Last week, on February 12, the Third Annual Mid-South Farm to Table Conference brought together 120 attendees from across the region. According to Sara Studdard of the planning committee, “Attendees represented the diversity in the local food movement: farmers, entrepreneurs, educators, consumers and community and city leaders.” Sponsored by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, Green Leaf Learning Farm, and Slow Food Memphis, the event is a hub for food businesspeople of all stripes.
Said Studdard, “As the conference grows, and we enter our 4th year, we are looking for ways to continue the momentum created at the conference throughout the year.” The goal of the conference is to go beyond the presentation of ideas on a single day to implementing real-world initiatives that change the shape of food systems in and beyond Memphis.
Building Better Food Systems
This year’s conference emphasized ways to build healthy food businesses in the Mid-South. The conference was organized by a distinguished planning committee: Mary Phillips of Roots Memphis, Christian Man of the Memphis Center for Food and Faith, Chris Ramezanpour, of BioDimensions Renewable Oils, Sara Studdard of BioDimensions, Inc., Brandon Pugh of Delta Sol Farm, and Chris Peterson of Grow Memphis.
The day began with a keynote address by John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and notable food writer. Edge spoke on Foodways and Activism, exploring the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and its implications for the “Good Food Movement” of the 2010s. Edge detailed the long relationship between food, politics, and self-determination in the south, from sit-ins in famed Mid-South diners to Fannie Lou Hamer’s “Pig Bank.” Said Edge, “if we’re going to fix our food system, we need to recognize the heroes that have gone before… Put down the bible according to Pollan and pick up the bible according to Hamer.”
After the keynote, conference members adjourned to breakout sessions scattered across the Rhodes College campus. This year, the conference agenda featured best practices for fruit and vegetable production, a panel discussion with local food writers, discussions of supply chains and distribution issues, and a round table to gauge interest on starting a food hub in Memphis.
The food hub session, in particular, yielded interest in an on-the-ground initiative that could alter the shape of food economies in and around Memphis.
Building for the Future
The conference is only in its third year, and any entity that seeks to bridge the divide between so many stakeholders in a single space on a single day will meet with some resistance. Some small farmers, most of whom wish to remain anonymous, have expressed concern that the conference organization and atmosphere “felt more like a platform for advancing already-agreed-upon agendas than a space for creating new ideas based on the experience and opinions of everyone involved.”
In the last week, rural conversations about the conference have named at least four areas that local, sustainable farmers would like to see addressed in future years: Concrete strategies for avoiding GMO production and/or GMO crop contamination; seed saving practices; free or open source software options to help farmers manage their businesses; and grant writing opportunities for small farms and local businesses.
Onward and Upward…
Despite some reservations among members of the local food community, the conference has created a valuable space for people of diverse backgrounds and philosophies to come together around pivotal issues for Mid-South food systems and security in the coming years. Sara Studdard said it best:
The greatest thing about the conference is collaboration with fellow attendees and growing the community that supports this movement. To be in a room filled with people who are passionate about a thriving local food system, strengthening farmer livelihoods, improving access to fresh produce, and stimulating economic development and job creation is an inspiring thing.
Forums like the Mid-South Farm to Table Conference are a must if we are to build truly sustainable food systems in and around Memphis. The more voices we can bring to the table, the more experiences we can tap, the more likely we are to implement solutions that work for the “local flavor” of Memphis.