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A Love Letter to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

We are who others help us to be.

Most of the farming we do was learned from somebody else. We just put our little spin of technology, wherewithal and personality to it. 

More often than not, over the last 30 or so years, we would be traveling to or co-hosting the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s annual conference this time of year. Known as SSAWG (pronounced saug), 1,200 diversified small-scale farmers like us would converge on a convention center somewhere in the Southeast to learn, laugh, swap lies and pick up farming tidbits that turn out to be game changers. The diversity of people with whom we have had a chance to come to know and visit with thanks to SSAWG over the years has enriched our lives and livelihood. It’s funny to think about how we get to where we got.

I landed the job as the Kentucky State University Research and Demonstration Farm manager in 1985, damn excited for the opportunity before me. My task was to convert 175 acres of working farmland into a university research station. 

My boss-mentor-confidant-friend of 20-plus years was the late Dr. Harold Benson, son of a South Carolina sharecropper, holding a PhD in agricultural economics from The Ohio State University. He was utilizing separate but equal US Department of Agriculture funding to educate and improve the lives of limited-resource farmers (a politically correct term for minority farmers in federal-government vernacular) in Kentucky. As one of the 17 historically black land-grant colleges in the Southeast, KSU had access to funds not offered to UK, UofL, Western and Morehead, and the more Dr. Benson accomplished, the more money USDA offered to support the program.

Over two decades, ‘Doc’ assembled a multi-racial team of scientists, technicians and farm hands who built nationally renowned agricultural extension programs and an internationally recognized aquaculture program. What started out as weekly staff field walks turned into monthly public field days, still known as the Third Thursday Thing, even receiving a commendation from the US Secretary of Agriculture. (That’s a photo of Mac above, on the day Third Thursday Thing was recognized.)

The University of Kentucky was not threatened by our upstart agriculture effort, since we at KSU were interested in the oddball stuff, like bees and organics. In fact, since many of us working at KSU had UK ties, collaborations went well compared to issues in other southern states with deep-seated segregation. Doc gave us a fair bit of latitude to design systems that were not only efficient but produced incredible-tasting foods like pastured poultry and organic produce. We were the first university farm in the South to certify acreage as organic. 

A few years into my role of developing a research farm, I learned SSAWG was hosting a conference at the Radisson in Lexington. Much to my dismay, when I ascended the escalator to the meeting area, I had trouble finding the farmers among all the hippies, women and diversity of different people. (Stick with me, folks. I know I’m putting my foot in my mouth.) 

At one of the workshops—cover cropping or soil building, I think—I sat quietly in my jeans, red wings and button down shirt, convinced I was the only real farmer among a room full of gardeners, all eager to hear an alternative to chemical-fertilizer recommendations. The soft-spoken Black man to my left introduced himself as Harvey. It turned out, Harvey and his family have been growing big acreages of squash, melons, peppers and other crops in Arkansas, with wholesale contracts, packing sheds and harvest crews. He was a big-time farmer. Lots of those people I at first glance assumed weren’t farmers were, in fact, farmers with something to teach me.

In conjunction with Heifer International, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and some go-getters (including farmer-author Wendell Berry), we at KSU designed, built and permitted the Mobile Processing Unit, the first legal poultry-processing facility available to independent farmers in the US. Small-scale farmers could now feed birds for eight weeks, butcher them themselves, and legally sell them at farmers markets in their own state. An outgrowth of that project is that Kentucky now has numerous USDA-approved processing plants utilized by dozens of small farmers like us, allowing us to raise and sell meat for Kentucky and beyond. 

I left my work at KSU in 2004, but SSAWG continued to be an important part of my life. Likewise, many of the successes both KSU and Elmwood Stock Farm are having today are directly related to SSAWG and the annual conferences.

SSAWG introduced me to friends and countless farmers, including my own wife. It matters none which are white, Black, queer, straight, even North Carolina basketball fans. The people who have come together over the years of the SSAWG conference are selfless stewards of the sustainable agriculture movement, pioneers of biologically based and technologically driven decision making, leaders of the local-food movement from across the Southeast. Just like a rich soil or forest ecosystem, the more diverse the local-food movement is, the more stable it will be.

The SSAWG conference came back to Lexington and Louisville over the years, and I worked to get as much local food into the banquet meals as possible. (Imagine doing this while feeding 1,000 people and dealing with corporate kitchen companies.) On the 25th anniversary of the SSAWG conference, the organizers asked me to source 25 ingredients for the banquet to show how far we had come. Some were easy, like sweet potatoes and greens, chicken thanks to KSU, and salad fixins. Remember, this is in the dead of winter. I even ended up finding walnuts from a man who collects them from the same trees every fall. (He will not tell you where they are, other than in Kentucky, south of here.) 

The SSAWG organization, itself a nonprofit with the skeleton budget of a nonprofit, fell victim to COVID-19, sadly shutting its doors last year. There will be no more SSAWG conferences. We are left with the friendships, better farming operations, and new local and regional food and farming organizations and movement leaders as a result of its 30-year run.

I am grateful for SSAWG, the people it brought together, the strides it made for sustainable agriculture in the region and beyond, and the organizations and movements it spawned. OAK, the Organic Association of Kentucky, brought us an awesome virtual conference in SSAWG’s stead this year. Attendance was up from past years’ in-person events. Thanks to OAK for carrying on the tradition of bringing together a group of people that care about good food. Everyone will be better off by being engaged, albeit digitally. 

Be it SSAWG or OAK—or one of the organizations listed below, or others I’ve certainly overlooked—it’s interesting to me that the future of good food in this country is being led by a diverse group of people that at first glance don’t even look like farmers. —Mac Stone

February is Black History Month 

As part of continuing our learning about and offering support in areas of historic, systemic injustices, we are highlighting some of the farmers, food bloggers, organizations and others focusing on racial justice and the historic contributions of African Americans. The people and resources we share here are meant to start conversations and spark curiosity. These highlights are by no means comprehensive! 

With the absence of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, we look to other organizations for their leadership in food and farming, particularly in advancing food sovereignty, land access and education for Black farmers and people of color in the Southeast and throughout the US:

Black Soil: Our Better Nature (Here in Kentucky!)

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives

Southern Echo


Black Farmers’ Network

National Black Food & Justice Alliance

Black Church Food Security Network

Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund

40 Acres & A Mule Project

Check out the stories and efforts of these organizations, and share with us other organizations you think we should know about!

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