I have worked with markets and farmers in Mississippi for a dozen years and have found more barriers to getting regional food accepted than in most other areas of the US, yet also have met some of the most optimistic and capable people working on it there.
What’s interesting is that in going from a deeply (still) entrenched commodity/plantation culture of farming directly to a new economy of small family farming for markets and restaurants can mean that some of the middle steps can be skipped, which is beneficial to innovative growers.
In other words, the situations is similar to what has happened in many non-industrialized or colonized countries in regards to technology; having skipped the landline era, the new users adapt much more quickly to the technology of mobility*.
I can see this leapfrogging in play for sustainable farming in the Gulf States with new farmers pushing the envelope with pesticide-free and heirloom varieties at markets and in CSAs, rather than being influenced by the less inspiring midcentury distribution system that hardened growers’ experience into growing the hardiest and tasteless products to ship.
The area around Oxford MS is one that is ready for takeoff. The small farmer markets offer organic products at a higher rate than the New Orleans farmers markets for example, and the average age of the vendors seems markedly less than the US average, to my unscientific eye. The chef quoted in the article below is a pal of mine and had been the Board President of the New Orleans-based Market Umbrella before Katrina, and now is a leader in the regional food movement in Oxford. He offers his knowledge to the markets and farmers around the area as well supporting the leading agricultural advocates, Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN), which was founded with Wallace Center support a few years back. Corbin and MSAN are good example of the quiet revolution happening up there.
Additionally, the folks in Hernando MS (north of Oxford, closer to Memphis TN) are leading the state in innovative healthy living strategies and thinking deeply about how to expand regional farming to support those strategies. Their weekly market is large enough to attract serious attention from regional funders and even policy makers, and I have hopes that they might soon attempt to create a year round market.
Year round flagship markets are one of my indicators for a regional food system being developed rather than just having the presence of local food systems. Whenever I say that, people always ask me to describe what I mean; I’d prefer to be able to do some research first to actually create case studies about this theory, but here is my anecdotal information for now: Local food systems tend to offer growers seasonal opportunities to sell at farmers markets and even to support some CSAs close to the urban centers, but rarely have policy or resource support to allow for widespread intermediate sales at restaurants and small stores, and lack a robust wholesale sustainably-grown farm to school system. Education about land stewardship for eaters is a low priority and overall, products tend to be limited in variety and seasonality and few cutting edge methods are pioneered. The value-added sector is almost entirely cottage industry products, meaning those low risk and high dollar items made and sold from a home kitchen. Local food systems have unbalanced goals, such as too many demand side solutions with fewer supply-side pilots or, the rural-urban relationship is not mutually supportive, but rather, extractive.
It is my experience that local food systems don’t always grow up to regional food systems; they need care and intentional infrastructure to be built in the right order to have that happen. So food hubs popping up without first allowing farmers the time and space to test their business and farm plan is often hurtful or at least not helpful. And, if local food systems do grow without regional goals, they can become out of scale to the capacity of the organizations and resources that manage them, and even that growth can slow or even stop. Or, neighboring local food systems can become overly competitive (terms like “cannibalization” of vendors are heard regularly and peer networking is nil) and impede the growth of a regional system. In those cases, the small producers suffer from a tangle of regulations in each outlet different from the rest and lack of support for adding infrastructure scaled to their needs. Additionally, non-mainstream organizing techniques (worker-owned business, equipment-sharing projects) are often stymied because the local leaders lack the embedded knowledge to choose and test them.
This is one reason that I remain so interested in food and farming in Mississippi (besides my own cultural connection to the region): the opportunity for leapfrogging into a bright new future is quite possible.
In Mississippi, a hub of Southern culture, food tends to be good for the soul but not necessarily good for the body.
Corbin Evans, the owner and chef of Oxford Canteen, said it is not the number of restaurants in Oxford that matters but the quality of food those restaurants offer. Evans buys as many local products as is cost effective, often altering the menu depending on what is available or in season.
“You get bored and you try to do something a little different, or something based on what’s available, or what you know is going to be available and work with that,” Evans said.
•examples of technology leapfrogging:
I have spent the last 10 months in the developing country of India. You see a combination of 1st and 3rd world lifestyles here. However the most amazing sight is the technology leapfrog you witness. Let me explain. Two years ago I visited here and was amazed at the number of cell phones. A person could be on an ox-driven cart transporting wood. . . and talking on the cell phone. On that trip two years ago, the paper ran an article describing the leapfrog. It detailed a village without power or generators. The people took turns every few nights walking the 10 kilometers to a neighboring village to charge the mobiles. Amazing leapfrog. Never had a land line, television, maybe even radio. Straight to the cell phone.
Mobile phone use in South Africa has increased from 17% of adults in 2000 to 76% in 2010, according to research firm Nielsen Southern Africa. Today, more South Africans – 29-million – use mobile phones than radio (28-million), TV (27-million) or personal computers (6-million). Less than 5-million South Africans use landline phones.
Cuba has around a million fixed telephone lines….The number of mobile phone users increased to 1.3 million in 2011…