Lexington was home to some 1,200 like-minded farmers, educators and policy makers last week when the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s (SSAWG, pronounced ”sawg,” like “log”) annual conference returned to the Bluegrass. We were excited to be with fellow farmers from throughout the Southeast who we only see once a year, at SSAWG. It takes a lot of effort, by a lot of people, to be sure all the logistics are squared away with a welcoming attitude. We have lists of questions that we hope to get answers or ideas about, but equally important is the opportunity to recharge our batteries from the energy of friendship and sharing.
SSAWG in Action
SSAWG fosters local food systems all year long, and the conference is a way to share lessons learned across state boundaries and, we hope, shorten the time it takes to reform those local food systems. Kentucky is fortunate to have Ashton and Sarah, food policy coordinators working out of Mayor Gray’s and Mayor Fishers’ offices, respectively, to boost our economic development. I’m sure they gained as much insight as they shared at this conference. US Department of Agriculture and university scientists elevated the conversation for the betterment of all there, and the trade show alone was worth the price of admission. More than new gadgets, new ideas emerged.
The week kicked off Wednesday at the Hyatt Lexington, with day-long intensive workshops on things like multi-species grazing, permaculture and organic-produce farming systems. Thursday saw those workshops continue, with additional half-day workshops, plus tours in the afternoon. Friday and Saturday were devoted to short sessions on everything sustainable-food-related that anybody might want to learn about. The hard part was picking and choosing which ones to go to and which ones to hope a friend goes to so you could quiz them later. The week capped off with a Kentucky Proud banquet for 900 or so.
Elmwood Stock Farm played host to the Commercial Vegetable Tour on Thursday afternoon. We were glad to open our gate, to show and tell how we do things, because we have benefited from tours of other farms in years past. Plus, it helped motivate us to tidy things up a bit. Despite the cold wind, the southerners were soaking up all they could, snapping photos and scurrying up to John and Ann to get their questions answered. Generally, if you can see the equipment, and/or hear the technique used behind the equipment, even in January, tour guests can visualize how their operation could be more efficient or more productive. It took quite a bit of time to line up our planters and cultivators and demonstrate post-harvest handling systems, only to then tuck them back away, but our guests’ kind words of appreciation made it all worthwhile.
Friends from Afar
When the conference was in Lexington in the late 90s, it was the first farmer meeting I had attended that was not dominated by gray-haired white guys. There I was, a university research-farm manager, feeling all proud of myself, wondering what type of farming all these people did? I ended up sitting next to Harvey, a dark-complected black man from Arkansas. Low and behold, Harvey was growing upwards of 100 acres of squash and melons for commercial sales. He was head and shoulders more knowledgeable than I, in many areas and in many ways. I owe him a great deal of thanks for introducing me to understanding the value behind this whole new sustainable-farming thing. Harvey’s smile is infectious, his handshake powerful, his eyes wise. We look forward to visiting every year. This conference, there were quite a few gray-haired people in the crowd, along with throngs of wide-eyed young people ready to take up the cause. Simply stated, the call to be good food farmers has no age, color or gender barriers. The beauty of the sustainable-agriculture movement is the sharing of knowledge, even with those selling the same things to the same people. We all bring new customers to the table.
Jean, one of our dearest friends, is the conference coordinator and farms with her partner near Tuscaloosa, Ala. She has grown the conference from a few hundred attendees 26 years ago to what it is now. This was the third time for Lexington to host the event. Last year, SSAWG celebrated its silver anniversary here in Lexington, and we sourced 25 ingredients from Kentucky farmers for the event—in January! The main ingredients for this year’s banquet were again from Kentucky, including some hydroponic Bibb lettuce from the Bourbon County FFA (speaking of young people taking up the cause).
I did get a handshake and a hug from Mark, who is not only a fabulous flower farmer in Fayetteville, Ark., but a mentor to dozens, if not hundreds, of young interns he has ushered into the fold. Mark is, without a doubt, one of the greatest human beings to ever walk the face of this earth. We are honored to be his friend.
Alex and Betsy did not make the trip this year. They are food and flower farmers from the golden triangle of North Carolina—the first to build a movable greenhouse, the first to graft heirloom tomatoes onto heartier root stock, and the first farmers we know to develop a plan to transition the farm to the young people that work with them as they retire from farming. Wonder what else they have figured out to advance the cause?
We did see Cathy, who also grows flowers and veggies near Alex and Betsy, markets them at the same markets, and they are the best of friends. Ken grows and markets veggies in the same area—another friend of theirs who has helped each of them be better farmers. Collectively, they pushed the universities and small colleges to develop sustainable agriculture projects and/or programs long ago. Because of their success, Kentucky is aggressively catching up to their lead, thanks to SSAWG.
We put in a lot of time and effort to put our PowerPoint presentations together, host a tour, pull the ingredients together for the banquet and roll out the welcome wagon to our friends—some we’ve known awhile, others we just met. Next year the SSAWG conference will be in Chattanooga, Tenn., which will beg the question: Do we need to spend a bunch of money on travel and registrations and be away from the farm for several days to get new ideas, or stay home and implement what we already know we need to do, based on good ideas from this year’s conference? Ultimately, we are glad to support SSAWG’s work. Having the opportunity to visit and laugh with kindred spirits is invaluable. When you give a little, you gain way more. Hope Harvey is there again next year. —Mac Stone