Having attended the annual conference of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group last weekend in Little Rock, Doug and Montana have lots to share. We have never be so convinced that our entire food economy is in the early but growing stages of a fundamental shift in how we as a society produce, distribute, and consume food. Over 2500 small farmers, researchers, and suppliers met for three days at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock. Every session was standing-room only and we are still working to organize and develop plans to incorporate all the we learned at the farm. Of all of the sessions and conversations we engaged in during the conference, we were most inspired by all of the stories of success we heard from people engaged in similar small-scale agricultural production in our region. All across the southeast, small sustainable and organic farms are beginning, growing, and prospering. Following is a list of highlights from the conference:
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan Talk: Dr. Merrigan, a career-long champion of sustainable agriculture, is the number two person in the Department of Agriculture. According to Merrigan, small sustainable farms while still small in overall percentage of production, are the fastest growing segment of the US agricultural economy. She cited research that for every one million dollars in food sales from small farms using sustainable practices, 13 jobs are created. This is compared to 3 jobs/million dollars in large-scale commodity agriculture. In addition, Merrigan outlined an exciting list of new and proposed federal initiatives to support the development of local food economies. The recent grant received by the City of Oxford to develop a Farmers’ Market, and grants received by local growers for high-tunnel hoop houses (Isis Gardens in Tupelo) are examples of the new initiatives. Many more are initiatives are on the way.
CSA Farm Discussion Session: We participated in a 90 minute facilitated discussion with over 40 farmers from across the southeast who operate using a CSA model. We shared how we price, market, communicate, and distribute our food and learned what many other farms are doing. In the end, we came away with a long list of great ideas for improving the quality and service we provide our supporters who purchase our food-shares.
Mississippi Networking Meeting: Over 80 people from all across Mississippi attended this session! As we listened to the introductions and people describing what they were doing, over-and-over we said and we could hear people saying, “I never knew there were so many positive things related to local food happening in Mississippi.” Everyone left this meeting with a desire and commitment to network, support, and collaborate to promote our common goals and values. Marion Sansung, and Alison and Mike Bueler from the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi shared how they have been doing this type of collaborative work and provided many positive suggestions for how we can work with them to continue these efforts. The the enthusiasm, energy, commitment, and knowledge of a group of young people working with the Food Corps left us with tremendous hope and optimism.