PESCADERO -- For Dee Harley, succeeding as a small farmer has involved much more than farming.
Her herd of 200 or so goats produces several award-winning cheeses, but Harley realized long ago that expanding her business to include other products and reaching out to potential customers through agri-tourism were essential to the survival of her dairy.
Harley, 46, shared what's she learned with three busloads of farmers, students, activists and others who rumbled up the coast Wednesday from the annual EcoFarm Conference on sustainable agriculture in Pacific Grove. The conference, which drew 1,800 people from the U.S. and abroad, wraps up Saturday.
About 140 people made the trip to tiny Pescadero to explore Harley Farms and three other operations that exemplify the area's status as a haven for small organic farms: Jacobs Farm, a grower of herbs and edible flowers; TomKat Ranch grass-fed beef; and Fifth Crow Farm, whose products include eggs and vegetables.
Harley, a native of Yorkshire, England, grew her dairy slowly. Along the way she realized she needed to diversify, even if it took time away from cheesemaking. If she didn't, Harley knew she'd have to lower the price of her cheese and produce a lot more of it to stay afloat.
"Ultimately it's to allow the farm to stay small and not dilute the integrity of the product," she said.
Today, she offers a wide variety of products and services including Harleys Farm goat milk bath products, tours and farm-to-table dinners, and team retreats for Silicon Valley corporations. A gift shop sells mohair socks, farming tools, cookbooks and pottery. Harley's latest idea is a line of indoor-outdoor goat milk paint that's so safe and natural, she joked, "you could literally eat it and not die."
Marilyn Conn, whose partner operates an organic citrus and avocado farm in the Central Valley, was impressed by the way Harley has drawn upon a network of artisans and other small farmers. Harley uses food from nearby farms for her dinner events, for instance, while the various signs adorning the buildings are carved by longtime friend and woodworker Three Finger Bil, who also devised the mix of ingredients in the goat milk paint.
"You feel sort of isolated," Conn, 59, said of life on her small farm in Lindsay. "Here it's more a community of farmers."
Building that sense of community among forward-thinking farmers is one of the core goals of this week's conference, sponsored by the nonprofit Ecological Farming Association for 33 years.
Zea Sonnabend, a member of the National Organic Standards advisory board, said in a statement that the conference is an opportunity for "meeting old and new friends, learning time-honored and new farming techniques and getting rejuvenated for the long days of the growing season ahead."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.