Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Just Food Conference: Because It's Not Just Food

Ok!  I know it's been a while, but I do have some cool stuff to share!  I was very very lucky to win some tickets to the SOLD OUT Just Food Conference this past weekend (Thanks, Red Jacket Farm!) I wasn't able to attend Friday, between fasting, Outdoor Stations of the Cross, the Good Friday church service, and work study that night, but we were up bright and early Saturday to check out the amazing offerings.
The first work shop the husband and I attended was "Milk Not Jails", which was an overview of a non-profit organization by the same name who discovered the connection between how challenging it is to reform the justice system in New York state, and our shrinking family-owned dairy industry.  Turns out, when small dairy farmers were forced out of business by laws that favored the industrial dairy giants, the economies of upstate small towns were dealt a massive blow.  To try and fix the damage, politicians opened new prisons in or near these small, rural towns.  This did bring new jobs to the area for prison guards and such, but, no big surprise, a lot of people were less than thrilled to be living in a prison town, and these small town economies continued to grow more depressed, instead of bouncing back. Now, when we in urban areas see how incarcerating people for, say, having some weed on them, is hurting our communities, and we try to push for reform in the state laws, these upstate communities push back because they don't want to lose the jobs the prisons provide.  Instead of feeling stuck and helpless, which is totally what I would have done, these clever people went straight to the dairy producers and started making deals: you support our justice system reform, we'll build urban markets for your sustainable, family-farmed dairy products.  By partnering with CSAs, and hopefully forming a local cooperative over the next few years, Milk Not Jails is keeping farmers on their land, and building an economy on dairy, instead of the wrongfully imprisoned.  How awesome is that??  Go to to check out what policy reforms they support, and how you can get your hands on some upstate dairy goodness.
Another awesome workshop we attended (along with surely a quarter of the people at the conference!) was, "Curd Nerds: Introduction to Milk Chemistry and Cheesemaking", which was offered by Murray's Cheese.  Not only did we get tons of tasty samples, but we learned the science and process behind how milk turns into cheese.  We got a printed copy of the powerpoint with room for notes, and I took plenty! I can't wait to break out my cheesemaking book and give mozzarella a try!  We also learned that a mini wine fridge makes a great beginner's cheese cave!  If only we had a slightly bigger kitchen...someday I'll ripen my own brie...other interesting tidbits? The protiens in milk look a bit like koosh balls, and the chemical composition of milk varies widely depending on when in the lactation cycle you're obtaining it: closer to when the baby was born, or closer to when the baby is ready to be weaned.  Don't worry: I'll be sure to take pictures of my attempts!!

The last event of the day was a panel discussion with four beginning farmers.  Ben Shute spent years apprenticing at other farms before starting his own, which now boasts a 550-member CSA!  Cara Fraver started a small organic farm upstate with her husband.  Rafael Aponte is a Bronx native who started out with one pot in a patch of sun in his apartment, and is now joining with others to start a farming venture in Ithica after working with Just Foods for seven years. Gudelio Garcia is an immigrant from Mexico who spoke to us with the aid of a translator, who spent a few years commuting to farms in the area as a day laborer, but who now runs El Poblano Farm on Staten Island. The first three presentors all agreed that finding, and obtaining the land for their farms was the toughest part.  Cara spoke of how difficult it is to pour money and labor into land that can't yet give any value back: Food has to be grown on an organic farm with only organic methods for three years before it can be sold as organic.  Gudelio talked about how hard it was to be so far away from his family, but also how grateful he is to be working outside in the sunshine, and getting paid a fair wage to do so. 

I think the most powerful thing we heard came from Rafael: he talked about how when he spoke to people in his community about going back to the land and farming, they asked him if he was going back to sharecropping.  It was a powerful reminder that growing food comes with baggage for communities of color.  The initial image for them is not an empowering one.  I'm glad Rafael is able to serve as an advocate for agriculture work, and as an advocate for his community when working with people like me: heavily privileged, and able to dream of someday owning land and raising veggies and chickens as a luxury because of that privilege. He said people were often surprised when he told them he was a farmer, because a person of color with a Bronx accent is not the first image that pops into the average person's head when he or she thinks of a farmer! He told us,

"I'm not a unicorn, I'm a farmer. I'm a person of color; I exist."

We gave them a standing ovation.

So, want to come next year??  I'll be there!  This year's tickets were $45 for each day, with a discount if you bought both days.  Breakfast and lunch are provided both days, and the samples at the expo on Saturday means you basically also get dinner with drinks.  If you're interested in the movement for justice in the food system, if you believe in helping the planet with agriculture instead of hurting it, if you believe in supporting your local community and keeping farmers on their land, if you just love good food, you are going to have an incredible time and learn so much!  You can get iscounted tickets by joining Just Food as a contributing member.  Go to, make a donation of $40 or greater, $75 for a family membership, and while you're there, check out their awesome clothes.  I'm obsessed with the "Yes We Can!" t-shirt!

Live Omily,

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