Laura Fields wants local farms to thrive. So she started a whiskey convention - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 25, 2019 12:30 pm

Laura Fields wants local farms to thrive. So she started a whiskey convention

The Delaware Valley Fields Foundation has lessons on tackling its mission in a new way. Your nonprofit might just learn something from the American Whiskey Convention. Cheers!

Pours from the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation are for local farms.

(Courtesy photo)

To address the challenge you’re working hardest to solve, you might find a solution in an unexpected place.

Laura Fields was raised by a mother who ran a farm nonprofit near Allentown with a mission to share the importance of local farming in a healthy food cycle. Fields was inspired by her mother’s work and understood its importance. She worries that “too much knowledge [has been] lost between the farm and the common citizen.” That much is logical. In 1920, nearly a third of Americans worked in agriculture. Today, it’s two percent, according to the World Bank.

But Fields, 41, has found a different approach than her mother to do something about it.

“As much as I loved seeing the school children learn about milking goats and cows and connecting to their food, I always found that the adults glazed over the information,” Fields said. More Americans buy seasonal produce from still-evolving farmer’s markets, but these people already “get it,” Fields said.

The local food movement needs more fire power. Fields thinks we should look no further than booze 🥃.

In January 2013, Fields founded the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at supporting the region’s agricultural industry. Where her mother taught kids about goat lactation, in 2016 Fields launched a convention about whiskey, using the spirit’s resurgence as a vehicle to explore grains and agriculture with attendees.

On Friday, April 5, the fourth annual American Whiskey Convention will take place at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia’s University City.

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The lesson is clear: How can you pair your mission with fresh ways to get your message out?

Following Fields’s plan of attack for her farming cause, is one way. A whiskey resurgence is afoot — powered mainly by the young. So though Americans spend over a billion dollars annually at local farmer’s markets, we spent $36 billion on spirits in 2016, a quarter of which was on whiskey alone. In short, many of us seem to light up more about alcohol than asparagus.

Armed with the power of the local food movement and wanting more revenue in the hands of farmers, Fields is betting big on the rise of  Pennsylvania’s craft distilling, places like Dad’s Hat Rye and New Liberty and Lancaster County’s Stoll and Wolfe Distillery which are leveraging local grains. Fortunately, Pennsylvania rye has a real legacy.

“The fates of grain farmers and distillers have long been intertwined,” said Fields. “I’m just happy to see them connect again, not to mention be a part of helping make those connections.”

There's a message for impact leaders everywhere ... make connections and deepen roots.

Pennsylvania-based whiskey collectors sometimes sniff at the state’s relatively young distilleries, not yet able to produce at the scale and consistency of the now global Kentucky bourbon industry. But Fields seems to suggest these critics are missing the point and the power of the intertwined supply chain between farm and glass.

Consider this a brief disclosure: this reporter is a wannabe whiskey connoisseur with a soft-spot for local history. To my tastes, the rise of craft distilleries, following the craft brewery movement, is both economically valuable, culturally significant and, well, fun. I’m personally thrilled that Philadelphia’s food community is awakening to Pennsylvania’s rich and historic, if quality-mixed, rye whiskey tradition.

Last summer, I met Tyler Himes, the marketing manager of Dad’s Hat, one of Pennsylvania’s largest distillers, and he, too, gushed about the rediscovering of Pennsylvania’s whiskey roots, and how those roots lie in Pennsylvania farmland. Fields herself is based in Bucks County, and her mother lives near the farm that grows the rye used by Dad’s Hat.

“I was watching that historic farmer-distiller relationship happening again,” Fields said. “I began to travel the state and meet with farmers, distillers, millers, maltsters and realized they all have the same needs. They just don’t have the infrastructure connecting them that was destroyed after Prohibition.”

Farmers needed the distillers for dependable, commercial-scale customers, and the distillers needed a return to unique grains, Fields said.

“Millers, maltsters, cooperages, craftspeople, all of the businesses in PA that once benefited from the success of our state’s booming distilling industry needed to be brought back into the fold again,” Fields said. “So the American Whiskey Convention was born.”

"Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American whiskey. Philadelphia was a huge whiskey city."
Laura Fields

Unlike those adults Fields remembered tuning out as the kids were shown how to milk a goat, Fields said she sees eyes light up when whiskey is part of her education. So her Delaware Valley Fields Foundation work has grown deeper.

In 2016, she launched the SeedSpark program, an effort supported by the United States Department of Agriculture Research Service and Penn State University’s Agricultural Extension to revive Pennsylvania rye grains. The program has now grown 400 pounds of Rosen Rye seed from what started as five ounces in 2015, she said. That grain once made the original Old Michter’s an early Pennsylvania rye whiskey giant. Now Lancaster County’s Stoll and Wolfe Distillery will use it once again.

“I’m focused on bringing back heritage grains,” Fields said. “Rye has lost so much of the character it once had because the rye that used to be used to make it hasn’t been grown in decades.”

Fields notes of the easy policy opportunities to develop tax incentives for using local grain, something that became a staple of the Kentucky bourbon empire. There’s a message for impact leaders everywhere, and something extra special for Philadelphia, she said: make connections and deepen roots.

“Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American whiskey. Philadelphia was a huge whiskey city,” said Fields. “My passion for history makes me stubborn about keeping it here.”

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