This past weekend we attended the Kentucky Beginning Farmer Conference at the Kentucky State University Center for Sustainability. The conference was created through a partnership between the Cooperative Extension Service FarmStart Program and Community Farm Alliance.
This was the first year for the conference, but the organizers are hoping it will become an annual event. They seemed genuinely surprised by the turnout, which I estimate was approximately 80 to 100 people. I was happy to see the good crowd, and am hopeful that it was enough to ensure they make the event a regular thing.
There were seven presentations, ranging in length from forty-five minutes to one hour each, with a few shorter talks sprinkled throughout the day. For the last two sessions of the day the group was split based on interest, with one attending the horticulture track and the other attending the meat production track presentations. Topics for the day included a keynote address by Ivor Chodowski of Field Day Farm, record keeping, grants/loans, alternative approaches to acquiring land, and farm legal issues. The horticulture track, which we attended, included sessions on retail vs wholesale and meet the buyers, with the meat production track also having a meet the buyers segment in addition to one on the cost analysis of grass fed beef.
Most of the presentations included multiple presenters, each with his/her own perspective on the topic. Initially I thought this was a good approach, but I don't think it worked very well in practice. In most cases each presenter spoke for some predetermined amount of time, then yielded the floor to the other speaker. I think this could have been accomplished more easily be scheduling a separate slot for each presenter, which would have had the advantage of ensuring equal time to speak.
The biggest complaint that I have, however, about the conference is that the speakers spent far too much time introducing themselves and their business or favorite cause, and not enough time providing practical information. This was especially bad in some situations when two or three people were splitting a forty-five minute or one hour block, and each would spend five to ten minutes of their allotted time talking about themselves or whatever they were trying to promote. I realize that the presenters volunteered their time to speak at the conference, and saw it as an opportunity to spread the word about something they likely feel passionate about, but I would have preferred having them spend the time speaking about the topic at hand, and using brochures or business cards as a way to give people a way to find out more info about them and their business or cause after the conference.
Another issue is that there was one attendee who felt the need to repeatedly interrupt several presentations to ask questions. That isn't to say that he was the only one asking questions, because others were as well, although the other questions were typically related to topic and added to the overall conversation. This gentleman, however, often seemed more interested in being argumentative, than anything else, and when the answer did not suit him would continue asking questions or posing anecdotal evidence to suggest that the presenter was wrong. This was especially bad in the Selling Retail vs Wholesale presentation, during which someone finally stepped in and asked that all questions be held until the end. When the floor was re-opened for questions after both presenters had finished, he started again, often without giving anyone else a chance to ask a question or waiting for his request to ask a question to even be acknowledged. The most surprising part of all of this is that this was an older gentleman, who I would have thought would have had respect for the others in attendance. I found myself feeling bad for the presenters, who at times must have felt they were being heckled by this man, who clearly should have known better.
Unfortunately I've found that disruptive participants is more common at such events that one might think. I'm sure that the organizers assume that attendees will be respectful adults, who will be able to get along with the presenters and other participants without causing trouble. It seems, however, that event organizers need to consider the possibility of such disruptions, and have a plan for dealing with them so they do not get out of hand and have a negative impact on the experience of others in attendance.
Even with the issues I've mentioned, I feel that the conference was well worth attending. I do wish it had started a bit later, since the two hour drive required us to get up at 4:30 AM to get there on time. That is just a minor annoyance, though, and is not something that would prevent me from attending next year. I learned some useful information, even though some of the presentations turned out to be quite different, and much less useful, than what I expected by the title and descriptions. For a first year conference, I'd say it was a moderate success. I'm hopeful that some of the kinks will be worked out by next year, making it an even better event.
Ultimately I'm just glad to see new events such as this one being held in the state. I'm always pleasantly surprised by the turnout. This gives me hope that we'll continue to see more similar events pop up in the state, and that the people attending will put the information to good use.