By TIM HEARDEN
PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. -- Beginning farmers will be a special focus as one of the West's largest conferences on sustainable agriculture opens here next month.
Registration is under way for the 33rd annual EcoFarm Conference Jan. 23-26 at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, which is attended each year by more than 1,500 farmers, marketers, activists, educators and others.
Thanks to a $665,000 USDA grant, next month's event will feature a beginning farmer workshop track that includes access to experts and endless networking opportunities, organizers say.
"It's kind of special this year," said Kate Pearl, a conference intern. "As part of the grant, we have eight full-conference fellowships. ... The idea is that beginning farmers apply for a fellowship and if they're accepted, they get full admission with lodging and meals."
EcoFarm -- the Ecological Farming Association -- is a nonprofit educational organization formed in 1981. The group gets funding through various activities and projects, donations, grants, memberships and business sponsorships, according to its website.
At the heart of the group's calendar is the conference, which includes some 60 workshops on soil testing, new irrigation technologies, grazing systems, bees and other beneficial insects, pastured poultry and numerous other topics.
A popular feature each year is a first-day field trip to local farms. Sam Earnshaw, a former Santa Cruz, Calif., vegetable and flower grower who now works in conservation plantings, hosted a field trip stop one year.
"People get an opportunity to get out onto farms, talk to farmers and get out in the mud and rain or sometimes the sun," Earnshaw said. "Just to be on the farm, you can talk about things or see things and ask questions. Farmers are usually very eloquent about what they're doing. It's a very uplifting day."
The beginning farmer workshop track includes business planning, organic marketing, introduction to biodynamic agriculture, finding your niche market and community-supported agriculture, according to a news release.
EcoFarm Conference: www.eco-farm.org/programs/efc/