YAZOO CITY, MISS.,
DEC 7, 2002: Some 125 growers, researchers and other
agriculture advocates gathered here Dec. 7 to look into the
future of farming in delta country.
Organic cotton pioneer Steve McKaskle keynoted the Mississippi
Sustainable Agriculture Working Group's first statewide conference
-- "Agriculture That Lasts: How to Keep Farming."
McKaskle's personal cotton research center"
for more on his farm operation.) The event was Mississippi's
first statewide sustainable ag conference
Kicking off the historic event was Dr. John Ikerd, one of
the acknowledged prophetic voices of sustainability, according
to conference organizers. (Ikerd’s November address
to farmers in Oregon was run as a 3-part series on the New
Farm web site. Click
here to check it out.)
"Agriculture today is in the middle of a great transition,"
said Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at
the University of Missouri and a long-time Extension researcher
in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Georgia. "What once was
characterized by family farms and rural communities is now
characterized by industrial farms."
Such "biological assembly lines" often split communities
between "those who stand to profit from them and those
whose quality of life will be degraded," he said. As
multinational corporations increasingly control agriculture,
Ikerd said, the production of the nation's food and fiber
may well follow manufacturing overseas, where land, labor
and other inputs could mean even higher profits for shareholders
and corporate officers.
The downside to such a myopic view, besides financial and
social ruin in Rural America, Ikerd said, would be to lose
one of the most important ingredients in national security.
"We could become as dependent on other countries for
food as we are for oil," he said. "How many small
wars will we have to fight as a result? How many people will
have to die?"
In sustainable agriculture, by contrast, "Farmers work
together," Ikerd said. "They build communities with
their customers and each other. "It's about caring,"
he told the audience. "It requires operating with a sense
of moral character and responsibility."
Ikerd urged a new direction in federal and state farm policy.
In addition, he said, consumers should buy as much of their
food locally as possible. "Our security depends on relationships,"
How to keep farming:
More than 30 recipes for success
Throughout the one-day conference, participants from across
the state chose from among some 30 presenters from six states
on a host of subjects aimed at "how to keep farming."
Speakers represented USDA, university extension services,
Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) and
other public- and private-sector organizations. More than
a dozen farmers gave their own sustainability perspectives.
Presentations included livestock-related topics such as ATTRA
specialist Ron Morrow's grazing species diversification to
NRCS specialist Walter Jackson's silvipasture management overview.
Extension vegetable researcher Bill Evans emphasized the
advantages of having a frequently updated farm plan. Delta
Regional Authority executive director Hayes Dent and Congressional
aide Charlie Horhn offered a "view from the inside"
of ag policy, while grower Fred Stokes of Porterville presented
a contrarian's view of government's attempts to help farmers.
Attendees also learned of profit potentials in specialty
farm products. Cut flowers and mushrooms, said Extension researchers
Crofton Sloan and Joe Buzhardt, could fit the resources of
many small farms. ATTRA's Anne Fanatico and pastured-poultry
producers Steve Schrock of Prairie and Ron Brandon of Pontotoc
insisted area demand will support many more of their kind.
Freshwater shrimp farmer Steve Fratesi of Leland offered a
similar assessment of his enterprise.
Conferees heard M. C. Ellis of Mayhew tell how he markets
15 acres of produce both on-farm and through small-town farmers'
markets. Linda Boyd of Oxford and Jennie Lee of Etta presented
both their successes and challenges in growing and selling
organic fruits and vegetables. For those concerned about the
organic certification process, Kevin Brussell of the Illinois
Steward Alliance focused on opportunities "beyond organic”.
"There were so many different kinds of people who came,"
said Nan Johnson, one of the event's organizers. "It
was great beyond my wildest dreams." "People are
hungry for this information," added Joe Buzhardt of Alcorn
State University's Small Farm Center.