Committed to building sustainable, equitable,
community-driven food systems to strengthen
the local food economy and promote healthy
lifestyles in the Mississippi Delta.

Community Grown: A Mississippi Delta Tradition

By: Brooke Smith, WhyHunger

In the cycle of things, it's not uncommon for traditional to become modern again. Physicists explain that it's normal for time-bending relativity to reverse concepts like "old" and "new," what we once thought to be embedded in the past, suddenly appears ahead of us as a way forward into the future. That might be the best way to understand why we're seeing traditional agricultural methodology creeping back into our modern farming practices and shaping our current conversations about sustainability. For many growers and consumers, organic, small-scale farming is the wave of the future; yet, crop cultivation predates synthetic chemicals and factory farming by thousands of years, and so it follows that our ancestors were the original organic-loving locavores. But is the new traditional better than the old modern?

The flat shimmering expanse of the Mississippi Delta is just about the perfect setting to ask this question. The fields stretch off into the horizon much the same as they have for hundreds of years—and without the signature noise of contemporary development—strip malls, traffic, billboards; it feels literally timeless to stand in the middle of a sweltering patch of organic summer vegetables listening to farmers swap traditional tips: "Spray water, Murphy's Soap and cayenne pepper on the okra leaves to prevent moths from laying eggs," and "A light dusting of flower laced with cayenne pepper keeps the insects off watermelon."

"That's how they always did it," says Dorothy Grady-Scarbrough, founder of Mississippians Engaging in Greener Agriculture (MEGA) and board member of the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative. Dorothy is a transformational force in the Delta's burgeoning community agriculture movement. "It's not new. The older folk already know how to grow organic. I just tell them to 'do like you used to.'"

Dorothy started MEGA's demonstration farm and regional support network as an answer to the question of old versus new—encouraging local farmers to grow organic food crops that improve the health of their families, their congregations, their schools and their communities. Her career as a nurse, her commitment to her faith community as well as her own family, and her deep historical roots in the local agriculture of this sharecropping community, make the choice between traditional (smaller scale, organic) and modern (larger scale, chemical-dependent) agricultural development a problem of simple math.

On one side of the Delta equation: rising health problems (obesity, hypertension, diabetes) resulting from lack of access to nutritious food in stores and a generational departure from the once-ubiquitous backyard garden, increasingly mechanized production of commodity crops like ethanol corn and soybeans, and rising poverty and unemployment rates have debilitated the quality of life for many residents, stripped the nutrients from the rich soil, forced farmers into debt-driven relationships with corporate agriculture giants who control pricing of both seeds and products, and drastically reduced the once-reliably plentiful job opportunities.

On the other side: a strong sense of community connection rooted in geographic longevity, the deeply relational nature of rural value systems, the life-or-death need for local access to fresh, healthy food, and the free time on the hands of both the unemployed and the younger generations are all invaluable assets for leveraging change. When Dorothy balanced that equation, the answer to many of her community's needs was clear: convert available vacant land into small-scale organic agricultural production, and feed the neighborhood with fresh, chemical-free food grown on a whole lot of team work.

And Dorothy isn't alone in this effort. She spends much of her time spreading the good word, consulting with churches and youth groups and building regional networks. WhyHunger is currently partnering with her and many others on the Delta Fresh Foods initiative to build a regional food system in the Delta. It's all part of her grand plan to share her passion and vision for healthy community. And while it's true that Dorothy has the Southern gift for graceful persuasion and genuine friendship, there's also something else at play here—a profound sense of outreach inherent in the concept of community-based agriculture. Many hands are needed to produce food from the earth—from the labor to the distribution, it's too much work to cultivate, plant, tend, harvest and cook food alone. And just ask any grower who has had the awe-inspiring experience of harvesting mid-summer bushels of beans and multiple baskets of tomatoes—you can't possibly eat it all alone.