HOBART — Abra Berens spent the bulk of her childhood working on her parents' pickle farm outside south of Holland, Michigan, never understanding the importance of the job.
"The days were long. They were hot. We never saw where the cucumbers went. We just dropped them off at Heinz or the local processor ... and that was it. It was simply a product that came through our hands, or at least that's how I felt about it," the writer, chef and former farmer said.
It wasn't until Berens landed her first job at the storied Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor that she learned to love local foods, and how the stories behind them connect farmers and the consumer on a deeper level.
After an eight-year stint farming (which shes says she hated) and opening Local Foods in Chicago, Berens joined Granor Farms in southwest Michigan as a chef to create farm-to-table dinners, once again finding her passion.
Berens joined more than 100 farmers, consumers and food lovers Friday at NWI Food Council's third annual FED: Food Expo & Discussion at County Line Orchard to network, attend workshops, meet exhibitors and experience a farmers market-style expo.
Speakers covered topics like food rescue, composting, forage, home apothecary, farms to sources, regenerative growing and community resource mapping.
She said she is inspired by the event's sponsor, NWI Food Council, and the volunteer-driven group's mission to build a sustainable, locally oriented food system in Northwest Indiana through networking, educating, advocacy and projects.
The group is also an invaluable resource for young farmers entering the industry.
In the face of a farmers' shortage and aging population, NWI Food Council and others like Granor Farms, where Berens works, are doing all they can to promote a thriving local food system.
"A hundred years ago, 30 percent of our population were farmers. Today, it's 3 percent," she said.
"It's scary to me but I know by engaging our communities, by listening to each other and celebrating the food that takes a tremendous amount of work to raise, to ship, to sell at farmers' markets, to prepare, and to share over a table, we can do so much more together than on our own."
NWI Food Council President Anne Massie said the organization was fortunate enough to secure three new grants this year to help support young, local farmers gain footing in the industry.
The grants will establish a farming tool rental system; build existing farmers' markets and establish news ones; and hire a value-chain coordinator that connects farmers with wholesale producers and institutions, she said.
More than 200 farmers, food activists, educators, business owners and members of various community organizations have attended the expo in past years.
They've gathered to promote farming as a way of life and to discuss how to make food accessible to everyone in Northwest Indiana, regardless of their income level or socioeconomic status.