Center brings back gardening for responsible living

Published 6:47 pm Monday, March 22, 2010

Brookhaven’s Michael McNair makes a living out of meeting smallfarmers, getting to know their operations and helping them findanswers.

As an agriculture specialist for the National Center forAppropriate Technology, he calls in the experts for workshops,makes landowners and farmers aware of federal assistance andrecommends methods for energy conservation. But Mississippi’s smallfarmers are facing one problem in 2010 not even McNair or hisexperts on speed dial can fix.

They’re in their last generation.

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“We don’t have a lot of young people coming into farming anymorebecause we can’t show them the profits,” McNair said. “It’s not getrich overnight.”

The trend of farmers’ sons and daughters leaving the traditionbehind has been growing in recent years, and the financial strainscaused by the current economic downturn have made the exodus evengreater. Without more involvement by the youth, local communitiesare bound to lose their supplies of fresh, locally grown produce,family farming will give way to large, industrialized operationsand a tradition will die.

One local group is working to reverse that trend by gettingyoung people involved in agriculture on a small scale. The BogueChitto/Lincoln County Community Center this year will restart along, lost tradition – the community garden. Center presidentCharles Edwards said the garden would be planted and harvested byLincoln County youth under adult supervision this year, and hopesare to expand the project in 2011.

“We’re trying to get kids back to eating healthy, to make themmore productive and become more responsible,” he said. “If we don’tteach our young generation now, they’ll have nothing to fall backon.”

Edwards said planning for the community garden would begin nextThursday during a community center meeting at its headquarters onHighway 51 at 6 p.m., where a specialist from Alcorn StateUniversity will be on-hand to consult. Anyone from Lincoln Countyinterested in involving their kids or grandkids in the project mayattend the meeting, he said.

Initial plans for the garden include a fair amount of healthycompetition, Edwards said. Kids will be divided into small teamsthat will plant and oversee rows of the garden, recordinginformation on their plants, how long it takes them to germinate,how much they grow in a week and so on. The results will becompared and compiled for the next year’s garden, he said.

When the community garden bears fruit and vegetables, theproduce will be taken to the Brookhaven Farmers Market for sale, adual benefit for the programs, Edwards said.

“We want to let our kids now they can make money while growingnutritious food, and we want to help expand the farmer’s market,”he said.

On Saturday, community center officials took a group of 11 BogueChitto children to the 38th annual meeting of the MississippiAssociation of Cooperatives, a 2,000-member federation of small andminority farmers to which the center belongs. The association ishard at work on various programs aimed at youth involvement inagriculture, such as the Farm to School Network, which promotes theinclusion of locally grown produce in schools and lobbies fornutrition-based classes. MAC and its member cooperatives are alsostrong supporters of farmers markets statewide.

The Bogue Chitto children got a head start on their cominggardening experiment, participating in a youth workshop where theyconstructed miniature greenhouses, single seeds planted in capsulesthat just might become the community garden’s first plants.

“It takes hand-on experiences to get kids involved,” saidDarnella Winston, field specialist with MAC who conducted theworkshop. “Instead of getting up and talking, we have to get ourkids’ hands in the dirt.”

Even though the association is dedicated mainly to minorityfarmers, Winston said MAC would help any local group wishing tostart a youth agriculture project to find instruction and sponsors.Interested groups may contact her at 601-354-2750.

Such programs have worked wonders in other parts of Mississippi.The Attala County Self-Help Cooperative found success in involvinglocal youth in a greenhouse and garden project that was featured innational cooperative publications.

“We’re trying to show our kids how food actually gets to thetable, teaching them exactly what growing a vegetable entails fromplanting to harvest to meals,” said Daniel Teague, a founder of theAttala County cooperative. “Without small farmers, you lose thatpersonal, one-on-one contact, and it’s vanishing every day. That’swhy it’s so important we revitalize the family farm.”