In just under two weeks, farmers, gardeners, and foodies from across the Southeast US will gather in Lebanon, Tennessee for the 2022 Tennessee Local Food Summit. From cooking classes, to technical farming seminars, and a presentation on the Agrarian Commons, the Food Summit provides attendees with ample opportunities to learn, connect, and envision the future of sustainable agriculture in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Local Food Summit is a major step forward for Tennessee, the state with the third smallest share of organic farmland in the country. “When [the Food Summit] first started,” said Natalie Ashker Seevers, the Food Summit’s Director, “there weren’t many opportunities for people to engage and connect with local farmers, or for the farmers to have space to network and learn from one another.”
In fact, just a few decades ago before the Tennessee Local Food Summit was founded, as Jeff Poppen, the founder of the Summit explained in a recent conversation with Agrarian Trust, organic farming was still considered a fringe practice. Poppen recalled these early days of the organic farming movement, when farmers were driven to create their own publications, conferences, and organizations dedicated to alternative agriculture.
“I bought a farm and decided I wanted to be an organic farmer and became one of probably three to four thousand organic farmers in America, who were for twenty years ridiculed, dismissed, and told that our methods were not worth anything and that the world would starve. So we formed organic farming and gardening groups all across the country, state by state…We did all of our own farm research to figure out the best ways to organically grow things in our neighborhoods”, said Poppen.
When Poppen founded the Tennessee Local Food Summit in 2010, it was the latest in a decades long lineage of organic farmers independently organizing events to support themselves and one another.
The theme of this year’s Food Summit, “Weaving Webs of Connection”, is a reflection of this tradition of mutual support, and a gesture towards overcoming the isolation faced by many middle Tennessee farmers.
“Many of us work in Silos,” explained Ashker Seevers. “This is something that, as a community in middle Tennessee, we have all identified as a problem. We all strive to work more collaboratively, whether that means sharing resources, space, or equipment, going in on orders together, or better coordinating what we’re growing so that everyone isn’t showing up to market with the same thing”.
The Tennessee Local Food Summit addresses this need for a collaborative space. This year, its organizers have assembled an impressive array of speakers and workshops. Sessions on the 2022 Farm bill, seed saving, and value added products are scheduled alongside sessions with broader themes, such as the decentralization of the food system, and addressing mental health among farmers. Agrarian Trust’s very own Kristina Villa will be speaking on the subject of land access in Tennessee, alongside Emma Chapman and Olivia Cleveland of Southeast TN Young Farmers, and Brooks Lamb of American Farmland Trust. The keynote speakers of the 2022 conference, Ira Wallace and Jim Embry, are luminaries of sustainable agriculture.
Ira Wallace is the author of numerous books on gardening, the founder of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a well known source of heirloom and open pollinated seeds, and a leading advocate for seed sovereignty. This year, Wallace will be leading a session titled Seed Keeping, Cooperation and Community Building: Everyday Acts of Resistance in Agriculture, on “historic accounts of Black cooperative action and…how tradition, taste, place and storytelling can work to preserve biodiversity and reclaim the place of Black and Brown people in issues of food sovereignty, farming, heirloom varieties and regional cuisine today.”
Jim Embry is a practitioner of “sacred earth activism,” an active effort to renew spiritual relationships with the land, while addressing issues of climate change, food insecurity, and racial inequality. His keynote session is titled “Ancestral Vibrations Guide Our Connection to the Land,” and will highlight ancestral worldviews, especially of Native American and African American traditions, as a guiding force for the sustainable food system.
Events like the Tennessee Local Food Summit are what allow the regenerative agriculture movement to grow and evolve, even in the face of new challenges. As such, Agrarian Trust is proud to co-sponsor the event, and to count Jeff Poppen as the latest contributor to the Agrarian Commons.