The second weekend of November, I attended the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's annual conference and had an absolutely wonderful time. The ALBC's mission is to preserve rare breeds of livestock. Most people think of tigers or pandas when they think about endangered animals, but the truth is that many farm animals are endangered, too. Industrial agriculture favors only the animals that do well in the overcrowded, grain-based production systems that have taken over our food supply. The ALBC lists over 180 breeds of livestock & poultry which all have great qualities, but are in danger of dying out because they only do well on small or grass-based farms. It's an organization we wholeheartedly support, since we raise some of those breeds listed; Belgian horses, Dexter cattle, Bourbon Red turkeys, Toulouse geese and Delaware, Barred Rock and Golden Phoenix chickens.
The conference was an amazing mix of people- everything from dedicated breeders to folk who just support the mission, but haven't yet made the leap to keeping livestock of their own. I learned a lot from the sessions I attended, and I hope people learned from the session I presented as well. Of course, speaking in front of a national audience is a bit intimidating (and I really hoped that the name of the conference room wouldn't be a bad sign, since I was speaking in the "Cape Fear" room!) but I felt that I knew my material well enough. After all, I was just sharing my story of how we farm with the work horses.
Friday night was an amazing dinner, full of meats from rare breeds like Mulefoot hogs and Pineywoods cattle, all donated by ALBC members. (Ironically, one of the best ways to save rare breeds is to eat them...consumer demand for rare breed products, like meat, eggs, milk & fiber, encourages more farms to raise them.) And that enjoyable meal was made even better by a wonderful keynote speaker...Diane Ott Whealy. She and her husband founded Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit farm dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds and plants- vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. Their mission mirrors that of the ALBC, just preserving plants rather than animals, although they have incorporated some heritage breed livestock to their farm as well. I've been buying seed from SSE for years, and hearing her story was amazing. She has just written a memoir, called Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver. I've been thinking about buying it anyways, and while I usually hate to pay cover price, this time all the proceeds when right to the ALBC! I was really excited to actually meet Mrs. Whealy later in the conference and have her sign my copy. We chatted for a minute, about seeds of course, and even have the same favorite lettuce, Grandpa Admire! I can't wait to sit down with my copy and read more about her story.
I felt a lot calmer Saturday morning once I got my PowerPoint loaded and ready to go. My presentation was titled "Horse Farming 101: How We Farm with Belgians" and as the title suggests, was a basic introduction to the use of draft horses on a small farm. I talked about the advantages of farming with horses, both in sustainability and economics. The bulk of the presentation was just showing our machinery on the projector and explaining the use of the implements and what tasks they do on the farm. Although the crowd wasn't as large as some other sessions, I thought the speech went well, and I got some very positive feedback afterwards, including from ALBC staff.
My presentation featured lots of pictures of the team hard at work.
I learned a lot at the other sessions about caring for and marketing rare breeds. The keynote and pleneray sessions were inspiring. I listened as some very distinguished folks talked about breeds and seeds. Success stories of how parts of our farming heritage have been saved by these organizations, in very real ways rescuing the last members of a breed from the slaughterhouse door, or of discovering a rural gardener still growing a vegetable variety once thought extinct. About how what we all, as stewards of rare breeds and seeds, do is important and how very much it matters. While I think networking with other small farmers or learning about research or marketing success stories are very valuable things, the inspiration of the importance of what we do as small farmers is what I hope to hold onto the longest.
Before Friday's dinner, I was chatting with a woman in the hallway who also raised horses. We spoke casually about farming, family and our respective parts of the country. During the dinner, her husband got an award from the ALBC for pretty much single handedly rescuing the Marsh Tacky breed of horse from extinction. It's exciting to be part of an organization like this, because although I can't to much to save elephants or pandas, every time I pull a Bourbon Red turkey poult from the incubator or plant a funky "new" (to me and my customers, anyway) heirloom pepper or watch a mother Dexter cow with her newborn calf, I'm making a difference, too.
Meeting one of my inspirations, Diane Ott Whealy
To learn more about these wonderful organizations (Or better yet, join us and become a member!) visit:
American Livestock Breeds Conservancy- www.albc-usa.org
Seed Saver's Exchange- www.seedsavers.org