First Notes from Southern SAWG

Amanda and I are hanging out in our hotel room in Chattanooga on a Sunday morning. She’s madly working to get everything done that needs to happen on the Internet, because we’re about to be away from it for a couple of days. We’re basking in the glow of a wonderful conference of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

There were about 1200 of us who gathered in Chattanooga over the last three days. We make an impressive group when we get together in one place, you know? And how about this: there was time on Friday night for each state’s farmers to gather separately, and there were at least 80 folks in the Alabama breakout group. Think about it. That means more than 80 people from Alabama were so excited about organic and sustainable farming that they were willing to travel to Chattanooga and pay the conference fee to meet with other farmers and talk about it.

We began on Thursday morning with special recognition for the dozen or so members of the Muskogee Creek Nation, who traveled from Oklahoma to meet with us in their ancestral homeland. Tribal Elder Ben Yahola read this statement from Judge Patrick Moore about the land we now farm:

We must always honor and respect our ancestors. Thousands of years ago the Mvskoke had a distinct culture seeped in tradition. They lived in the Southeast where the growing season was long, hunting season year round, and winter very mild.

The Mvskoke were master agriculturalists and lived off the land. They cultivated squash, pumpkin, corn, and beans, along with the harvest of abundant wild foods such as walnut, pecan, and persimmon. They invented stew with meat, vegetables, and of course sofkey [Lee’s note – I had to look this one up; you can read about it here].

Their homes were “green” by today’s standards. Each family had two homes, one an airy summer residence air conditioned by Mother Nature, and the other a winter home with thick walls, small entrance, fireplace, and a smoke hole in the ceiling. Corn was most important. Dried, it kept through the winter for cooking. It was ground into flour, roasted, or popped, and of course it was a necessary ingredient in the all-present stew. Freshly picked, it was a delicacy; and special blue corn cakes were most important and are still considered special to this day.

Mother Earth was most important and was always to be protected, never abused. These lessons from the past must be followed today.

In his welcoming address, Mr. Yahola described the visits the members of the Muskogee Creek Nation had made to their sacred sites here in the South, where they frequently took time to recite their forgiveness of us, the present occupants of the land they once called home, and all those who took part in their removal from it. It was a tender moment, and seemed to me to be a wonderful way to begin a conference on sustainable agriculture.

We finished last night when long-time volunteer and active Southern SAWG leader Hollis Watkins reminded us of how similar his struggles for civil rights were to the present struggle for acceptance of sustainable farming methods. His comments, coming as they did at the end of our three days, were a wonderful reminder that food and justice are joined at the hip. You just can’t talk about one without dealing with the other.

So these two great leaders were the bookends at either end of our time here. In between, we learned much more than we had hoped about cover cropping, chickens, compost, bugs, goats, hoophouses, tomatoes, and seeds. More about that stuff in the middle later. For now, we’re just taking time to let it all soak in.

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