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Dustin Pinion of Beaverdam Fresh Farms in Starkville speaking to a MSAN farm tour.

Delta farmers would benefit having sustainable agriculture

By NASH NUNNERY

The bumper sticker on Daniel Doyle’s vehicle perfectly defines his philosophy on sustainable agriculture.

“Think before you eat,” it reads.

Doyle, a current board member and former director of the non-profit Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network, is a passionate advocate for the organic farming movement.  A Massachusetts native who attended graduate school at the University of Mississippi, Doyle served as MSAN director from 2014-2018 before resigning to concentrate on national sustainable ag policy.

MSAN staff posing with dug sweet potatoes at Native Son Farm.

“I stepped down because I felt that It just made sense to have a Mississippian lead the organization,” he said. “We’re looking to find that person now.”

Although the MSAN has no formal membership, Doyle consults with both commercial and sustainable farmers to educate consumers on the value of sustainable agriculture.

“Our mission is to see more farmers and more farms in our state, and more farmers selling food locally,” said the Oxford resident. “Approximately 96 percent of food that’s on Mississippi grocery shelves is imported from other locations. Our local food systems are in shambles compared to decades ago. (Commercial) farms as we know them today are factories, not farms.

“We just think developing local food systems is a better way, both from a nutritional and eco-system standpoint.”

Commercial farming has produced the bulk of America’s food for decades. Known to some as industrial agriculture, it’s a system dominated by large farms growing the same crops year after year. But an increasing number of innovative farmers are taking a different path – sustainable agriculture.

The MSAN promotes farmers that are engaged environmentally, economically and socially. Doyle believes the system has room for farms of all sizes that produce a diverse range of foods, fibers and fuels adapted to local conditions and regional markets.

“We have lots of relationships with farmers and we talk with them on a regular basis,” he said. “Can (sustainable) farmers actually make money and is it economically viable? What we’ve found through surveys is the reality that for the past 100 years, very few farms succeed without an outside income. You must know your market and diversify revenues”.

MSAN board members and Mississippi sustainable ag farmers at the State Capitol.

Another key to success is managing farms as eco-systems.

According to Doyle, environmental sustainability in agriculture means good stewardship of the natural systems and resources, which includes rotating crops, building and maintaining healthy soil, managing water wisely, encouraging livestock grazing and minimizing pollution.

“There are many factors but most important is working within the eco-system,” he said. “Also among those factors are producing a variety of crops and selling local while cutting out the middleman.”

Two of the more successful sustainable agriculture operations in the state are based in the Mississippi Delta.

Two Brooks Farm (Sumner) and Delta Blues Rice (Ruleville) produce a variety of high-quality rice products organically.

Two Brooks Farm rice appears in a few dozen retail outlets in Mississippi and Memphis, as well as on Amazon. The company’s bags feature the slogan “rice ecologically grown for our world”. Varieties such as basmati, and whole grain brown and white rice are offered as blends.

“We use about 25 percent (less) of the water than a lot of rice farms do,” said owner Mike Wagner. “We like to say that we serve mankind and nature, not just mankind.”

Owned by the Arant family, Delta Blues Rice features brown and white rice, and rice grits. Artisian-milled on site, the product has won awards from both Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines, and is known for its consistently rich flavor.

Agriculture and the American family farm have seen great changes since WWII. The number of U.S. farms has declined while the average farm size has increased, according to studies conducted by the Ag Sustainability Institute at the University of California-Davis.

Are traditional commercial farmers in Mississippi looking at more sustainability agriculture practices?

“I’d say a few more (commercial) farmers are looking at us and what we’re about,” said Doyle. “More large-scale farming operations such as those in the Mississippi Delta are researching and asking questions about sustainable practices, such as more crop rotation and putting livestock on their land to sustain it.”

Doyle added that many Delta farming communities that are slowly dying on the vine would benefit greatly by increasing the number of sustainable ag farms.

“In order to break that trend (poor rural community development), we’ll have to do something different,” he said. “I think it’s the only thing that will save those communities.”

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