While many rural communities face the challenges of unemployment, poverty, obesity and related health concerns, in Holmes County the numbers are particularly alarming.
Recent data for the county shows a poverty rate of 48.4 percent and the lowest life expectancy rate in the nation.
Keith Benson, along with a small group of local farmers and residents, is working to change that. Through their efforts, the Alliance for Sustainable Agricultural Production was established in January 2011.
“The mission of the alliance is to improve the quality of life in our community and other, poor, rural, underserved communities by helping people to grow healthy food and market it,” says Benson, director of the alliance. “We encourage farmers to grow sustainable crops, like specialty vegetables and fruits. We help to ensure they will have the markets to sell those crops to so that it can be a profitable endeavor for them.”
One way they fulfill that mission is through the development of the alliance’s demonstration farm. Currently, only six acres of the 50 acres donated by a local farmer are in production, but Benson says they’re looking to get 12-14 acres in cultivation in the coming year, as interest is high and initial efforts have been successful.
“We harvested more than 11,000 pounds of melons this first year, along with peas, beans, squash and cucumbers, and delivered them to grocery and specialty stores,” Benson says. “We’re making phenomenal progress mobilizing farmers and securing buyers in a very short period of time.”
The demonstration farm is also home to field days and other monthly events that provide an on-farm learning experience to mimic what farmers could do on their own farms. Here, the alliance hosts demonstrations and workshops on everything from how to build a high tunnel or hoop house, to how to plan your sustainable crop to ensure a profit.
Developing relationships with stores and retailers to establish a market for these crops is an integral part of the alliance’s work as well.
One of the big surprises to Benson is how quickly they have been able to meet the demands of institutional buyers, such as schools.
“This year we delivered produce to seven public schools in the Delta. The food service managers were very happy with the taste, and told us they really wanted to serve local foods. One told me that it was the first time she had ever met a farmer who grew the food they were serving in their kitchen.”
That kind of connection is at the heart of the alliance’s work. They connect farmers to each other for support and success; they connect farmers to markets to ensure a profit and they connect the public with nutritious, locally grown food to encourage healthy choices.
“People know how to grow in this area,” says Benson. “We want to help them to grow better so that they can make a better living and enjoy a healthier lifestyle. It’s more than agriculture. It’s a way of strengthening and building community.”