Young farmers among crowd talking sustainable agriculture

By Lexington Souers

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Farmers, researchers, consumers and community members gathered to farm for a future this weekend and focused on sustainable agriculture.

For 25 years, The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, has covered topics like improving farming techniques, working with government programs and improving marketing and production outlets with the Practical Tools and Solutions for Sustaining Family Farms Conference. 

Cathy Jones, co-owner of organic Perry-winkle Farm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and board member of Southern SAWG, said 1,400 people attended the conference, which aims to help family farms across the 13 state region. 

Jones said other states have individual conferences, but this is the largest of its kind. The last time the conference visited Lexington was in 2000, and it has been to almost every state in the region.

“There’s a really active farming scene (in Lexington), and not just historically,” Jones said. “You’ve got it going on here.”  

Mark Williams, a professor in the department of horticulture, spoke at a SAWG field trip to the Horticulture Research farm’s 25-acre Organic Farming Unit, which he helped to develop and currently manages. 

The organic unit allows students to learn a variety of sustainable farming techniques. About 25 students study in the CSA program. Williams said he teaches the program on the three pillars of sustainability: mindfulness of resources, economic profitability and social responsibility. 

Students take classes in all of these areas, including producing materials from UK’s working farm. The students then sell what they raise to the UK community. Students receive a 10 percent discount on products. The CSA apprenticeship is open to all students and many of the SAG credits meets core requirements.

At the SAWG field trip, people discussed different farming techniques, especially focusing on using machinery to increase efficiency. Williams said learning about food is important to both producers and consumers.  

“We’re all eaters,” Williams said. “Food is the thing that connects us all in the world.” 

Williams said SWAG is one of the premier programs, and its farmer-to-farmer focus makes it unique. He said the program pairs academics with farmers to give presentations so conference-goers get both education and realistic input. All the presentations are posted online as free resources.

The conference covers a variety of topics and isn’t crop specific. Williams said the event is a great way to network, and meet other farmers in other fields. 

Williams said the conference brings not only the traditional farmer, who is aging, but a new generation of sustainable famers. 

“If you went to this conference you would see a ton of young people,” Williams said. “It’s like, wow — this is the future.” 

Another aspect of bringing the conference to Lexington is the growing local interest in sustainable farming. 

“Lexington is gaining a reputation for local food,” Williams said, citing Kentucky Proud, Organic Association of Kentucky, and Seedless as examples of how the city’s food scene is growing. 

Lexington also bridges the gap between rural and urban, allowing visitors to experience a unique city. 

“Lexington is a cool place,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of urban renewal.”