Thursday, June 6

Sustainable South: Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network

Photos by Emilie Dayan.
What does sustainability really mean?  Last week, the Wallace Center and the Trent Lott Leadership Institute at the University of Mississippi hosted a workshop with the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN) that sought to explore issues of sustainability and approach a working definition of the term as it applies to agriculture in Mississippi. For those of you wondering why semantics are so important in this area, the Lexicon of Sustainability is a great place to start.

Ten crops make up 92 per cent of agricultural production in the state of Mississippi. Last year, agricultural output in the state amounted to 7.5 billion USD. Most of these crops, however, are commodities that are raised for industrial processing or export. According to the Crossroads Resource Center (CRC), Mississippians import over 90 per cent of their food.

In Mississippi, food deserts exist in places where the agricultural industry thrives, and the obesity epidemic is just as imminent as nutrient deficiency—in fact, there are some who’d argue that they go hand in hand (research on the topic can be found at the Food Tank and Idea Stream.) Across the state, many farmers, activists, and eaters are connecting the dots between our farming habits and these problems. 
The fledgling MSAN, established this year, intends to make sustainable farming and local food production thriving enterprises in Mississippi. It is a network of farmers, consumers, educators, and activists working together to improve the sustainability of the existing agricultural system in Mississippi. Luckily, organizations of this kind already exist in the South and beyond. Representatives from the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, Georgia Organics, and even the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture encouraged the participants of last week’s workshop and gave invaluable advice as to how to get this network off the ground.

There are many definitions of sustainability. Edwin Marty, of E.A.T. South in Montgomery, Alabama initiated a group discussion to define the word. The general consensus agreed that sustainability is regenerative. Sustainable farming creates more of the capacity to do what you're doing now in the future, as opposed to depletive, or extractive, agriculture.
Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. Photo by Joe York.

At the SFA, we study the traditions of Southern food, including how it is grown and raised. Southern food is inherently tied to the earth and its seasons; it is that history that has shaped the way we eat. In that way, sustainable farming is a means of connecting with our regional foodways. Thanks to organizations such as MSAN, sustainability is becoming a topic for public discussion in Mississippi. If you want to learn more about the SFA’s documentary work with farmers, check out our short documentaries on the subject, such as CUD and Ride that Pig to Glory. The SFA also has oral history projects of the Carrboro Farmers' Market in North Carolina and the Downtown Greenwood Farmers' Market in Mississippi.

Emilie Dayan, our office intern/assistant/chief collaborator, blogs weekly about issues of nutrition, sustainability, and food policy in the South.