Food, farmers connect at Focus on Farming conference

TULALIP — In this day and age, it’s not enough for farmers to grow food.

They also must be experts at marketing, Twitter and Facebook.

They must protect their land not just from development but from ecological wear and tear.

They must work against a national food system that rewards cheap food and devalues small family farms.

Those were just some of the views expressed at Focus on Farming VI: Growing Together, Snohomish County’s regional agriculture conference on Thursday at Tulalip Resort Casino.

More than 500 people, including farmers, ranchers, scientists and others involved in agriculture, turned out for the conference at the swanky hotel and casino west of Marysville.

It was a new location for the conference, which has outgrown its past two venues, the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe and, most recently, the Lynnwood Convention Center.

“To see a room this full is so exciting,” said Linda Neunzig, the county’s agriculture project coordinator and an Arlington farmer who emceed the all-day event. “It’s pretty cool.”

Snohomish County officials and a host of volunteers pulled together the event and an all-star list of speakers.

That included author David Mas Masumoto, who lectured enthusiastically on the plight of the modern sustainable farmer during a gourmet lunch of local food prepared by local chefs.

He sprinkled in passages from his latest book, “Wisdom of the Last Farmer,” telling the story of his father’s 80-acre peach farm south of Fresno, Calif.

“It’s time we put the culture back into agriculture. We can no longer farm alone,” he said, questioning the relationship of consumers to gigantic corporate-run farms.

“We are at what they might call a tipping point. There is a growing segment of the other type of farming that is transforming the food world and it’s transforming us at the same time.

“The public wants to know our story.”

Dana Wilk, 34, said she was moved by Masumoto’s poetic and impassioned talk.

She and her husband, Brian Wilk, left their full-time jobs eight months ago to become apprentices at Persephone Farm on the Kitsap Peninsula.

They attended the conference to celebrate the season’s end and to find inspiration to start their own sustainable farm.

They know it won’t be easy.

“It’s been really great,” Dana Wilk said of their apprenticeships. “It takes a lot of intellectual rigor to plan a farm.”

The Wilks were a couple of the hundreds of attendees who took part in the conference’s 28 breakout sessions, covering myriad ag topics, including wine grapes for Western Washington, small-scale poultry processing, anaerobic digesters that can turn manure into fertilizer and social networking tools for farm marketing.

Dianna Biringer, who owns Biringer Farm in Arlington and Everett with her husband, Mike, said she is already using Facebook and Twitter to connect with consumers.

She was enlightened all the same, however, in a class with marketing consultant Keven Elliff, who told the group: “Your customers want a deep connection to your food, to the land. People want to help you succeed. People love your products.”

“I’m new at it,” Biringer said of online social networking for her business. “I want to learn all I can.”

Biringer said farming has never been the most profitable business for her family, but she is encouraged by a rising interest in local food in Snohomish County.

“It’s a way of life,” she said. “I think people, the general consumer is recognizing how important agriculture is.”

Thursday’s speakers and events were sympathetic to the challenges farmers face.

That included Judy Olson, executive director of the Farm Service Agency of Washington, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

During her brief talk to the entire conference, she emphasized the importance of Western Washington farmers in particular.

“You are the folks who interface with the greater population,” she said. “You are the most important people on the planet.

“Everyone needs a farmer.”

Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037,

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