How to Make the Most Out of a Farming Conference
Farm Conference season is here and we know just how daunting it can be. Whether you're an introvert, new to farming, or can't decide what classes to take, the packed agendas and extreme networking can be a lot to take in. As you register and prepare for your chosen conferences, we wanted to offer some advice for getting the most out of your farm conference experience. Below are 16 things to consider when attending these high speed, interactive, and informative events.
1. Set an Overall Goal
Every conference has something unique to offer and sometimes the offerings themselves are so diverse that it can be hard to narrow down what it is you are actually hoping to achieve by attending. Spending some time with the conference schedule before you arrive can help you set an overall goal which can guide your workshop selections and experiences. Are you trying to meet more people in the community? Is there a practitioner whose work speaks to your own that you'd like to spend some time with? Are you hoping to gain real insight into the practical workings of your farm? Whatever the overall motives you have for attendance are, it is good to write them down and let them be the big picture that helps you get the most out of the available offerings.
2. Review the Agenda (But Stay Flexible)
Once you have your overall goals outlined, you can look through the offered workshops and experiences and make decisions about how you are going to divide up your time. While it is likely that many if not all of the classes may sound interesting, it is important to be choosy. Conferences happen in such short windows and it is important to get the most out of your time spent off the farm. Go through the schedule of each day and circle all of the classes that speak to the needs outlined in your overall goal. Once you've circled everything there is to choose from, you can go back and prioritize what is the most crucial. This schedule is your guide for the conference, but flexibility is important too. Picking your number one and number two choices and allowing for game time decisions can lead to surprisingly informative and helpful experiences. Often times sessions will be recorded and offered after the conference for free or for purchase and you can prioritize what you'd like to see in person and what you'd like to review after the conference is over. You may meet someone at the conference who persuades you to take a class that wasn't on your radar and this can lead to new ideas and inspirations.
3. Make a Plan with Your Team
If you are planning to attend the conference with your farm team, it is useful to make your plan together. Allowing each team member to contribute their own thoughts and goals helps you make a plan that fulfills everyone's agenda and also contributes the most to the operation overall. Going to a conference with your farm team and not having a plan will likely still lead to rewarding experiences, but taking the time to divide and conquer, splitting up and hitting more workshops, brings the most benefit to the farm. Once the conference is over, it is important to come together as a group and share what each person gleaned from their workshops and sessions so that every team member gets a glimpse into the lessons learned.
4. Explore Scholarship Options
Farming conferences are great experiences, but often times the stacked speaker rosters, food and accommodations can come at a sizable cost. Many conferences offer scholarship opportunities for new and beginning farmers to help make the trip doable for those who may not be able to afford the going ticket price. Additionally, some conferences offer volunteer opportunities that allow participants free or reduced ticket prices. If you're struggling to make it work but eager to attend, contacting the conference organizers and seeing what the options are is a good first place to start.
5. Prepare for Conversations
This might make you think of talking to yourself in the mirror, and for some of us this may actually be the case, but the point here is to make the most of the potential connections you will make at the conference. If you are an introvert and tend to stick to the edges of rooms, it is good practice to strike up conversations with random people throughout your day, in the grocery store or at the gas station, in preparation for your time spent socializing at the conference. If there are key people in the community, leaders in the field, or others that you have questions for, it is good to write these down and to think mindfully about how you could bring these up when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes you only have one shot to bend the ear of a sought after elder and it is essential to be prepared in order to make the most of the opportunity.
6. Decide Who You Want to Meet Before the Conference
Whether the conference is regional, national, or even international, you have likely been drawn to it as much for its content as for the people who will be attending with you. Reconnecting with the agrarian community is very important not only for the momentum that builds change into the systems of our world, but also for the opportunities that such connections can bring directly to you and your farm. Figuring out what speakers, workshop leaders, and community organizers you want to make connections with before you arrive can help you prioritize your time during social hours, meals, and at evening fireside chats.
7. Be Strategic with your Time
Managing time at conferences is a goal that always seems to go sideways. We go with the best intentions to do all of the things and we find ourselves lost in the chaos of it all. When making your conference plan, it is helpful to schedule in free time, breaks, and wiggle room to ensure that you're not overdoing it and to make room for the spontaneous events you can't plan for. If you don't give yourself enough space to process the incredible amount of information you will be continually trying to digest, you will lose valuable insights gained day to day. Fill your schedule but not to the max and take time after each session to be sure you've written down the take home messages you came for.
8. Be Smart with your Smart Phone
Smartphones are undeniably useful in a conference setting. They empower each of us to connect with one another instantly through social media, texting, and email and the designated conference hashtag is a fun way to engage with the community that has gathered. Posting stories of sessions on instagram, talking up workshops on facebook, and taking selfies with inspiring people you meet along the way allows your connection to grow from the conference even after the workshops are over and you're back on the farm. Making these connections is fun and important, but it is also important to have a good balance between your social media content creation and real life socializing. During classes it is important to put your smartphone down and turn the ringer off (unless you are using it as a camera to capture slide information or photos of the activities being carried out.) Taking your selfies during social time and then putting your phone away to post later can capture the moment but not steal it from you and those you are interacting with. Use your smartphones mindfully at conferences and just be sure that the smartphones aren't using you.
9. Go to Events Before and After the Conference
It can be hard to get away when you have a farm to run and this can sometimes make it difficult to go to the extra events happening before the conference starts or after it ends. If it is the only conference you will attend all year, making the time to do the extras can enhance your overall experience. Whether it is a farmer mixer or a farm field trip, the additional connections and learning experiences contained in these special offerings can bring inspiration and memories that last for years. Some of my favorite conference experiences weren't on the regular schedule and actually occurred during the casual gatherings of farmers before the conference started where we were all able to drink beer or soda, talk shop, and tell stories.
10. Sleep Well
With so much activity packed into such a short amount of time, it can be hard to prioritize good sleep. Staying up late and waxing poetic about the state of the world can be time well spent, but it is important to get good sleep to ensure you are healthy and best able to handle the rigorous schedule of events and socializing. Sharing rooms for the lowered cost of staying on location is smart, but be sure you haven't crammed the room with so many people that you can't get the rest you need. Bringing headphones, earplugs, eye masks, or whatever else you need to get into the state of relaxation that promotes sleep is important. Avoiding the temptation to party hard every night can make you more accountable during the day.
11. Connect with the Speakers
If you go to a session that really speaks to you or your work, it is good practice to linger after the session and express gratitude to the speaker for their insight and presentation. This can be a simple introduction of who you are and why the talk mattered to you, or it can even be one or two questions you are left with after the talk. Generally the speaker will be excited to answer your questions and connect with you but it is also important to read the room. If you are getting the vibe that the speaker is exhausted and ready to move on, you should say your piece and move along. If the speaker appears eager to hear you out and has a lot to say, it can be good to move the conversation from the session room to the hallway so that the next presenter can prepare for their session.
12. Take Good Notes, Not Too Many Notes
Sometimes we go to sessions that are so jam packed with information that we find ourselves frantically trying to write down every word in hopes of remembering everything that was said. This can actually remove us from the information and block our ability to absorb it. Taking good notes is a skill, but it starts with learning to balance your listening with your writing. Chances are you will use the notes you have to further your own investigations into the material. Writing down key phrases and anticipating researching them on your own later can give you a better experience in the present moment. Often times conferences are now recorded and you can buy the sessions afterward if you feel like there were things you may have missed.
13. Balance Information with Experiences
When making your conference selections, it is good to balance out the heavy, information packed sessions with those that engage you in other ways. Going to too many in depth workshops in a row can drain you physically and mentally. You may find yourself losing focus, feeling overwhelmed, or even nodding off. Finding a balance between the heavy hitters and sessions that involve participation, movement, or group activities can help give you the stamina you need to keep going.
14. Bring Business Cards
In the world of farming, marketing ourselves and our products is such a huge part of our success as a business, but is often our least favorite part of the craft. When going to a conference you may meet people that can further your own aspirations with your land and offerings and you want them to remember you amidst the sea of others they will meet during the gathering. Having a simple business card that has your name, farm name, farm location, phone number, email address, and potentially your social media handles gives you something tangible to put in the hands of important connections. Having a beautiful picture of your farm, products, livestock, or produce can also help draw people's attention to your card when they are shuffling their stack at the end of the conference.
15. Visit the Trade Show
Alongside the amazing educators and craftsman that speak at conferences in session halls and ballrooms, there is typically a large section of the conference dedicated to a trade show. This collection of vendors is generally an assortment of companies that provide services, products, and solutions for growers and gardeners alike. Getting into the trade show area and investigating these businesses for yourself has a lot of benefits. Often times the conferences are attended by regional reps of helpful businesses that can steer you to the services offered in your region. The trade show is also full of deals, raffles and other opportunities that are unique to the show room floor.
16. Follow Up
Chances are, at the end of the conference you will be shuffling your own stack of cards, finding email addresses and handles written in your notebook, and following new friends on social media. For those connections that really matter to your personal goals, it is appropriate to follow up. This can be a simple greeting that reminds conference goers that you connected and that you hope to stay connected in the future, or it can be a more direct communication regarding something you had agreed to check in about. Ideas and collaborations proposed during the conference are only as powerful as the time you commit to following up and working with the individuals to bring your shared dreams to life.