Thursday, February 23, 2017

Keynote speakers address Sustainable Ag Conference

Keynote speakers  at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Wyoming farmer
Mike Ridenour, left, and National FFA president David Townsend
pose  with conference organizer Steve Seefeldt.

More than 130 people registered and attended the Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which ends today with half- and full-day workshops.

Arthur Keyes, the director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture, introduced a recorded welcome by Gov. Bill Walker on Wednesday, the main meeting day. Before heading the division, Keyes was a farmer in Palmer who developed a farmers market in Anchorage and a CSA to sell his produce. He said he once gave Walker, who was then running for governor, a two-hour tour of Palmer farms and introduced him to area farmers. Walker wanted to hear about their operations and their challenges. Recently, the governor hosted a reception with Alaska-grown foods, said Keyes.

“He is a friend of agriculture,” he said.

Governor Walker welcomed participants and said agriculture was good for Alaskans’ health and good for the economy.

Steven Seefeldt, who coordinated the conference with Darcy Etcheverry, introduced keynote speakers Mike Ridenour, a Wyoming farmer, and National FFA President David Townsend. Ridenour, he said, faces many of the same issues as Alaska farmers, including a tough ecosystem, distance from markets and a need for season extension.

Ridenour and his wife, Cindy, have a livestock operation on the high plains and grasslands of southeast Wyoming. They also raise vegetables in high tunnels and irrigated fields. It is a windy area, with gusts to 50 mph, and temperatures range from 30 below to 120 degrees. Special challenges also include hailstorms and mountain lions.

The Ridenours were both trained as chemists and did not know anything about agriculture or running a ranch when they purchased the acreage.

They started with a philosophy, he said. “It must be good for us and for our customers, the environment and must be profitable.” “As it turns out profitability can be somewhat elusive,”  he added.

Ridenour talked about their successes and failures and how they embraced a sustainable approach to the farm, which includes the use of draft horses and composted manure to amend the sandy soils. Their livestock operations are based on the cattle’s natural birthing schedule in late spring. That decreases the need for additional winter forage. They also use heirloom seeds, save seeds and do not use any broad-spectrum insecticides. They use organic methods but are not certified organic.

The use of high tunnels has allowed them to provide produce at a time when many other vegetable farmers cannot — early and late in the season. They also use heated sand boxes to grow transplants and row covers to keep plants warm.

Townsend spoke about the opportunities for youth in agriculture, and the approach supported by FFA, which promotes leadership, personal growth and career success among its 650,000 members. He also  talked about the importance of agricultural education and the opportunities FFA provides to apply knowledge through projects.

He had not been aware of where his food came from, he said, until he got involved with FFA. He persuaded his parents to let him grow tomatoes and cucumbers, which the family enjoyed.

"It was really cool to see that farm-to-table process," he said.

It also got him more interested in plant science, which he is studying at the University of Delaware. Some of the FFA members get opportunities to work directly with farmers through internships and jobs, which is a great way to introduce students to agriculture as a career. For instance, he said, his younger sister, who is a high school sophomore, works on a local produce farm.

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