EDINBURG — Over the years, growers showing up for the annual sustainable agriculture conference in deep South Texas are those who work with fewer and fewer acres, or dream of doing so, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel organizing this year’s event.
“Keepin’ It Local,” the 10th annual conference of the Sustainable Agronomic Education Association, begins at 8 a.m. Feb. 4-5 at the Renaissance Casa de Palmas Hotel, 101 N. Main St. in McAllen.
“When we first started, this conference was attracting traditional farmers who wanted to be more sustainable. They wanted to reduce their inputs because reduced inputs means higher profits. But now we’re seeing that 70 percent of the people that come have just a few acres,” said Barbara Storz, an AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Edinburg.
Others attending past conferences included people with a little extra land who want to get into traditional farming or organic farming, she said. “They want to learn from others who got started with little or no experience. And they want to learn from scientific researchers who tell them, ‘This is the best method.’”
This year’s conference will have plenty of both, she said.
“This year, in addition to the researchers, we’re going to have lots of speakers who are growers themselves,” Storz said. “People who attend these conferences want to hear how different growers overcame different challenges and problems.”
One such speaker at last year’s conference was a man from Austin who runs a community supported agriculture association with 600 subscribers, or customers, of organic vegetables.
“To provide organic vegetables to that many customers, his payroll would have been huge. His solution was to recruit volunteers who help him pick and wash his crops. That may sound odd, but when we’re talking about producing community-based local food for local consumers, the consumers got involved to make it happen,” Storz said.
Small-acreage growers also like to hear from scientists, she said.
“It’s always exciting to learn about new research, whether it’s a new vegetable variety with disease resistance or a mechanical means like using screens to keep out pests.”
Among the scientists who will speak is Dr. Bhimu Patil, director of Texas A&M’s Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center in College Station.
“Dr. Patil will kick off the scientific talks by telling us about a study that determined which fruits and vegetables give our bodies the best bang for the buck in terms of preventing diseases, which are the best for our brains and which benefit other vital organs,” Storz said.
Another researcher, Dr. John Jiffon of the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, will discuss his partnership with scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Texas Medical Center, she said.
“This study actually traced the natural chemicals from vegetables as they made their way through the human body to see which was providing the most benefit,” Storz said.
Other topics to be discussed include compost teas, cover crops, organic certifiers, integrated pest management and holistic veterinary livestock. The conference also includes a trade show and a tour of sustainable farming and composting sites.