Discussing Crisis & Resilience at the Future Harvest Conference
Every year, the FRESHFARM staff looks forward to attending the Future Harvest conference to learn and network with farmers, educators, agriculture service providers, and food entrepreneurs in the Chesapeake region. This year’s virtual conference, “Crisis & Resilience: Building a New Food Future,” looked much different than the usual in-person gathering, but the two days of presentations, workshops, and keynote speeches from Tope Fajingbesi of Dodo Farms and Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms were as compelling and powerful as ever as participants discussed the challenges they’ve faced over the past year and the future they envision for our local food economy.
The conference kicked off on Friday, January 15 with Tope Fajingbesi’s remarks on “Growing a New World.” In addition to running Dodo Farms, a Certified Naturally Grown produce farm in Montgomery County, MD, with her husband, Tope is a Certified Public Accountant, a lecturer and advisor at the University of Maryland, author, and entrepreneur. Tope urged conference participants to reconsider their perspective about 2020 and learn lessons from the challenges we faced. Rather than focusing on the narrative of pain and crisis, she described the inspiring possibility of creating a new narrative of the past year and of our capacity to learn from adversity and hardship “so that we can have a bountiful future harvest and we can grow a new world.”
Tope highlighted examples throughout history of positive developments that occurred in the midst of challenging times, and encouraged us to find those bright moments, and create our own bright moments in this year’s myriad challenges including COVID-19, economic crisis, and racial reckoning. She told stories of the sacrifice, perseverance, and perspective that her husband has demonstrated throughout his career as a farmer, and reminded us that resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity can help us heal from these challenges and create a better future. “What can we do to make sure that we survive this pandemic, we survive this economic downturn, that we survive all of this pain that we’re going through now; but we just don’t survive, we thrive when this is over?” Tope asked. She emphasized the importance farming and agriculture play in the economy as a whole, and the critical role farmers play in supporting and nourishing their communities, especially in times of crisis. She reminded her audience of the power to make positive change through small acts of kindness and challenged us to “change 2020 and 2021 for the generations yet unborn.”
On Saturday, we heard from activist and writer Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms on “The Next Agriculture Economy.” Chris shared an inspiring vision of a scalable, collaborative, sustainable agricultural system that is transparent and equitable for all who participate in it. He outlined the challenges small farmers face as they try to establish themselves in an American farming system that has been built on land theft and exploitation over centuries. Chris shared his own experience of leaving his software engineer career in his late 20s to pursue his dream of farming. After almost a decade of operating a farm, he has a deep knowledge of the challenges facing young and new farmers, and the nearly insurmountable barriers to success, including access to land, capital, and labor. It quickly became clear to him that most successful farmers depended on either having access to inherited wealth or exploiting the farm labor necessary to be operational.
Chris outlined how the dismal state of modern farming came to be: throughout the 20th century, mechanized farm equipment allowed farmers to cultivate more land, which required more farm equipment, which resulted in ever-larger farms managed by an ever-shrinking populace of farmers. As farms consolidated and more residents left rural areas, power (both local and federal, in the form of political influence) was consolidated in the hands of the remaining landowners. The sustainable farming model was supposed to challenge this system: small farms across the country selling directly to consumers, from diversified and sustainably managed farms. However, Chris noted that the conventional food system is so big, small sustainable farms working on an individual basis will never be able to create large-scale change. He laid out the model he is building at Sylvanaqua Farms of an integrated food economy based on collective land ownership and shared work, distributed among skill-based teams (such as butchers, farmers, grocers, marketers, etc). This model removes many of the entrepreneurial barriers of starting a farm business, making it much easier to scale up. Chris envisions agricultural collectives across the country that could help make farming a viable livelihood, invest in local communities, and share prosperity more broadly.
While we missed the in-person connections, the Future Harvest conference did not fail to energize and inspire us as we prepare for the 2021 season. Thank you Future Harvest, for showcasing the incredible resilience and creativity of our Chesapeake agricultural community!