DOTT, PA. -- Confined to quarters by winter cold, the farmer on a recent afternoon was perusing the minutes of the 1880 meeting of the state fruit growers' society when a thought occurred.

In agriculture, the farmer was reminded again by this antique volume, there isn't all that much that's new.

There was a lengthy discussion about whether birds were really the fruit grower's friends. There was talk about the use of soft coal ashes for insect control in the orchards. A committee was appointed to study the use of lime for fungus prevention.

Bird problems, insect problems, fungus problems continue to plague modern-day orchardists, despite the arsenal of chemical solutions now available, and committees are being named all the time to study these venerable intrusions.

The other thing that struck the farmer from his reading was that the society, even 110 years ago, was meeting in January. Logical, of course, because winter is the slow time for fruit and vegetable growers, who are either looking back or looking forward.

Just as they were going to meetings a century ago, farmers continue to spend their winters in what sometimes seems to be a never-ending succession of seminars, conventions, forums and conferences.

There is some value in these convocations, although more often than not they serve as an excuse for socializing or as a vehicle for academicians to expound on matters that tend to glaze over the eyes. Politicians find the meetings useful, as it gives them another forum for extolling the romantic virtues of the family farmer.

Modern farmers have developed these meetings into such an art form that their 19th-century brethren would likely be astonished.

Mimicking doctors and lawyers and teachers, the major farm groups hold their winter conventions in exotic warm places that presumably make it easier for talking turkey and confirming their own notions of just how bad things really are back on the farm.

The farm magazines have refined this even more. They regularly advertise winter "educational" tours to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China -- almost everywhere, in fact -- where farms are visited and costs are written off as a business expense.

This farmer is not immune to the virus of winter meetings, although he has had neither the temerity nor the resources to hie himself away to some foreign land to study the intricacies of growing radicchio or parsnips.

This winter's travel agenda includes meetings in New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the nation's capital. Largely because of guilt about leaving the farm or a fear of terminal boredom, the farmer has rejected other travel opportunities.

There is much to be learned, however. One conference features a talk by an Ohio farmer who teaches how to sell a $2 pumpkin for $10. Another offers a day-long course in soil management for a mere $380 tuition fee. The sponsor also happens to be a fertilizer company.

Another conference includes tours of innovative farmers' markets, which seems a curious thing to do in the dead of winter when not so much as a leaf of spinach is grown. Still another lures eastern farmers to California to hear speeches by eastern farming experts.

So the farmer, if he is worth his salt, must attend at least one or two of these events just to remind himself why he doesn't go to more of them. If it's socializing he wants, the farmer can go down to the general store at Dott and talk all day.

Rather than gallivanting around to these faraway winter meetings, the farmer finds it more useful to stay at home with the 1880 minutes of the fruit growers' society and other antique readings that tend to teach and provoke the imagination more than any of these public gatherings.

It was pure serendipity, but in the 1880 minutes the farmer came upon more important clues in his search for a low-cost, safe and effective way to control pests in his vegetable plots. The answer, obliterated by modern chemistry, lies in these old-time books, and so the farmer's reading intensifies.

Those old minutes, by the way, reflected intense debate over the problems caused by birds in the orchards. "Let us see where we stand," said one Josiah Hoopes. "Mr. Merceron kills all the robins, Mr. Sprout all the pheasants and Judge Stitzel all the sparrows. I have never seen the green worm in the city since the sparrow has been introduced. In England, we see {sparrows} by the millions and they are considered useful."

The meeting ended, reassuringly, with one member surmising that the sentiment of the society was in favor of birds. The farmer felt good about that, a little smug even, for he had learned seasons ago that his best friends were the birds that he coaxed to the farm to help patrol for bugs.

And he probably learned that from an old book on a cold day in January.

Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture reporter who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch.