As agriculture specialists, we tend to spend a lot of our time at the front of the room teaching at workshops or conferences but this winter we’ve had a chance to listen and take notes ourselves. In January, NCAT Gulf States staff Rockiell Woods, Felicia Bell, Liz Broussard, and Sam Humphrey organized the first two in a series of Listening Sessions. One session was with Mileston Cooperative, led by Calvin Head, and one was with the Mississippi Minority Farmers Association (MMFA), led by Carolyn Jones.
NCAT’s Gulf States office opened in Jackson, Mississippi in 2013, so we are still relatively young and eager to connect with others in the region. Regional Director Woods observed, “There are so many great farmer-led organizations around Mississippi with decades of experience. We are excited to continue to partner with them to conduct these listening sessions, so we can all build on each other’s strengths.”
We wanted to hear from farmers about how we can support their efforts to implement more sustainable and economically viable farming practices. Participants highlighted what assistance they needed for the upcoming growing season, and what areas they could use help with longer-term. There was a lot of interest in high tunnel production and crop planning for new markets, as well as the basics of farm business management.
In addition to learning about training needs on production topics, we also know that there are systemic barriers that prevent many small farmers, especially minority farmers, from being successful. At the start of each session, NCAT asked the farmers in attendance to reflect on their role in improving the health and well-being of their communities. We asked them to identify barriers to healthy food access and barriers to systems change in their communities and how we might be able to address these challenges together. Participants discussed both challenges and opportunities they see for making healthy food more accessible to low-income families, while also growing their farms as a business and getting a fair price for what they grow.
Participants brought up a variety of concerns that they see in their own communities, including the difficulty of reading and interpreting food labels, the importance of young people being exposed to healthy, fresh foods from an early age, and the differences in quality of products in different stores, depending on the income or the color of skin of the people in the neighborhood. MMFA leader Jones said, “I think a lot of the lack of quality and access to healthy food is because we don’t have representation on the county and state level where the decisions are being made about what comes in our community. Your elected officials will promote jobs coming into the community, but what are we exchanging for those jobs?”
Throughout the conversations, we reflected on NCAT’s role in food systems work to strengthen and grow our relationships with Mississippi farmers and together work towards an equitable food system. This reflection and learning will enable NCAT to be the most responsive and helpful service providers that we can be.
We hope to conduct more listening sessions around the state to gather additional feedback and spread the word about the resources that NCAT has to offer. We are excited to use the feedback from our first two listening sessions and future listening sessions to inform our workshop plan for the year. NCAT is currently in the process of identifying three additional host sites for listening sessions this spring. If you are interested, please contact Rockiell at email@example.com or (479) 575-1385.