It’s a cliche to say that something gets better and better every year, but take it from me: the winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) really does. I’ve attended these annual events for a while now — last year the conference set a new attendance record numbering over 400. Clearly, I am not a farmer — not even a micro-mini farmer — but neither are many of those who attend, because the event is aimed not only at small farmers, but also at home gardeners, cooks, and just plain anyone who cares about healthy food. I am all of these, which is why NOFA-NJ’s mission and motto of “healthy farms, healthy food, healthy land” resonates with me.

“Cultivating Change: Growing the Organic Food Movement” is NOFA-NJ’s theme this year. The conference takes place over two jam-packed weekend days (so working professionals can come), Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29, at Princeton University’s Friend Center. Attendees can sign up for one or both days. Presenters include national, state, and local experts and authorities on such front-and-center topics as raw milk, organic lawn care, incorporating native plants into the home landscape, beekeeping, biodynamics, composting, and raising your own chickens or micro-flock of sheep.

Policy issues like the Food Modernization Act, the Right to Farm Act, and community-based food policy development are discussed in depth by key players.

A pre-conference intensive on Friday, January 27, offers several learning tracks for small farmers and home gardeners. And for the second time a separate kids conference offers a weekend full of fun, age-appropriate activities for the children of those attending. A full lineup of exhibitors and vendors will be on hand, since all tables had been spoken for weeks in advance. Saturday concludes with a networking mixer at the university’s Cap & Gown Club with organic food from New Jersey restaurants and drinks from our breweries and wineries.

This year Small World Coffee has chosen NOFA-NJ as the beneficiary of its third annual Love Show, a month-long community art show in February, which also raises awareness about and funds for one area nonprofit. The show includes love-related artwork from more than 40 area artists and an opening dance party. For more information visit www.smallworldcoffee.com.

The keynote speakers and workshop leaders seem to get more impressive with each passing year. Some are national and international authorities, like Michael Schmidt, who will deliver the closing keynote address. Schmidt, founder of the largest organic dairy processor in Canada, gained fame when he challenged that country’s laws regarding raw milk. Many speakers, though, are New Jersey-based, such as Andy Wyenandt, extension specialist in vegetable pathology at Rutgers, whose session is “Managing Diseases in Organic Vegetable Production,” and Linda Robins, an MD who is president of Montclair Homeopathy and who will explain the benefits and techniques of that time-honored practice on humans and farm animals.

Many names will be familiar to those who follow the local and sustainable food movement. Jonathan White of Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford, whose cheeses and breads can be found at area farmers markets, will explain how he is rebuilding soil fertility and restoring wildlife habitat on his farm. Fran McManus of the Whole Earth Center in Princeton and UnderstandingFlavor.com is reprising her successful foray into exploring tastes and flavors with the children attending the kids’ conference.

Matt Wilkinson of Hard Cider Homestead in East Amwell — and longtime physical education teacher at Princeton High School who established the school’s vegetable garden — will address one of today’s hottest topics: small scale meat processing.

I first came to know Wilkinson five years ago, through an annual multicourse gourmet dinner he mounts each fall using only ingredients that he or friends have grown, raised, hunted, fished, and foraged. At the time, he and his family, including wife, Janelle, who teaches French and dance at Princeton High, and their children, Eleanor and Henry, lived in a small house in Princeton. Three years ago they bought a house and five acres of unused land 20 minutes from Princeton.

“We had waited years for the opportunity to buy what could be a farm,” he says. “The house existed, but there was no farm, although the land is surrounded by preserved farmland. We pretty much raise our own meat animals and grow our own vegetables. We don’t buy meat at all. I like that I’m combining my backgrounds in education and agriculture.” He built an outdoor pizza oven and conducts classes in pizza making, using ingredients from the farm. Primarily, though, he teaches the home processing of chickens, hogs, and sheep, using the heritage breed animals he raises. “We don’t actually have enough animals to keep up with the class demand,” he says.

Wilkinson describes his NOFA talk as “an ‘appetizer’ into small-scale butchering, into processing the animals you raise yourself for meat.” First and foremost, he aims to ease people’s fears, discussing, as he puts it, “mentally and philosophically the notion of what it means to raise an animal from birth to maturity, then take its life, and then eat it.” He will address the equipment needed (“minimal”) and the facilities (“which demand creativity”). Via PowerPoint, he will show the processing of a rabbit and a chicken.

The opening keynote speaker on Saturday is Shannon Hayes, the author of “Grassfed Gourmet,” “The Farmer and the Grill,” and “Radical Homemakers.” Hayes, who lives in upstate New York — working with three generations of her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm — has been spotlighted in the New York Times and on Northeast Public Radio. She is no stranger to the Princeton area, having participated in previous NOFA-NJ conferences and spoken at the Whole Earth Center. Still, I had to ask her in a phone interview why she agreed to make the trek south again, since she is busy running her grassfed meat farm and self-sustaining household, home schooling her two young daughters, blogging in three places (including Yesmagazine.com), maintaining a speaking schedule, and writing another book, due out in September (“Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies, and Living Deliciously”).

“I have selfish and personal reasons,” she says. “I happen to like the farmers and food activists down there. And I learn a lot from the people who are drawn to these events. They are ready to make changes inside and out. It’s exciting and challenging to me to interact with these people.”

The subject of Hayes’ address is “The End of Consumerism.” I tell her that sounds like an optimistic stance. She counters, “You know the difference between an optimist and a pessimist, right? A pessimist thinks things cannot get worse. An optimist knows they can. Well, we’ve just about scraped the bottom of the barrel of what consumerism has to offer. It contributes nothing to our true selves and happiness. We’ve learned that that lifestyle just isn’t serving us. What I’ve come to see is that it is not a hardship to let go of consumerism. Just the opposite.”

Her talk, and the forthcoming book, are centered, she says, on “pinching pennies and living deliciously. Many people are struggling with the economics of, for example, buying grassfed meat. I talk about using every part of the animal and maximizing leftovers. Also, many people are going grain-free and dairy-free, and I’ve folded information on that into it. I used to think that if you ate locally, you were fine. I now know that’s hubris!”

As I perused the list of workshops — 22 on Saturday; 21 on Sunday — I highlighted those I intend to sit in on. Those I have my eye on include:

“Dietary Advice: What’s the [Scientific] Evidence?” by Pam Schoenfeld of Healthy Nation Coalition; “Grass to Glass: Raw Milk and Informed Consumer Choice” by Joseph Heckman of Rutgers, “Building a Local Food Economy in New Brunswick” by students from Rutgers’ Bloustein School; and “Eating Locally and Organically on a Budget” by Mona Laru, founder of Naked Nutrition.

But first among my picks is “A New ‘Traditional’ American Diet: Just Because You’re an American Doesn’t Mean You Have to Eat Like One!” by Michele Jacobson, a Monmouth County resident and author of a book by that name. Her relationship with NOFA-NJ goes back years, to when she was a volunteer. This will be her third conference as a presenter. She is also a certified clinical nutritionist and a graduate of the Academy of Natural Health Sciences in Woodbridge. To be honest, that title and credential swing both ways with me, hinting, fairly or not, of preachiness and pleasure-killing food restrictions. I asked her about this, directly.

‘My message is a very positive one,” she insists. “People come up to me all the time saying things like, ‘please don’t tell me I can’t eat red meat.’ With the exception of maybe one or two substances — say, high fructose corn syrup and trans fats — I say there is nothing you can’t eat. Just try to make it the best possible choice for whatever it is, whether it’s choosing grassfed red meat or organic eggs and poultry. I tell them why these versions are better, and even when it’s OK not to go organic.”

Jacobson herself didn’t always have the financial means to make the best choices. “I chose to pass on certain foods altogether rather than put them into my body,” she says.

She insists that her book is not just another bashing of the typical American diet — typified as it is by highly processed, unnatural, and fast foods. When she spoke at last year’s NOFA-NJ conference, Jacobson talked about developing a new kind of American diet based on four traditional diets of the world. “Any traditional diet is healthier than the typical American one that we know leads to all the Syndrome X health effects,” she says, with Type 2 diabetes and obesity among them. “I reviewed the health statistics for the French, Mediterranean, Japanese, and Indian diets. They each have different aspects in their traditional form — although not in the currently practiced Western- and American-influenced version.”

In her talk at this year’s conference, Jacobson says she will focus on traditional diets from a different slant, those “that are already prevalent in the U.S., making them the new American diets. These are Latino, Italian, and Asian — in their homeland versions. These have become Americanized, of course, so they don’t resemble their traditional, healthful ways. I’ll also highlight as the new traditional American ideal smart food choices like whether or not to choose organic, how to make organic affordable, and the best choices in meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Not all yogurt or types of animal fat are created equal.”

When Jacobson’s book (her first) was published last year, she turned 50. She divides her time between Monmouth County and Vermont. The latter, she points out, has the healthiest population in the U.S. She grew up in New York, where her father sold electronics. “My mom’s story is kind of interesting,” she says. “She was a mom who worked full time in the 1960s, as an office worker, which was not usual for that time. But she still put a four-course dinner on the table every night.” Jacobson, who has been a strict vegetarian for 20 years, has three grown children. “I have one meat eater, one chicken eater, and one kosher,” she says.

NOFA-NJ 22nd Annual Winter Conference, Saturday and Sunday, January 28 and 29, Friend Center, Princeton University. Pre-conference workshops Friday, January 27. For schedules and to register, call 908-371-1111 or visit www.nofanj.org.

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