grand Hotel were abuzz Friday, as consumers, gardeners, crafters and farmers gathered for the 10th annual North Dakota Farmers Market and Growers Association & Local Foods Conference, held for the first time in Minot.
As they lined up for the pre-conference luncheon before noon, attendees were participating in another first in the conference's history, where the meal itself was largely locally-derived.
"We try to incorporate as many local foods as we can," explained Jamie Good, the local foods marketing specialist for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture who helped organize the event. Around 90 people pre-registered for the two-day conference, with additional attendees registering at the door.
Marvin Baker, president of the North Dakota Farmers Market and Growers Association, shows off a shirt from St. Petersburg, Fla., supportive of local growing during a presentation at the 10th annual NDFMGA & Local Foods Conference in Minot, Friday.
"We've had a lot of walk-ins, which is what we wanted," said Good.
Cosponsored by NDFMGA and the agriculture department, the two-day conference is aimed at providing interested consumers and those involved in local food production the opportunity to connect, confer, and acquaint themselves with useful new developments.
"It's an opportunity to help gain a better appreciation and understanding of where our food comes from," explained Doug Goehring, North Dakota agriculture commissioner, while delivering the conference's opening remarks.
"We are so blessed in this country. We have the most abundant, affordable, safe and nutritious food in the world," he said, pointing out North Dakota's leading role in the growing of many items lining America's grocery shelves, from canola, sunflowers and pulse to grains like durum. Much of these leave the state to be produced and packaged elsewhere before making their return. Running down a list of nationally recognized brands, Goehring said "Those are local products. Those are things all grown right here."
A movement to keep more North Dakota-grown goods in the area has been gaining momentum in recent years. Already there are 55 farmers markets in North Dakota, 36 of which are affiliated with the NDFMGA. They benefit producers by increasing their share in the profits, consumers by encouraging the cultivation of a wider variety of crops, and communities by serving as a socially bonding event.
Among those keenly interested in keeping more of these products closer to home is Marvin Baker, NDFMGA president and organic farmer. Recently returned from a trip to the Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg area of Florida, Baker said he and his wife were impressed by the local food culture they found there.
"Local, local, local," was his summary, from the food on their plates to the beer in their glasses, everything grown, produced, distributed and consumed in relatively close proximity. An organic farmer himself, Baker visualizes something similar for North Dakotans.
"There's a lot of other things that we can do," he said. Crops suitable for planting in North Dakota range well beyond potatoes, carrots, tomatoes what Baker calls "the mainstays." Equally viable options are less conventional crops such as apricots, eggplant, okra, honeydew, peppers and peaches, all of which are already being grown in the state.
There are a number of ways to do it, tailoring growing methods to suit the climate and soil, and selecting plant varieties that would fare better to North Dakota's shorter days and season.
Guest speakers at the event touched on a few such topics, on both the production and financial side of growing. Extension vegetable specialist Matt Kleinhenz of Ohio State University delivered a presentation on the merits of grafting, while Minnesota farmer Mark Boen gave tips on what varities best benefit from high tunnel farming. Across the hall in the Viking Room, lectures on business development and financing options were offered.
"The presentations are good," Good said, engaging though by no means a complete how-to for starting up one's own farm. "The presentations themselves spur people to think and start something." In between sessions, sitting at dining room tables or standing around the informational booths attendees could be overheard discussing equipment and exchanging tips, one even offering to sample out a batch of her homemade kombucha.
The second day of the conference kicks off this morning at 8 with a continental breakfast, with a series of lectures beginning at 10:45 relating more to the market end of production. These will include how to improve soil health for better yields, design more attractive packaging and labeling, fill new niches with specialty crops, raise awareness through social media marketing, food hubs, gardening ergonomics, and other topics. As before, an organizational lunch will be held at midday in the Grand Ballroom, and there should be plenty of opportunities to network and meet new people.
The entrance fee for the day is $30, covering the cost of all meals, activities and presentations. The conference is scheduled to end by 5 p.m., after a presentation on the National Weather Service's weather expectations for the upcoming year delivered by meteorologist Greg Gust.
More information on the conference can be found online at (www.nd.gov/ndda/events/2014-ndfmga-local-foods-conference) or the NDFMGA and Local Foods Conference page on Facebook.