As 2019 fades into the horizon, we at the NCAT Gulf States Regional office have been reflecting on moments from the past year that stand out to us as particularly meaningful. Our work this year has included a wide variety of efforts, from building more equitable food systems within Mississippi communities, to risk management education for farmers, to grazing for soil and livestock health, and so much more. Our efforts are varied, but our hope is always to move our region in the direction of a more sustainable, equitable future.
Highlights from 2019
Early in 2019, we hosted Listening Sessions with farmer groups in Mississippi. We wanted to hear from them what their concerns, needs, and ideas were. Regional Director Rock Woods appreciated this opportunity to hear from those we are committed to helping. It was a great opportunity to make sure our efforts were in alignment with farmer needs. For more reflections on our Listening Sessions, read about them at our blog.
Later in the spring, Rock had the honor of opening up the Alcorn Small Farmers Conference. The conference started off with a panel discussion he moderated. If you’ve met Rock in person, you know he is a natural Master of Ceremonies, and he led an engaging conversation about small farm sustainability. NCAT Agriculture Specialist Felicia Bell, who is also owner-operator of RD & S Farm, was a panelist in this discussion, sharing her perspective on being a small, sustainable farmer. Read more about the rest of the conference here.
In June, NCAT Intern Asha Tillman and Food Justice Program Coordinator Liz Broussard attended a three-day economic development workshop on the Mississippi coast, which involved people from the coastal community who are working passionately to grow and develop their region. Asha describes the process of organizing the workshop, for which we partnered closely with Ya-Sin Shabazz:
“The organizing was a very beautiful process as we centered people and place. There was grounding by elders of the community then spoken word by an artist who captured the community in art form. We were able to comfortably fit everyone in a space where dialogue on systems and cultural analysis took place. Hearing the participants’ views on black land loss, visioning radical food systems, welcoming culturally diverse ideas as a tool to strategize economic growth were all very intriguing as it was my first time being in a space that welcomed such ideas. The workshop ended with the discussion of a community economic canvas which displayed how the community functions in the present moment and how to move forward.”
Later in the summer, the whole NCAT Gulf States team joined Calvin Head and the Mileston Cooperative for the Mileston Healthy Food Summit. This community event included presentations by Mileston, NCAT, Mississippi State University, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and others on topics including the benefits of healthy eating, natural hair and body products, community accessibility, food safety, conservation, farm to school work, and composting. There was a cooking demonstration by chef Nick Wallace of Nick Wallace Culinary, followed by taste tests and a delicious, healthy lunch. This event was the perfect combination of providing education while enjoying each other’s company and building community connections.
In September, we participated in the last Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative meeting. This meeting was one of the highlights of the end of 2019, because it was powerful to reflect on how far our collective work with our partners has come over the past 3.5 years. In the beginning, some of us had never worked together before, but we came together with a common goal of improving the health and well-being of our communities and increasing access to fresh, healthy food for the most vulnerable Mississippians. Throughout the project, we implemented work within our own communities, while also staying connected, learning from one another, and aligning on shared beliefs and values that we agreed are necessary to hold at the center of our Mississippi food systems work.
At our final meeting, these beliefs, values, and principles were posted up on big pieces of paper all over the wall, and we were able to reflect and share what makes this work meaningful to all of us. We also reflected on the new and deepened community relationships that we built as a result of our work together. While the project is coming to an end, we have built a foundation that can be used for collaboration on Mississippi food systems work, and we have begun to develop a deeper level of trust and relationship with others who seek to transform Mississippi food systems. At the meeting, we also discussed plans to work together in support of a Mississippi Food Systems Fellowship, which is launching in 2020. The Mississippi Food Systems Fellowship will expand the reach of the Collaborative and invest in nurturing systems thinkers and their capacity to build a more healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system.
At this meeting we also had a chance to learn more about the history and culture of Vietnamese fisherfolk on the MS Gulf Coast and the ongoing challenges presented by disasters such as the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. We went out on a boat to see the process of catching shrimp and even got to enjoy some fresh-steamed shrimp at the end of the tour!
At the end of October, NCAT hosted a grazing workshop at The Piney Woods School, taught by Dr. Allen Williams. Dr. Williams led the day-long workshop, teaching local ranchers the power of careful grazing management in improving their soils, their livestock health, and their overall profitability. Several students from The Piney Woods School attended along with the local producers. We combined classroom time with on-farm learning, and even got to taste the fruits of one farmer’s labor! Jody Reyer of Reyer Farms provided his grassfed beef for the lunch that was served, prepared by Fauna Foodworks. NCAT’s livestock specialist Felicia Bell especially enjoyed bringing Dr. Williams to the school. As a sheep producer herself, she knows first-hand the importance of grazing management and works hard to share this message with others throughout the region. NCAT Northeast’s Lee Rinehart, a livestock specialist, traveled to Mississippi for the occasion, and was able to interview Dr. Williams for this excellent podcast episode: “Allen Williams and Adaptive Stewardship Management Grazing“.
This fall and winter, Liz and Asha have been working hard alongside other members of the Mississippi Food Systems Fellowship steering committee to select fellows for the first year of this fellowship program. This fellowship was designed to work towards getting all Mississippians access to healthy local food. In order for this to happen, we hope to nurture systems thinkers—already part of the local communities in which they will be working—to make transformational change in the food system. The Mississippi Food Systems Fellowship will invest in Mississippians working to build a more healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system. Through nurturing a cohort of food systems leaders, we are determined to build community power that informs and supports food system transformation. Look for more on this program as the fellowship kicks off its year of activities! And learn more about the program here.
Thanks for reading! We hope you stay tuned for all the news and events of 2020.