Fair showcases progress in sustainable farming

By June Bunch – Features Staff Writer – [email protected] | April 20, 2015
Agricultural folks of all trades gathered in a hodgepodge of education and innovation during the Mother Nature News Fair weekend.
Farmers, foragers, engineers, herbalists, homesteaders, healers and folk artists mingled together within the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center April 11 and 12.
“We farm and learn something new every time. We come in thinking we’ve got it down and someone’s always coming up with something new,” said Kathy Jimison, a fair guest by the livestock, holding a pen-marked event pamphlet.
She watched the alpacas flip their hair, lambs nuzzle their mothers, oxen wiggle their udders and Crevecoeur chickens cluck their loudest clucks.
The array of livestock looked right back at the onlookers.
Little kids stared at Spanish goats and their parents kept pulling them forward, trying to keep their hands out of cages. They pointed at the big cattle and asked for pictures.
Some families took selfies in front of longhorn and looked to strangers to take new ones from farther angles.
The annual event hosted more than 150 workshops and showcased both local and country-wide nature-friendly companies. The place swarmed with note-taking amateurs getting their fill of agriculture insight right beside professionals on break learning new subjects alongside them.
Delving into native plants, Alan Muskat, the witty founder of the “forage-to-table” movement, brought his talk “Find Dining off the Eaten Path” to the Grit stage. He kicked Saturday’s fair off with a crowd of hungry listeners, discussing new ways to forage what he called nature’s supermarket, their backyards, for common wild edibles.
Muskat worked with Mason Greenewald, a helper at No Taste Like Home: Wild Food Adventures, and he stood behind their booth tidying vibrant mushroom fliers which kept catching the wind and flying off.
Greenewald pointed at the fliers’ photographs and excitedly said, “For every 20 feet, there are 20 things to eat in the wild.”
Greenewald said Wild Food Adventures hosts a variety of foraging hunts to demonstrate edibles’ common hiding spots and often finds wild plants that otherwise would only be found in specialty stores. At their booth, foraged mushrooms were all over the table.
“The whole thing revolves around the education of the free food chain available in your backyard,” Greenewald said.
Later, at the Modern Homestead stage, Kim Flottum, the editor of Bee Culture magazine, discussed “Honey Bee Nutrition”. He warned about the many problems of pesticides and the dire need for pollinator plants to bribe bees to stick around.
“What did you have for breakfast this morning? You can thank a bee for that,” Flottum said.
He said the produce American consumers grew used to can’t sustain without more bee awareness.
“They serve the whole food chain from the bottom,” Flottum said.
He closed by saying anyone could help by planting bee-attracting plants. Because so long as bees stay fed, produce shoppers will as well.
“Just feed a bee,” Flottum said.
Keeping the people at the fair fed was no problem. Food trucks galore spread throughout the back corner of the fair, and familiar Asheville names like Gypsy Queen Cuisine, Pho Ya Belly, Melt Your Heart and Farm to Fender filled the air with flavorful wafts of breezes.
Keeping the bees fed at the fair wasn’t so hard either. Flowers were in bloom everywhere on the fairgrounds and the bees stayed busy at work.
No longer working, a retired surgeon and author of Doom and Bloom, Dr. Joseph Alton could be spotted on the Mother Earth Living stage during the talk “Homestead Medicine”. The talk centered around preparing everyday families for medical emergencies.
“We’re trying to get people to be medically prepared to handle medical issues if they’re forced,” Alton said, “because there aren’t always ambulances available in remote areas.”
He used examples like Hurricane Katrina to demonstrate when medical knowledge would help alleviate infections or help people stop bleeding when injuries occurred. Alton said medical professionals remained ideal, but when doctors aren’t available, emergency preparedness could help save lives.
“I just want people to use all the tools in the toolbox,” Alton said.
Moving from tools of medicine to tools of food production, Jesse Hull discussed aquaponics in his Organic Gardening stage talk, “Educational Aquaponic System Design.”
Hull explained what he called an integrated agriculture process of mixing aquatics and hydroponics in a cycling system, and gave tips of the trade for new farmers aiming to build aquaponic systems of their own.
“Essentially, aquaponics is the cultivation of plants and fish using fish waste to supply the plant’s nutritional needs. Beneficial bacteria converts the fish waste into plant-available compounds and in a recirculating aquaponic system, the water is returned to the fish tank,” Hull said.
The system reduces external inputs, offers sustainability and increases yield. He said he hopes to teach future generations the importance of sustainable agriculture.
“It is an example of a farming method that is the opposite of conventional mono-crop farming,” Hull said.
The fair mingled classic techniques of farming with every spectrum of new innovation, and the two learned from each other. By the end of the weekend, everyone walked out with a souvenir of new agricultural insight and probably a bag full of free stickers too.