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Farm to Table Conference: Healthy eating from ground up

| Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This year's Farm to Table conference plants the seeds for a lifetime of healthy eating.

In its sixth year, the two-day conference organized by American HealthCare Group, a Pittsburgh-based health-and-wellness company, will provide cooking demonstrations, information about nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, 65 exhibitors, kids' activities and a local food-tasting event.

One of the speakers, Emily Stevenson of Pleasant Valley Farm in Tionesta, Forest County, has hands-on experience working with "Seeds," which is the theme of the conference. She and her husband live on a diversified family farm and are experts in the care and planting of heirloom varieties of many of their crops.

Heirloom seeds are those from plant varieties cultivated for 50 or more years. Known for their good taste, heirloom vegetables "fell out of favor when our food system began demanding products that are uniformly shaped and hold up to thousands of miles traveled before they reach the consumer," Stevenson says.

"Heirlooms generally do not keep well," she says, "but are more flavorful and more nutritious than their supermarket counterparts."

By saving the seeds from the most-productive or healthiest heirloom plants, farmers or home gardeners ensure a vegetable that is perfectly suited to the growing conditions of their farm or home, she says.

Among the heirlooms in Stevenson's garden this spring are 'Dragon's Tongue' bean, a wax-type green bean noted for its vivid purple stripes, which disappear when blanched, and 'Lady Godiva' squash, a variety with hullless seeds which are good for snacking but, otherwise, inedible. Also new to her garden will be an heirloom variety of fennel, 'Dark Purple Opal' basil, and 'Eden's Gem,' an early-maturing melon variety that dates to 1905.

Stevenson says maintaining the genetic diversity of our foods is important, because growers can't predict which varieties will have resistance to a new insect or disease or will best acclimate to a changing climate.

"It is up to small farmers and home gardeners to preserve these historic varieties not only for their flavor and nutrition, but also as a way to protect our future's food supply," she says.

She recommends that, to achieve success, gardeners should obtain quality heirloom seeds from a trusted source, whether it's a neighbor or relative who saves seeds, or a reputable seed company. Some seed exchanges, for a membership fee, welcome home gardeners who can swap their seeds with fellow garden enthusiasts.

Because Western Pennsylvania can get frost as late as the end of May, Stevenson says it's best to start seeds indoors.

"Right now, I have seven varieties of tomatoes, eight varieties of peppers, two varieties of eggplant, three varieties of cucumbers, plus an assortment of winter squash, melons, herbs and flowers started already, with more to come in the next few weeks," she says.

Other speakers at the Farm to Table conference will address topics ranging from "Planting Seeds for Kids" (Jen Clawges and Lisa Vanzin, Slippery Rock University) and "Preparing a Kitchen Herb Garden" (Michelle Jones and Lionel Hong Long) to "The Italian Garden Project" (Mary Menniti) and "Cultivating Shiitake Mushrooms on Wood" (Robbie and Jessie Orth, Quiet Creek Herb Farm). A variety of health-and-wellness demonstrations and speakers also are scheduled.

The Friday night Local Food Tasting will feature samples of locally produced wines, cheeses, organic raw juices, salad dressing, milk, cottage cheese, cured meats, desserts and more.

Organizer Erin Hart says attendance at the conference has grown each year, and last year, 2,500 people participated.

"People are very interested in where their food comes from and in finding sources of fresh, real food," she says.

Additional Information:

6th annual Farm to Table conference

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Local food tasting, 5-8 p.m. Friday.

Tickets: $15 for one-day conference registration; $25 both days. Local food tasting is $25; $30 at the door

Where: David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown

Details: farmtotablepa.com

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