A Healthy Conversation: Farm to Table

farm2table2013A gathering of folks from around our growing local food system inevitably lends itself to an easy-pun about the “ripening fruit” of the movement.

For those of us who work in this field every day, these metaphors get tiring. Yet, now that the third annual Mid-South Farm to Table Conference has drawn to a close, no other language quite seems to capture the maturity that this movement is beginning to show.

Three years on, we have moved from imagining what our food system might look to having serious discussions about where we are moving in the future.

For those unfamiliar, the Farm to Table Conference began in 2011 as an attempt to build a conversation around how we can rebuild our broken food system in the Mid-South. The topics were, and remain, broad and ambitious. How can chefs and farmers better understand each others’ needs in order to get locally grown produce on restaurant menus? What wisdom can experienced farmers offer to the younger generation? How are our neighborhoods working to address the lack of affordable fresh produce around our city? …and what about urban farming and community gardens?

John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and keynote speaker of this year’s conference,

John T. Edge, this year’s keynote speaker at Farm to Table.

Given the public health crises of hunger and obesity in our community, admittedly, sometimes it’s easy to see why the rest of the country looks at us this way. However, as Mr. Edge rightly pointed out, something is changing in the South. In Memphis, we’ve seen this first hand.

At the same time that organizations like GrowMemphis, the South Memphis Farmers Market, and many others are looking for ways to get healthy, fresh food into neighborhoods that lack access, farmers and chefs are working together all around the South to reimagine Southern cuisine. What both approaches have in common is the idea that we can reimagine our region’s biggest problems, transforming what we once considered liabilities—vacant property, the way we cook—into assets.

More than anything, there is belief and excitement among those working in these fields in this community.

Many on the outside would have a hard time imagining a Rhodes College classroom full of small farmers, students, business people, and consumers running over their allotted time because of the massive amount of questions for Henry Jones of Jones Orchard and Robert Hays of Hays Berry Farm. Moreover, even I, as an active participant in urban agriculture, had a hard time believing, in the beginning, there was much more to say about urban agriculture that had not been said at the 2012 Conference.

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Yet, at each session there were new voices, new questions, and new ideas. While some presentations were simply designed for interested parties to learn about local food writing, ongoing research around food security, marketing and growing tips for farmers, there was a sense throughout that these conversations were leading to something new and exciting for everyone involved. One conversation in particular, designed to bring key players to the table to consider creating an aggregation center called a “food-hub” that could open up larger markets for small farmers, has yielded ongoing conversation and work towards that end.

There is a long way to go, yet, before we have a food system that gives small farmers the respect they deserve, treats healthy, fresh food as a necessity rather than a luxury, and we fully appreciate and work against the history of exploitation and racism in our food system. The fact that these tougher conversations and ideas are being explored—by concerned individuals at every level of our food system—is a sign we are moving in the right direction. We look forward to the 4th Annual Farm to Table Conference in 2014 continuing to host those conversations.

Jones Orchard has been producing fruit in Millington since 1940.

Jones Orchard has been producing fruit in Millington since 1940.

Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market

Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market

Originally published on the Memphis Connect blog.

 

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