Southern SAWG 2018

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This year’s trip to Southern SAWG (Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) as part of the Food Systems Travel Course was the best so far in the three years I have been facilitating it. We’re never gone to SSAWG before, normally preferring Georgia Organics, but this year Dr. Stutzman and I decided to mix things up. The conference itself was surprisingly different from GA Organics. As the latter has become more focused on the social aspects of the good food movement we were looking for a broader view on the movement. We were not disappointed as SSAWG still has a very strong focus on food production while also giving voices to those groups that are sometimes forgotten in sustainability.

Students were able to hear talks from farmers about the strategies they use to keep their farms thriving financially and ecologically. There were also sessions on race and gender in the Good Food Movement that put farmers and community organizers in front of a mic to speak about the unique challenges of being a minority and/or female producer. We were all excited to hear so many powerful female and/or minority voices speaking words of healing and encouragement over a movement that flourishes best when diversity is highest.

Students were free to attend the sessions that interested them the most. Several attended Jeff Poppen’s session on biodynamic farming, and they were intrigued by his mystical approach to his farm. Jeff himself couldn’t be missed walking around the Chattanooga Convention Center barefoot. Several of us attended Tradd Cotter’s highly entertaining and informative session on mushroom farming, where he unleashed a steady stream of useful knowledge infused with humor and wit.

My objectives for this class are always threefold. I want students to come away with a deep understanding of the aesthetic, Eucharistic, and social/ecological aspects of their decisions about food. The conference did an amazing job of reinforcing their beliefs about food as a social and ecological phenomenon, but as always it was up to me to curate the free time (and the coursework) in order to convince them of the aesthetic and Eucharistic qualities of food. The tool most effective at doing this has always been the meals we share on the trip. In years past, I have arranged highlight meals to do this, and we have had several practical and often rushed meals in between. The layout of the conference schedule, and the location made this year different. Every single meal built upon the last with an ever-increasing amount of beauty, fellowship, and deliciousness. When it was all said and done we had eaten at Public House, 2 Sons Kitchen, Feed Co., Main Street Meats, and St John’s. If you are familiar with the Chattanooga farm-to-table restaurant scene, that list is essentially a collection of the all-stars, and the wonderful thing is they were all very close to the convention center. Over each meal, we were able to talk about the sessions we went to, laugh at the types of inside jokes that develop when a group travels to a conference together, and savor every single bite of the food that had been prepared for us.

It was over one of these meals, while I was talking about Christian land stewardship and how it relates to the good food movement when a student asked me, “You’ve said several times that meals can be Eucharistic, what do you mean by that?” This is one of those moments that instructors pray for. I was able to explain that some of the most important moments in my life have been meals with friends. Meals where each element had been thoughtfully grown, carefully prepared, and eaten in a spirit of joy and gratitude. In these moments, for the Christian, the farm-to-table movement really becomes ripe with exactly the sort of beauty, truth, and goodness we see depicted in Scripture when Christ shares meals with his disciples. Of course such meals don’t have to be fancy or organic or anything other than a humble piece of bread. But every once in a while when given the chance, sharing such a meal with your friends, laughing, telling your story, and hearing theirs, you catch a glimpse of the Kingdom to come. In this way, a good meal thoughtfully shared with friends, can enhance our understanding of
Communion, and prepare us to live in a world where the soil has been healed, all wrongs righted, and we can all eat at Christ’s table once again.