Even before sitting down to enjoy their goat cheeseburgers, conference attendees had already had a full morning.
Between lectures on honeybee production, wild hog control and applied robotics, guests at the Tennessee State University Small Farm Expo had the opportunity to attend a great number of workshops since the gates had opened that morning. The warm, breezy day was a welcomed change from last year’s heat which was referenced frequently by both conference attendees and speakers.
But why goat cheeseburgers? Tennessee State University’s agricultural focus has always been on small farms and marginal land, which in many cases inspires producers to raise goats. Indeed, the University Research Farm boasts a major meat goat production herd, which means fields of bounding goat kids and paddocks of ambling bucks.
As researchers on the farm tour explained, goats are ideally suited to land that is too brushy for cattle and too steep to cultivate. In fact, goats can transform brushy wooded lots into highly performing pastures with managed grazing.
As visitors on the farm tour looked on, graduate students and university professors alike explained how one major condition of their research was that the goats had to be able to produce uniform and desirable meat on unimproved, low-maintenance forages.
This means that the research being done can be immediately useful to landowners interested in reclaiming old pastures or forest edges. Later, as conference attendees filed through the lunch line, plates were piled high with goat cheeseburgers and goat curry — direct products of the research they had seen earlier.
Other visitors to the Small Farm Expo spent their day learning about an entirely different protein — beans.
Some of the other researchers at Tennessee State University are investigating varieties of beans that are drought resistant, high in protein and competitive with yields of traditional soybeans.
The bean research plots were decidedly less lively than the goat pastures but were far more colorful-yard long beans, improved crowder peas and varieties of mung beans are grown side-by-side in the field and provide the material for the university research.
In another field, pigeon peas are grown in between rows of corn, shading out weeds and fixing nitrogen during the growing season. Pigeon peas are a popular crop in Asia and Africa and can fix up to 250 lb/nitrogen an acre in some parts of the United States.
Visitors were invited to tour the fields of intercropped corn and peas and were then encouraged to contact TSU Extension for seed if they were interested in planting this crop in their home gardens.
In fact, several times throughout the course of the day visitors were encouraged to reach out to their local TSU Extension agents to learn more about livestock and crops for marginal land and small farms.
Additional offerings at the Small Farm Expo focused on regional 4-H activities, the economics of purchasing a tractor and touring the new “smart” greenhouses.
These greenhouses use passive heating by the sun to create ideal growing conditions for starting plants, but then self-regulate to maintain that temperature.
Whereas some large greenhouses use fans to circulate air when their indoor temperature gets too high, these structures’ entire roofs split apart to automatically adjust the temperature.
Technology and innovation in agriculture was another theme of the day that was most clearly seen in the award presented by the University for Small Farmer of the Year. John and Bobbie Ingle won the award for their use of green technology in breeding and production on their Cowan, Tennessee beef farm.
From profitable livestock to alternative crop production strategies, the Tennessee State University Small Farm Expo showcased some of the best of small-scale agriculture in the state and paid recognition to a diverse group of farmers.
Nearly 400 visitors from all over the state attended the Expo in Nashville, and while they may have learned any number of things at the conference, one thing is for certain- they will definitely remember their lunch.