If you read the From 0 to 35 in Mississippi post here last fall, you know that the good food revolution in my neighboring state has been lacking a few important items to help build their capacity such as USDA processing facilities. The news of one opening in MS is very, very welcome as without it, producers are severely limited to what, where and how much they can sell. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new level of infrastructure for direct marketing family farms across the Magnolia State.
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.
The thing about being a market consultant is it has a very specific schedule each year: the spring is packed with calls and invitations to conferences and workshops. Lots of discussion about grant opportunities and best practices.
The summer is spent at at the desk, writing or researching on behalf of those who hire us.
The fall starts to bring more travel, usually more for large-scale (non-market) conferences as well as a scramble for assistance on projects that got sidelined or tangled over the summer.
The winter is when the big ideas are usually discussed, with colleagues asking for an ear or agreeing to read something. Some of those big ideas roll right into spring grant-writing season and the year begins again.
This year my spring travel started in Alabama, then to Oregon and Washington, March in Vermont, two spots in Illinois and this last spring trip was in the Magnolia State, right in my own backyard.
I live part of the time about 40 or so miles from the Mississippi line and of course, as a past manager of a set of markets in the biggest city in the region, I had farmers from Mississippi and from Alabama that came to vend, so I am quite familiar with what is happening there and have some ideas as to what could happen there.
When I was asked to speak again this year by MS Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), I said yes immediately. Partly because I like the folks at MDAC and partly because in order to have a real food system in my place, it must be regionally organized (which means MS too of course) and we are far from that reality. And of course, because as a national market advocate, I need to see and talk to as many markets as I can. Let me say that MDAC does an amazing job supporting every actor in the food system and any criticism I give about the lack of support should not be construed as being directed at MDAC. They do more with less than most other states I know. And that MDAC is a state agency devoted to the many, not the few; market organizers and community food system initiative leaders need their own champions too.
MDAC asked me to talk about EBT outreach and about measuring markets for whatever number of the 70 or so markets listed in the state showed up. I agreed, even though I knew that the EBT outreach was probably a little too forward of what the group needed, based on the answers to the survey we sent out.
The MS markets are a strange and wonderful hybrid-they have no independent state association of markets, which is typical of most the other Southern states.
The state does have an emerging sustainable ag network, thanks to some local people (Daniel Doyle for one) and the Wallace Center which offered early funding to create the entity.
The state has offered both farmers and markets free SNAP-only machines for the last few years, predating the new FNS marketlink.org farmer terminal system. Many of you know that I am not a fan of these systems being handed off to farmers quite yet, so I do view these hybrid systems with a jaundiced eye.
Some of their markets have a closer relationship to Main Street initiatives than many other states’s markets which means that they are included in larger municipal ideas of revitalization, which can be good and bad for a market. The Main Street movement is more viable in rural communities, using its energy on facade or street improvements and some event planning. So what I find among MS managers are great event planners and city/civic leaders, with a genuine interest in assisting their vendors, but with few ideas how to do just that. The newest trend there is for public health partnerships (of course) with funding increasing there tremendously since MS is usually at the lowest rung of most health stats, with Louisiana constantly battling it for last place. Even so, since many of the markets are quite entrepreneurial and “downtown-focused,” these public health partnerships have not yet found their sweet spot.
And since most of these markets are operating with such low capacity, and no one is advocating for them full-time, they have very little data on what they do well and little experience in analyzing how they did something well. EBT and FMNP for instance-what do they want from these programs? How do markets of 5 to 20 vendors build in capacity to offer a robust benefit program system without any resources or support? Interestingly, a workshop with information about market link and on becoming a SNAP retailer was held in a room at the other end of the center for MS farmers at the exact same time as the managers were in this room. I wish this had not been the case for many reasons, but most of all I have not found that creating silos of information within a system very useful.
As we were in the room, we heard about the successful FINI proposals, one of which is substantial and will involve MS markets. There was excitement, but there was also trepidation among the market organizers. Most of them do not run central EBT systems and so have very little contact with their benefit program shoppers and almost no idea where to find these folks or how to get them to come to their markets.
Adding cash incentives is great, but there has to also be money to build the systems at market and state level to change perceptions of local food and to lift the existing barriers or that money will just act as it was pushed through a sieve.
As I stood inside and outside after my talks, I was peppered with questions, most of which showed the lack of support these markets have:
Where do I find these USDA grants?
How do I get FMNP coupons at my market?
What amount should I raise for an incentive and how should I use it?
Who offers funds for staffing a market?
What is market link?
How do I get funds to advertise?
How do I get more local goods to more people as an organizer?
The agency directors (that serve benefit program shoppers) won’t even talk to me about my market- what should I do?
How can I measure my economic impact?
and this round of questions didn’t even bring up the whole set of issues present everywhere- how do get enough farmers and producers doing well enough to keep this system moving forward? How do we do this with other initiatives breathing down our neck, competing for funding and attention?
The number of new faces at this meeting is similar to many of the other states that I visit regularly and is an indication that we have yet to find a way to offer professional jobs as market managers, instead using the typical revolving door of entry-level work that exhausts producers and means that initiatives never fully engage or sustain; markets are full of pilots but few have moved those pilots to replicable programs with funding streams, experienced staff and policy changes arising from those lessons.
The beautiful thing is that the willingness and enthusiasm among these organizers is always high, even with the many closed doors and the lack of support available to them.
So, I finish my spring conference travel right where I started it: with markets feeling the pressures from partners to offer new programs, with internal communities asking for sustainable growth, with organizers managing this work while they are paid not at all or paid a pittance or doing the equivalent of 2-3 peoples workload. But I also finish it having heard loads of great ideas from organizers and with stories of successful pilots from the last few years that will be expanded or tested again.
So let’s hope that this year that we can move the dial a little bit over the summer and fall with a successful market season and then together can start to build the system we need come winter and spring.
In cooperation with their educational partner Real Food Gulf Coast (RFGC), the year-round open-air markets in Long Beach and in Ocean Springs are actively increasing local food accessibility and affordability in South Mississippi. Inspired by their success, the City of Gulfport opened a market in 2013 to accelerate access to regionally grown, healthful foods for their citizens, including those living in the areas defined as “food deserts.” In September 2014, RFGC released a report on the challenges of local food awareness in the Gulfport area in order to assist direct marketing farmers and area farmers markets in addressing those barriers. The report is the result of surveys conducted with existing market shoppers and farmers at the Long Beach and Ocean Springs Farmers Markets and surveys with residents and farmers not currently using farmers markets.
The Gulfport, Long Beach and Ocean Springs markets are all managed with volunteer labor, supported by South Mississippi Farmers Market Association.
Click here to read the report and to view the survey forms.
From the NYT:
“Ben Burkett is still farming a parcel of land in Mississippi that his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1889, about two decades after slavery ended. He grows 16 vegetables, including okra and soybeans, on 320 acres, but he is also active in several organizations that promote local food production for local consumption.“Our work is to bring awareness to the plight of the true family farm,” Mr. Burkett, 62, said over the phone from his farm in Petal, in Southern Mississippi. Mr. Burkett is one of five winners of the James Beard Leadership Awards, which recognize visionaries in the world of food politics and sustainable agriculture.”
Great news. I have learned a great deal from working with the folks at Indian Springs, the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives and truly, from Ben himself (and for the last few years, his daughter Darnella too.) This past Saturday, he accepted congratulations from his peers and shoppers at the New Orleans farmers market where he showed up to sell his products, just as he has every season since 1995 even with the grueling schedule he keeps assisting with initiatives near and far to expand local wealth and health for communities. No one deserved this award more this year.
and congrats to his fellow winners, all of whom also richly deserve the honor:
“… include Karen Washington, the former president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and an urban farmer; Michael Pollan, the writer and journalist who has written extensively about food and food politics; Navina Khanna, a fellow at the Movement Strategy Center who has worked to create awareness and action around food justice issues; and Mark Bittman, an author and food writer for The New York Times.”
When I read quotes like this from a farmer, I know that the community food revolution is in full swing and in good hands:
We hope that our building of this processing facility, moving forward with obtaining a permit, and completing inspections will create a replicable model for others and will increase the number of small pasture rotation farms in the South. We know that this next step is a big one, not only for us, but for the future of sustainable farming in Mississippi and the health of its families.
Community food system farmers are not simply working to revive the old way of business but cooperating and communicating on so many levels with their shoppers, peers and policy makers. Show your support if you can for these Mississippi farmers leading the way in sustainability.
In case some of us forget from time to time that what we are fighting for is local sovereignty in order to save, rebuild or create our own healthy systems, and that environmental justice MUST be included into our scope of work, this may help:
Derrick often recites a warning that his mother gave him when he began fighting to protect his community of Turkey Creek: “There might not be any bottom to this.” A dozen years later, her words hold special meaning for both of us. My film documents what seems like an unrelenting assault on this historic African American community on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and it continues to this day. When I began filming, the precious place of Derrick’s childhood memories and family oral history was being overrun by urban sprawl, and then came Hurricane Katrina, and then the BP oil disaster.
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