Nestled in the small town of Starkville, MS, The Homestead Education Center was founded in 2011 to answer the call for real food in Mississippi. In a state where large scale industrial agriculture — mostly soy, corn, cotton, and beef — dominates and Wal-Mart is the primary food source, “farmers don’t really grow food, they work and are in debt until they die.” The Homestead Education Center, and more specifically the founders, Alison and Dan, are the foundation of the local food movement in Mississippi.
When Alison and Dan moved back to their hometown, they realized there was no food available that they felt comfortable feeding their children. So, they started inquiring about organic agriculture, and started to explore the prospect of growing their own. In a land of Big Ag, the idea was laughed at: “The [Mississippi] Extension genuinely believed you couldn’t grow organically in Mississippi.” As a previous practicing physician, Alison was interested in the correlation between food and behavior as well as the issue of food sovereignty. She began a 10 person CSA to examine the viability of growing this type of food in the area, and found the demand more than exceeded the supply. There are a total of five “large scale” organic agriculture operations in Mississippi, with 100-150 member CSA shares. Realizing that even in the more affluent areas of Mississippi there is a lack of education pertaining to food systems and sustainable living, Alison sees making organic and local agriculture the norm by means of education as a solution.
Without much support from their industrial agriculture surroundings, Alison and Dan started educating themselves about sustainable agriculture and eventually started their 5-acre homestead project as a branch of their larger organization, Gaining Ground. To keep afloat, The Modern Homestead Center hosts homesteading workshops throughout the year — everything from canning to knitting lessons — along with eight weekend-long retreats. For a fee of $25/year, 400 members from across the south get access to all their on-site and online workshops. But this is just a drop in the bucket within the larger context of the couple’s busy day-to-day schedules. Within a short time of conversing with Alison, we realized we had stumbled across what has become the mecca of local food networking in the Mississippi area.
Alison and Dan established Gaining Ground eight years ago as a sustainable agriculture networking system for the greater Mississippi area. “We knew we weren’t the only ones into this stuff in this area,” she explained, “we just didn’t know how to connect with each other.” They’ve noticed a lot of fast change in the local food movement in Mississippi; people clearly wanted it, but they didn’t know how to find it. Since they started the projects in efforts to make local organic food more available, the farmers markets in Mississippi have increased from 10 to 42 weekly gatherings. In holding conferences in cities all over Mississippi, Gaining Ground (working in conjunction with the Southern Sustainble Agriculture Working Group) began a conversation around the two generations of lost agricultural knowledge as well as started working to “reconnect people with skills they previously knew.”
Connecting with people on a personal level is the way that Alison feels she can make a change within communities across Mississippi as a whole. “Here in Mississippi, we don’t grow food, we grow cotton and soybeans,” Alison says, painting the rural agriculture scene in her area, “There are a few people who control a lot of land. The angle we need to focus on is health to connect all people. Health isn’t progressive or conservative: it supersedes political lines. Old timers may not share your political views, but they know they want fresh food and want to know where it comes from.”
As Alison began to examine food sovereignty and security within Mississippi, she came to realize an important underlying factor… the correlation between policy and industrial agriculture. As the local food movement grows, there is a threat to the current system of industrial agriculture. The representatives of the capitalist agriculture system will fight back in the form of lobbying on Capital Hill to suppress the local food movement; the more this happens, the more the local food movement within Mississippi (and the entire United States, for that matter) becomes a political battle. Therefore, for a voice to be heard “you don’t have to have 5 acres, or even 1 acre, you can simply vote with your dollar.” Alison and Dan are addressing the need of having a place to spend that dollar locally in order for that vote to be cast.
We looked at the food system through a different lens in the south, one that showed us the importance of culture and context. While in progressive areas, where we personally tend to find ourselves, it is a lot easier to be more critical of systems and practices when preaching about the local food movement. However, in areas where there is no concept of organic or local food sourcing because of the political climate and lack of education, every step towards living a more sustainable lifestyle is a huge one. So, how do we reach the masses, how to we start taking these steps big and small? Alison hit the nail on the head with her comment: “When it becomes about your personal health and the health of the ones that you love, that is when you make progress and change minds.”