My Day at the Family Farmed Expo

This year I got a workshop pass to the Family Farmed Expo, my first ever visit. Overall, I had a really good time and thought it was a good experience. I got there just after ten o’clock (about an hour before my first workshop session) so I could browse the exhibit floor.

A lot of my favorite vendors and organizations had booths this year – Earth First Farms, Barbara’s Bookstore, Slow Food Chicago, University of Illinois Extention, Green City Market and Chicago Diner. And there were many, many more. A lot of places were handing out free swag and samples – I got a canvas bag and sample of granola from Nature’s Gate, a free packet of Baker Creek purslane seeds,  two booklets by the Learn Great Foods Foodbook series – one on venison and one on carrots, and info sheet on apple varieties (as well as a tasty bite of a Jonagold apple), a 2011 CSA guide, a Nature’s Gate coupon and a sustainable seafood guide. I also picked up some great info for the Chicago Conservation Corps and the 2012 Farm Bill as well as a USDA label guide and some information on farm subsidies.

I couldn’t help making a few modest purchases either. I got a red Slow Food button and a couple of books from the Barbara’s Bookstore stand – The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle and Ecopreneuring: Putting Purpose & the Planet Before Profits by John Ivanko & Lisa Kivirist.

I attended three of the four workshop sessions, and overall they were good. I think it’s a little misleading that they are identified as workshops – they’re more panel lectures than anything else. But some good information was presented.

For the first session, I attended “Yes We Can”, a session on preserving food. This was the session I was most excited about beforehand, but was a bit dissapointing in actuality. The speakers were supposed to be Terra Brockman (who couldn’t make it last minute, so they sent some other guy that works at Henry’s Farm), Rob Gardener of Local Beet, and Paul Virant of Vie restaurant. The moderator was Vicki Nowicki of Liberty Gardeners. Interestingly enough, the only organized presenter of good info was the moderator – she had prepared a short lecture and a power point slide show. Random guy from Henry’s had about five words to say (apparently he’s lazy and only like to freeze things with his vacuum sealer – he couldn’t even say which brand of sealer he owns), Virant just rambled on for awhile about how his restaurant got into trouble for unsafe canning practices by the USDA because a “saboteur” turned in a can of something that they said had a bug in it, but really it wasn’t their product, and Rob Gardener didn’t really say anything memorable. It was a bit annoying that various people on the panel kept saying things like “you can look up how to do it online” – since the whole point (I thought) was supposed to be a presentation on the basics of how to preserve your own food. But I suppose I did come away with some useful information, that I don’t have to look up in books now (most of which was contained in the moderator’s presentation) –

– Four types of food preservation were mentioned – root cellaring, freezing, canning and drying. For some reason, fermentation was not mentioned at all.

– There are five different “climates” of root cellaring: Moist Cold (for bienniels such as turnips, carrots, etc.), Damp Cold (for potatoes, apples, etc.), Damp Cool (for tomatoes, peppers, etc. – not good for long term storage), Dry Cold (for onions, garlic, etc.) and Dry Warm (for squash).

– You can adjust humidity in a root cellar by adding damp sand. If you only have one room for your cellar, you can put items that need higher humidity in an exclosed space (like a cooler) with the damp sand.

– Greens can be frozen (but no one told us specifically how).

– Don’t put canned goods in the root cellar. It’s too cold and humid there. Store jars with the lids off so that if there are any problems with leakage/spoilage, it will be readily apparent.

– Potatoes, onions and garlic need to be cured before storage (again, no one told us how).

– The “Copra” onion is a good storage variety. I’ve never heard of it or seen it in the dozens of seed catalogs I get, and no one mentioned where you can find it.

– If you plan to can in great quanity, get a pH meter so you can “test your work” and make sure the acidity is at the correct level. If the pH is less than 4.6, it’s safe to use a water bath canner.

I was more impressed with my second session, “The Conscious Carnivore”, though this seminar kind of missed the mark as well on what it was supposed to focus on – how  to use the whole animal. I didn’t see more than one chart on different cuts of meat, and there was zero information presented on how to cut meat, which tools to use, which breeds are best, etc. The speakers were Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats, Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia, Paul Kahan of Blackbird, Avec, et al., Rob Leavitt of The Butcher & The Larder with Ellen Malloy of the Restaurant Intelligence Agency moderating.

Again, only one of the four presenters had bothered to put together a proper presentation with slideshow – Bartlett Durand. This panel was also fraught with “get a good book, look it up online” instead of telling/showing us how to do anything. The moderator actually wanted to steer the discussion toward legislation and whatnot, until the audience piped in and said no, we want to know about what to do with our meat…

The two main pieces of info I came away with from this hour were –

– “Own your karma” – a great quote by Durand. He pointed out that if we eat meat, something has to die so that we can live. We must respect that.

– Pork jowl is similar to pork belly, only cheaper.

The final session I attended, “Small Space Gardening” was incredible. It ended up being standing room only, it was so popular. Pregnant me actually had to sit on the floor for this one. The presenters were Milton Dixon of Permaculture Productions, Ron Nowicki or The Land Office, Jeanne Pinsof Nolan of The Organic Gardener and Seneca Kern of We Farm America. The moderator was Mike Nowak of WCPT. All of the presenters were very organized with pre-planned talks and slide shows – this made a huge difference to me.

Kern actually showed us how to make a self watering planters out of reused buckets, which was literally the only hands-on thing I saw all day. It was so great to see one put together in person, and not just pictures in books or on the internet. He was also a really vibrant and enthusiastic speaker.

Some other good info I took away from this session was –

– Most vegetables need 6-8 hours of sun per day.

– You can grow vegetables in much less, but optimally you can provide an 18 inch depth of good soil for your plants.

– Fencing/enclosures are important in protecting your crops from squirrels, rabbits, etc.

– The Rebuilding Exchange is a good place to get recycled/repurposed buildling materials.

– The main planting dates for our area (roughly) are – Spring (March 20-30), Summer (May 15-July 10), Fall (July 15-September 1), Overwintering (October 15-November 5).

Overall, I had a good time and it was a good experience. But as someone who is a bit more versed in these topics/concepts, it was a bit elementary. And hopefully the panels will get a little more organized for next year – the ones I attended (except for Small Space Gardening) felt kind of thrown together (which I was surprised at since the expo has been happening for several years now).