What We Learned, Sustainable Ag Conference Edition

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Roots Memphis went to Mobile.

The annual Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) was in Mobile, Alabama this year. Roots Memphis Farm Academy and two of our prized students made the trip together, saved costs by sharing a beautiful home we found on AirBnB, and then took notes furiously at a series of sessions from 8 to 5 for a week. We learned a lot. And we were inspired a lot. And we were validated a lot. We came away more convinced than ever that what we are doing (training and launching a new generation of sustainable farmers in the Memphis region) is critically meaningful and that we can and will build an important part of a new, local, sustainable food economy here.


"If You Can't Pencil a Profit, You Can't Plow One"

At Roots Memphis Farm Academy, we have built our success on the proposition that we can teach farmers how to be good small farm business managers. "Agri-preneur" is being used to describe a new generation of farmers who see themselves not just as growers, but as savvy businessmen and women leading a local food revolution. At the Farm Academy, we emphasize that our students need to learn to think like entrepreneurs. Gary Matteson, from Farm Credit Counsel in D.C., in his presentation on growing cash flow, said that every small farm needs three core skills to be successful: production, marketing, and financial.  Most farmers, though, have only one of those skills, usually production, and are unique if they are really good at two of them. The Farm Academy curriculum has been structured to teach all three. Over and over at the conference, we were reminded of the importance that farmers know how to build a business plan and plan for a profit, before ever planting a seed. It is increasingly important that young and aspiring farmers know and understand that good business planning and record keeping are as important as efficient crop production techniques.


Climate Variability

Those of you - especially our loyal, loyal CSA members - who followed our struggles with the unusually cold winter we have experienced in the Mid-South this year, probably suspect, or know, that there is some kind of year-to-year increased variability or something going on with our climate. As it turns out, you can't find a single farmer in the Southeast who hasn't experienced increased variability and unpredictability. On average, growing seasons are longer, which presents a theoretical opportunity for farmers to lengthen their growing seasons and increase incomes, but those longer and warmer seasons are coming with more variability year-to-year and with more intense oscillation between dry periods and heavy rains. This variability makes it harder for farmers to plan. Going forward, our farmers will have to learn to creatively adapt, by being more flexible season to season. We have a lot to learn and think about, particularly on issues such as rainwater catchment, storage, and conservation. Some farmers believe that, with new FDA regulations related to flooding that mandate crop destruction if any part of the field is touched by flood waters, and the absence of adequate insurance products for small-scale farmers, prudent farmers should plan for more frequent total loss scenarios, in which a farmer may have to plan for financial survival without an entire season's income.


Funding the Local Food "Movement"

Around the country, local foundations are increasingly becoming involved with local and sustainable food initiatives in their backyards. Organizations such as the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham have developed programming specifically for local food economy projects, and institutions like the Kellogg Foundation and the Kresge Foundation are trying to increase their impact on local food projects by providing an array of funding platforms, including program-related investments (low-interest loans). Kellogg Foundation used the example of Revolution Foods in New Orleans, recognized by Initiative for a Competitive Inner-City (ICIC) as one of the fastest-growing inner-city companies in 2013, which received a significant portion of its start-up funding in the form of low-interest loan, program-related investments. Roots Memphis Farm Academy (and especially our graduating farmers) can't wait to see Memphis funders get on board with the local food economy with same kind of funding priorities and funding mechanisms for local and sustainable food projects. It will take more than a village, but we believe we can build a local food economy in the Memphis region as vibrant as any local food economy in the country.


A Movement Based on Love

We couldn't wait to hear plenary speaker Anthony Flaccavento. Flaccavento is well-known in the sustainable ag community, as a speaker, author, farmer, entrepreneur, and advocate. He is a BALLE fellow and the founder of SCALE, Inc., a local economy and sustainable economics consulting business. We followed his campaign for Congress in Virginia quite closely, in which he failed to unseat the incumbent in his district, while running on a sustainability and localist platform. Yet, knowing all of this, we were stunned to hear Flaccavento call for a movement based on love. Readers might think that sounds, "hippie." It wasn't. He read from Wendell Berry, a serious thinker and poetic writer, both, and shared sobering data on the importance of re-localizing economies and building a system that serves the needs of people. He shared exciting examples of innovations happening all over the country - the local "agri-preneur" revolution. And grounded it all with a powerful statement of values. "A new politics," he called it, in which we break away from the status-quo debates and divides that define our public discourse, and begin to talk about what we need to do, in our cities and towns, from the farms to Main Street, to help people and build real and shared prosperity. Roots Memphis Farm Academy is proud be a part of this community of people. We hope you are too.