Old MacDonald made room for a younger generation of farmers Sunday, plus an estimated 50 to 70 people who wanted to check out their farms. The fairly new Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network coordinated free tours Sept. 29 of Black Creek Farms in Columbus, Beaverdam and High Hope Farms in Cedar Bluff, and Bountiful Harvest Farm in Starkville.
MSAN is a network of farmers, consumers and educators working together to improve the sustainability of Mississippi's existing agriculture system.
It's also generating some excitement.
"It's an idea we've been talking about for years, from a farmers' perspective and a consumers' perspective as well, and we've started off strong," said MSAN statewide coordinator Danial Doyle of Oxford. Doyle is a tireless champion for locally-grown, sustainable agriculture; he organized Sunday's tours. (He was also integral in getting the popular "Farm on Wheels" bus on the road, and is the former director of the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi.)
MSAN has been officially up and running since January and has already hosted the first Mississippi Food Summit with Gaining Ground, instigated a Farm to School initiative, been producing "Know Your Farmer" videos and, in collaboration with the Extension Service, carried out a Comprehensive Training Course which included tours of farms around the state.
The mission is to make sustainable farming and local food production a thriving enterprise in Mississippi.
Sam McLemore at Bountiful Harvest Farm was pretty impressed with the turnout Sunday. McLemore farms using organic practices and operates a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program with about 20 families and a waiting list. CSA's are a way for consumers to get local, seasonal food directly from a farmer through "shares," or memberships. (This week, for example, participating families will get a box or basket that includes radishes, turnips, bok choy, sweet potatoes, a salad mix, garlic and more.) Bountiful Harvest also participates in the Starkville Community Market and Midweek Market.
"There were a lot of folks at the farm Sunday really interested in the different varieties we grew and how it was grown," said McLemore Monday. Tour guests wanted to know about mulches, nutrients, composts and pest control. They got to taste-test in the pepper and tomato patches, too.
Part of the curious crowd hailed from the Golden Triangle. Others were from Tupelo, Oxford, Meridian and Ashland -- even the Gulf Coast. Some were Food Corps volunteers, dedicated to teaching kids about healthy food and where it comes from, building school gardens and bringing more local food into school cafeterias.
McLemore understands the value in getting children aboard the homegrown wagon early.
"If kids grow it, they're a lot more likely to eat it," said the farmer who maintains a small garden with fourth-graders at Ward-Stewart Elementary School in Starkville. "My wife, Isabel, grew broccoli last year with her kindergarten students at Sudduth Elementary, and they've got some eggplant growing right now."
Other visitors were active farmers or people who had home gardens. Everyone seemed to be soaking it all up.
Mary Tuggle of Columbus was on the tours. She oversees the horticulture program at Palmer Home for Children.
"It was fantastic, especially if you're doing home gardening like hobby farm gardening, three acres and up. Or if you're doing chickens and other animals," she praised. "The technology knowledge of different varieties was interesting, because each one had something similar but different."
Doyle remarked, "The turnout was really great for the farmers to see, and every single one of them was pretty stoked that that many people came out. There was so much knowledge there. These are the folks who are pioneering the interest in this region of Mississippi."
Scott Enlow at Black Creek Farm was expecting about 15 visitors to show up to see his place Sunday.
"I was a little surprised; everywhere I looked in our little field there were people," he laughed. Scott and his wife, Lydia, are regulars at the Hitching Lot Farmers' Market and also sell a wide variety of vegetables as well as fresh eggs at their farm.
"We try to be very environmentally conscious and efficient in everything we do here," said Enlow, who is an advocate of organic practices. He believes the tours are a valuable component in expanding a network of people who share common interests.
At the end of the day, the goal is to make more farmers, said Doyle, because the demand for locally-grown products is expanding. People want to know where their food comes from and who is growing it.
"Really, it's a travesty -- five percent of the food Mississippians eat comes from Mississippi; that means 95 percent of it comes from outside the state," Doyle pointed out. "And we have some of the best soil, best climate, plenty of water, everything we need to have a strong food system."
McLemore sees an increasing awareness of locally-grown products.
"I think we're still on the front edge of that wave. The interest is steadily growing; people just need to know where to find it," he said.
You may not be growing your own peas and carrots or raising chickens in the backyard, but MSAN suggests there are things everyone can do if they want to support sustainable agriculture. Buy vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy and eggs from local sustainable farmers wherever available; visit farmers' markets in season; ask how, where and by whom your food was grown; buy natural organic food when at the grocery stores, especially locally-owned ones; and learn to eat and cook seasonal produce. And that little spot you've been eying in the backyard? Maybe it's finally time to get your hands good and dirty.