Eugene Cooke and Nicole Bluh of Atlanta’s Good Shepherd Agro Ecology Center know plenty about growing, and about growing communities. (Read more about their good work here.) They’ll be at the 18th Annual Georgia Organics Conference,Recipe for Change: Better Farms, Better Flavors, which will be held on Feb. 20-21, 2015, at the Classic Center in Athens, Ga., and they’re leading an education session called “Food System Alchemy.”
The format’s going to be very cool: it’s a Socratic-style seminar where attendees will be part of the conversation about how to support farmers and local food systems. We spoke to both of them on the strong need for connecting growers and making their voices heard when it comes to discussing effective models for success.
What are your expectations for the conference, and why did you decide to structure your session as an open panel?
Eugene: The expectations are to provide a space where people can talk about looking at local food from how cities like Atlanta and Athens are managing their local systems individually, and how those local systems can connect. So looking at the examples like the Athens Food Bank and then bringing it to funders who are doing work in Atlanta and then connecting restaurant chefs and small urban farmers. How do we get those people in the same room together and have direct communication with each other? Not communicating through email, not communicating through a grant application, but sit everyone at the table and raise questions that will give everyone the opportunity to communicate their own experiential point of view.
Who are some people you expect to be a part of this conversation?
Nicole: Josh Hopkins, the chef at Empire State South. Folks on our team like Jovanna [Johnson-Cooke], who has her own food service provider business. Farmers like Christopher Edwards. Robby Astrove. People who have been setting up markets like Mary Elizabeth at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, Endra from the Whole Foods on Ponce. Folks who have been dealing a lot with the administrative aspect of it like Jennifer Asman at Georgia State with the Department of Sustainability. People who are working with organizations who are providing grants, possibly. Almeta [Tulloss] at the Athens Land Trust.
Eugene: This is a core group of people that are having this conversation, but anybody who comes to the conference, especially students, we invite them to come and not only listen but participate.
Nicole: We’re going to have conversation going so people might get sparked, because they might not connect to us but they might hear something someone else says and think they can contribute to the conversation. We’re hoping that the rural farmers are going to have something to come in and add to the table.
What are some topics you expect to come up?
Eugene: The idea is that it’s a Socratic session. The way that Socrates did this was he had questions and then put them to the group. One person would be able to answer then the next person, then the next person. All we do as facilitators is ask more questions. We will purposely and intentionally avoid throwing our opinion into the mix.
Nicole: In our food system are there models that show success or effectiveness—what are the elements of those? How has there been misdirection of resources? If people are agreeing on that model where there’s people, land, and profits. If people are doing the work and then people who are investing into the business are all agreeing on that, how is investment paid back? How do we all agree upon how that investment comes back to that person? How can organizations like ALFI engage more? What level of engagement can ALFI start to have with the people who are currently growing in metro Atlanta?
Eugene: Part of the question there is how much teeth can an organization have if it’s not incorporated, and it’s not its own sovereign kind of entity yet. What structures or what kind of governance structures are we going to start adopt as we shift here? What kind of new structures can we look at and adopt to give success for distributing products and also doing advocacy work that comes with investment? If we have a lot of advocates who are interested in this movement, could there be a structure that’s set up kind of like the United Way sets up where people put 3 percent aside into a fund that then gets distributed quarterly or annually to local growers who have four or five plus years of experience growing in an area, so it doesn’t get based on favoritism, is gets based on work and outputs.
So we look at farmers who have done really successful work and advocates who are doing a certain amount of work, but they really need to put financial investment in. Can we put together a structure like that, where you sign of 3 percent of your paycheck into this fund? And then your advocacy is not stuck with the organization you’re working with.
Nicole: One of the questions we had thought about was, ‘how essential are growers to the stability and structure and progression of a society?’ If we can come up with a standard for the larger community of how we’re working then we can discuss how essential each person’s role is, then we can start to talk about what are triple bottom line is for the whole group and how we’ll be moving our resources around.
Eugene: When we hosted the last ALFI meeting at the Agro Ecology Center, people were naming off organizations that they were representing. Yet they were in paid positions, so what they did was they identified a funding source and then started an organization that claims to advocate for local food in one way, shape, or form. We pay ourselves last all the time. So we wanna know how we can talk about that in a real direct space where we’re talking to the people who can actually make the changes. Because often times, in the case of these organizations, the people who are there were paid to go to that meeting so the people that were not represented were the very people they said they were advocating for. So the meetings are not even structured around the people we say we’re advocating for. If it’s 50% farmers and 50% advocates then we have a great conversation. But right now it’s whether the advocates can succeed in getting the farmers word out or not. So many times growers have come into the room and they think, ‘I won’t have a chance to be heard here.’
Nicole: We’re not going to get anywhere if it’s us just standing in front of people talking. That’s what Socrates did.
Eugene: Yeah, he wanted people to bubble it up to the surface themselves. How do we get these growers to feel loved? We’ll show up and we’ll speak from our heart and then we’ll go back to the field and we will have spoken directly to the people that we just don’t get a chance to communicate with.