Big Gardens, Small Farms

The Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network strives to make sustainable farming a thriving enterprise in the state.

The Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network strives to make sustainable farming a thriving enterprise in the state. Courtesy Flickr/Hosking Industries

This year, a group of individuals and organizations around the state are working together to develop the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network. Its mission is to make sustainable farming and local food production thriving enterprises. MSAN supports healthy farms and communities to develop economically and ecologically responsible local-food systems throughout the state.

Too often, economic development overrides environmental considerations. Conventional agriculture is how most of our food is grown--large scale, industrial and designed to produce the most food in the smallest amount of space. Our wholesale embrace of this production method has many indirect costs.

Many trends led us to this present state. The rise in population means more mouths to feed and a greater need for production. The rise in urbanism and suburban sprawl left fewer farms behind to do more work. Today, many "developing" nations are following suit and becoming dependent on widespread single cash crops and less on diversified subsistence farming. These monocultures bring associated environmental problems.

Monocultures, or large areas of land used to grow only one crop, are the opposite of ecological biodiversity. They make it easy for pests or disease to destroy entire crops, which calls for farmers to use more pesticides. Pesticides, along with herbicides and other chemical applications, destroy the microbiological life found in the soil that should be feeding the plant and keeping it healthy, thus requiring the heavy use of fertilizers.

In a similar way, food animals have been moved from fields and farms into industrial "factories," or concentrated animal feeding operations, where hundreds or thousands of livestock are held in small, closed spaces for the duration of their lives. This leads to a rise in disease, causing the factory workers to use heavy doses of antibiotics on the animals.

This model of farming has led to a number of adverse side effects. Environmental damage includes reduced biodiversity; habitat destruction; deforestation; water, soil, and air pollution; salinization and desertification; and decline in water resources and land subsidence. And the impact on human is just as profound--farmland destruction; damage to soil fertility; reduced nutritional value of food; chronic food-related diseases; loss of local culture and rural independence.

Congress addressed sustainable agriculture in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990. Under that law, the term means "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

• satisfy human food and fiber needs

• enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends

• make the most efficient use of non-renewable and on-farm resources, and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls

• sustain the economic viability of farm operations

• enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

Unfortunately, neither the government nor consumers encourage or support this model, in the blind pursuit of what is cheap, easy and convenient for the consumer and profit-maximizing 
for the producer.

Essentially, the goal of sustainable agriculture, and all agriculture for that matter, should be to minimize adverse impacts to the immediate and off-farm environments while providing a sustained level of production and modest profit. Simply stated, sustainable agriculture is the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to ecosystem health.

In any sustainable system that is designed for long-term success, the environment needs to come first--and second, and third. Fortunately, more and more farmers in our communities recognize this reality. Locally sourced, sustainably produced, naturally grown food availability is rising steadily throughout the state and becoming a viable enterprise for aspiring entrepreneurs looking for a meaningful occupation.

MSAN focuses on highlighting models that are shining examples: farmers committed to organically-grown, chemical-free produce or free-range, grass-fed livestock; communities embracing their farmers markets and local food providers; restaurants and grocery stores making concerted efforts to source locally; schools and hospitals looking to bring real-food from farms nearby into their cafeterias.

The understanding that we are what we eat and that our connection with our food and sense of place can be our richest tonic or most dangerous toxin, inspires many people to re-examine the pervasive, crippling relationships of commodity-crops, subsidization, growth-at-all-costs, consolidation of resources, and exploitation of both people and of land for personal profit.

It is an issue that hits close to home. We sit on some of the most fertile farmland in the world with year-round growing potential and rainfall levels just below Louisiana's. And food really is the way to one's heart because much of our immune system is found within our gut. It is not without irony that in a state full of such potential for food production, we actually import much of what we eat, have a rising number of food-insecure households, and all the corresponding chronic health issues such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Visit jfp.ms/MSAN to find out more about how you can make smart, healthy choices for your family and your community. Better yet--plant a seed!

Daniel Doyle has a background in both education and agriculture. He left teaching to co-found and manage one of Mississippi's first CSA farms, Yokna Bottoms in Oxford, Miss. --committed to sustainable, natural and ecologically-responsible food production. He later designed and directed the Mississippi Mobile Farm project, co-founded Mississippi Ecological Design, and served as the Executive Director for the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi. He is teaching once again and is also serving as the Statewide Coordinator for the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network.


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