DURHAM — Attendance at the annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference has doubled in the past few years, and the crowd of farmers looks a lot younger.
This weekend, more than 1,200 farmers, restaurateurs and others from across the Carolinas filled the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Research Triangle Park for the event.
"I think that demonstrates the tremendous growth in interest in sustainable, locally grown food," said Roland McReynolds, director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, which hosted the conference.
But the trend isn't without its challenges. Among the hot topics Saturday: how to promote local food despite its often higher cost. It's a big problem for restaurants, since a national distributor can offer lower prices than the farmers market down the street.
"We can't afford to charge much over $23 an entrée," said Amy Tornquist of Durham's Watts Grocery, speaking at a "Farm-to-Restaurant" panel discussion. "It puts me in a tremendous bind for local pork and beef."
Farmers can provide discounts to major buyers, but small, independent restaurants usually don't qualify. Chefs like Tornquist often pay full retail prices at a farmers market. And the choice to go local isn't going to make a restaurateur rich.
"Amy and I run our restaurants as nonprofits, essentially," said Andrea Reusing, owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill. "Farmers and restaurateurs are being asked to bear the costs of providing high-quality foods to humans."
Tornquist said her restaurant sometimes even loses money on food. "The bar makes me break even," she said. "I wish people would drink more at breakfast."
Things could be looking up though - the restaurant owners said they've been hearing from more area farmers lately who want to sell to eateries.
The increasing popularity of the local food movement has attracted recent college graduates to farming. That's music to the ears of agricultural veterans like John Vollmer of Bunn, who was named Farmer of the Year on Saturday.
"We see for the most part how young this crowd is, and that's exciting," Vollmer said.
The conference's growth also appealed to the vendors who filled the halls of the Sheraton. Companies selling everything from seeds to solar panels competed for the farmers' attention.
Others, like Alabama soap maker Gregory Flamer, hoped to find fans of organic products. Flamer was hawking his shea butter soap like an infomercial pitchman.
"It'll change your life," he promised, rubbing a free sample on anyone who'd offer his hand.
A few booths away, Louie Hough of Red Springs was talking his fellow farmers into organic beekeeping.
"We're learning that a lot of the problems with bees right now are man-made," Hough said. "Let the bees build the hive the way they want it."
Hough said he attends the conference each year to get ideas from other farmers.
"You'll learn the new tools, the new seeds - ideas such as solar power," he said.
And McReynolds, the conference director, said more farmers will tap into the local movement. He figures the event, in its 26th year, will draw a bigger crowd next year.
"There's huge potential for more farmers to be benefiting from this growth," he said.
The conference ends today with workshops on butchering, growing hops and running farmers markets.