TALKING SHOP: Mississippi
Mississippi holds first statewide sustainable ag conference
Delta area farmers take the opportunity to celebrate sustainable farming potential in the region with workshops on everything from cut flowers and organic cotton to pastured poultry and fresh water shrimp.

By Errol Castens

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." (See "Steve 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," he said.

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.