The 1st Annual West Virginia Urban Agriculture Conference

Last weekend, I attended the 1st annual West Virginia Urban Agriculture Conference. on the campus of West Virginia State University.

Image credit: WV Urban Agriculture Conference

Image credit: WV Urban Agriculture Conference

I was stoked. Especially since I fantasize about turning my half acre in city limits into a working farm. This was right up my alley.

It was hosted by the West Virginia University Extension Service, West Virginia State University Extension Service and SARE (the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Organization).

There were four tracts: production, focused on actually producing agricultural products; homesteading; policy and land use, focused more on community involvement; and business and marketing, for those in the agricultural business. There were two days of sessions covering anything from bee keeping to media training for local foods projects.

I found out about the conference from my mom, who is taking the Master Gardener course offered through the WVU Extension Service.  I was expecting the conference to be a small group of mostly other students in the Master Gardener course and a few people like me who are gardening and food nerds. I was blown away (and I think the conference organizers were, too) by the level of interest in attendees when I showed up the first day. Over 250 people attended. Many showed up at the door. It was truly inspiring to see so much interest in sustainable urban agriculture right here where I live. I am used to reading about this level of interest in places like Seattle, Portland or New York City. It’s so nice that the sustainable food movement is strong here in the Kanawha Valley, as well as across the country.

Now, to the fun part. The awesome sessions I attended.

My favorite session was the session on growing mushrooms. I love mushrooms. I hate buying them at the store. It seems like if you don’t use them in a couple days, they start to get slimy. To be honest, while I’ve heard they’re easy to grow, I had no idea where to start. The best part of the session, was it was hands on. We actually pounded some plugs inoculated with mushroom spores into logs and sealed them with wax. The log will be completely covered in shittake mushrooms in five to six months. It’s that easy.

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The WVSU Extension Agent explaining mushroom cultivation to the group.

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An attendee pounding the plugs into the log.

Plugs inoculated with shittake spores

Plugs inoculated with shittake spores

The extension agent told us that oyster mushrooms grow in just about any medium. They’ve had success growing them in a bucket in about two inches of used coffee grounds. I can’t wait to try this.

Mom and I also attended a session on home wine making. It was led by a fellow student in the Master Gardener course who also owns a wine making supply shop in the Kanawha Valley. He has been making wine for 25 years, and has even won awards at the State Fair of West Virginia for his wine. He made it sound so easy, and this session was also hands on. We mixed a batch of wine made from frozen raspberries from his backyard right in class. And this session had free samples!! So tasty!

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I also attended a session on beekeeping. The City of Charleston passed an ordinance last year to allow homes to have up to two beehives within city limits. I really want to get some bees, but it’s quite an investment. I am trying to learn as much as I can, since I know pretty much nothing about beekeeping, before I take the plunge. Tomorrow I am going to attend the monthly meeting of the Kanawha Valley Beekeepers Association to learn more, get answers to my seemingly endless questions, and meet some beekeepers who will hopefully take me under their wings. A

t the beginning of the session, which was led by the president of the local beekeepers association, he asked “Why do you want to be a beekeeper? Is it for fresh honey, to help pollinate your garden, or to help support declining bee populations? Or all three?” It’s definitely all three for me. I love fresh honey. Right now, I have some from a family friend whose hives are near his apple trees, and you can taste the apple blossoms in the honey. As a matter of fact, we sampled three different kinds of honey, basswood, autumn olive, and the most common, wildflower. I had no idea that honeys made from different flowering plants would taste so significantly different. I’ve heard that honey is one of the best things you can eat to help with seasonal allergies. Honey is made from pollen, so when you eat local honey, you are essentially getting trace amounts of pollen that helps you build up an immunity to the agonizing symptoms it causes. I’m definitely on board for that.

During the session, we watched a short TED talk video from Marla Spivak about the collapse of bee populations worldwide. This is no joke. Without bees, grocery stores would essentially be empty. The video is actually pretty informative, and I’d encourage you to watch if you have the time. Here’s the link. It’s so important to support the bee population, and you don’t need to have hives to do so. You can simply plant pollinator-friendly plants, and these are basically anything that has a bloom. There’s a great reason to have flower beds around your home. Even better if they are full of flowers that bloom at different times throughout the season.

The most popular session (over 100 people signed up) was the raised bed session. Although I already have raised beds, I learned quite a bit from this session. It was broken into three parts. I learned a better design for my hoop house, which I’ll try this fall and winter. I picked up lots of little tips and tricks that will make my raised beds even better I hope.

There was such a positive response from the community for the conference, they are already planning for next years. Mom and I decided that we would definitely attend again. There were a number of sessions that I would have liked to attend, but they were offered at the same time as another that I wanted to attend, so I had to pick one. I can’t wait to put some of the knowledge I soaked up to work in my backyard, and to see what the 2nd Annual Urban Agriculture Conference has in store for next spring.

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