You Never Forget Your First Time

You never forget your first time attending a Southern SAWG conference.

Cody Hopkins, Falling Sky Farm (AR)

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I first attended SAWG in 2007. At the time, I couldn't even call myself a Greenhorn Farmer. I'd never raised nor butchered any livestock but I'd done all the prerequisite reading and visiting. I'd read the Omnivore's Dilemma, all of Salatin's books and visited Salatin's place. I was considering the internship route but felt a strong desire to dive in and make a go with my own farm business. That 2007 SAWG Conference in Louisville was just what I needed, a deep dive into farming specifics and a connection to a network of likeminded farmers. I still remember my excitement when I came across the SAWG flier at a local bakery. I wanted to focus on pastured poultry and all the stars aligned. One of the pre-conference courses focused on pastured poultry. I soaked it all in that year and left the conference raring to go. That first year my wife and I raised 700 broilers and I can't tell you how many times I referred to my notes from the SAWG Conference. Seven years later we're still going strong. In 2013 we'll raise 10,000 broilers, 175 hogs, 40 beef, and 400 turkeys and honestly, it’s hard to imagine our success without SAWG. We've attended SAWG every year since 2007 and each year we learn more and expand our network. Thank you SAWG!


Andrew Williams, Farmer, CEO of The United Christian Community Association, Retired NRCS (AL)

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In the mid 1990’s I was working for USDA/NRCS as an RC&D Coordinator and I was looking for new ideas as it related to small scale farmers. Many of the programs and project that NRCS administered did not fit such farmers. When I attended my first SAWG conference I met people with a different kind of mind set as it related to production agriculture. This conference was like going to the super bowl in terms of information and practices that fit small farmers.

In 1996 I became the State Outreach Coordinator for NRCS in Alabama, in this position my job was to market NRCS programs in underserved communities. As stated above many of these programs did not fit small farmers very well. At this point I began to use some of the knowledge that I learned at the Southern SAWG Conference in requests to NRCS program staff to change policies to include such in their programs: Pasture Poultry, Micro-irrigation system, Woodland Grazing, and High Tunnel Hoop Houses.

In addition, I learned how to use the knowledge on my personal farm and this put me in a better position to help other farmers as a consultant moving forward today.

Althea Raiford, Gilliard Farms, Quilter (GA)


My first experience at SAWG was unexpected and unplanned, but a complete and total necessity for my eyes to be open what it takes to be a farmer. A quick back story on me; I am a 20 year Navy veteran who after many years and several blessings decided that being a farmer was the direction I needed to grow in….yes grow in. My brother and I are the 6th generation to farm our land and we own a 28 acre organic farm in Southeast Coastal Georgia, Gilliard Farms. We both were raised not on the farm, but with the farming and animal husbandry lessons. Farmer’s Veteran Coalition contacted me in 2011 and told me about scholarships for SSAWG 2012 for military veterans and said I should apply and go. I would meet and learn from farms and farmers in the Southern regions. So when this opportunity came to attend the SSAWG I applied and received a scholarship to attend. When my packet arrived I called my brother and we couldn’t decide which classes I should take and which one we really needed to get a better understanding. We were like a kids in a candy store…we wanted everything. I attended as many courses as humanly possible, met people that would and have changed my life for the better, found information that we needed and some that I didn’t know we needed, and promised to return the following year to continue to grow into a better farmer…I came back in 2013 with my brother. Which is a whole another story…


Editor’s note: Althea made and donated that beautiful quilt in the 2012 silent auction, her first year to attend the conference.

Karen Wynne, Rosita’s Farm, First ASAN Director, Soil Consultant (AL)

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I knew about the SSAWG conference before I moved south. A friend from Virginia had gone to one in Florida and seems to have spent all of her time there drinking the most delicious organic orange juice. But three Januaries passed before I made it to my first conference, ten years ago in Mobile. And those were lean times in the Florida panhandle {where she had moved when she came south}. My job required too much travel for me to do more than grow a garden. I had lived in plenty of places around the U.S., and I could always connect with some kind of rewarding sustainable farming community. The best I had found in Florida was a 2 ½ hour drive to Marianna to clean collards for the New North Florida Cooperative.

So I did finally make it to the SSAWG conference, and I’m sure I still have the notes I took somewhere, but what I mainly remember is meeting some really amazing people and making great connections. The most valuable session for me was the state breakout session. I went to Alabama’s, figuring I wasn’t too far and maybe would have better luck finding a crowd. I met farmers and educators and advocates and researchers, and learned about a new organization called the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network.

After that meeting, it didn’t take long before I had plenty of sustainable farming community to keep me busy and after ten years it’s definitely not slowing down. I tell anyone that’s farming or interested in farming that if they only attend one conference a year, it should be the SSAWG conference. There is nothing more inspiring than being surrounded by over a thousand energetic, creative, curious, and smart farmers and supporters.

I do wonder where I would be if I had gone to the Florida breakout. Growing organic kumquats in Weeki Wachee?    

Alison Wiediger, Au Naturel Farm, High Tunnel Short Course Presenter (KY)


Well, actually, I remember two “first times”. And, yes, I DO know the meaning of “first”, but, well, you decide.

In 1996, Paul and I attended the SSAWG Conference held in Lexington, KY. We had been growing using organic practices for some time. For both of us, we had read “Silent Spring” in 1974 and it changed our lives. We had been growing vegetables commercially for somewhat less time. For me, since I bought the farm in 1989 and for Paul, 2-3 years. But, as a team, we were very new, like 3 or 4 months new. And, as was typical for the time, we had no one close to us to talk with about growing without chemicals. When we tried, response ran from total amusement to total disdain.

Somehow, we heard about the conference and that there were scholarships available. It was in Lexington, close enough to drive up for a day – jobs kept us from attending any time but the weekend – and it sounded like a wonderful opportunity. We got the scholarship, pulled together the money for gas, got up VERY early and drove to Lexington. We were so poor that we carried our lunch in a cooler and ate it in the truck in parking garage. But what else I remember is sooo important: Martin Richards introduced me to Mark Cain, who assured me I WAS capable of making great flower bouquets, we attended Tom Trantham’s “12 Aprils” which was perfect for our plans for a grass finished beef operation, and most important, when we talked to people about growing organically, they “got it”.

Jobs and other things – like figuring out how to use High Tunnels – intervened and it was 2001 before we had the opportunity to attend again. We were asked to speak about the fledgling High Tunnel technology, and it was in Chattanooga – close enough to drive down in just a few hours. It was our first time speaking before a large audience. Before we had PowerPoint. Slides only. But what I remember clearly is that as I talked, I could see heads nodding. Afterwards, people came down and wanted to continue the conversation. And, we got to attend lots of sessions ourselves, often getting answers to questions we had not yet asked, or giving us fresh ideas for the next year.

We have only missed one since. Although the number of farmers growing sustainably has grown, it is still such a small community in South Central Kentucky. The SSAWG conference, more than any other we have attended, is like a large community. We have a wide circle of friends we only see at Conference, and each year we add to that. The variety of sessions always energizes us for the coming season, and gives us lots of new ideas as to where we will be taking our growing next. It is a “must attend” for us still and hopefully for many years to come.    

Darlington "Chongo" Mundende, Associate Professor, Langston University (OK)


This year, I missed attending the Annual SSAWG Conference in Little Rock, AR, and am still recovering from the nonparticipating blues. Since I first attended the conference in New Orleans, I have always looked forward to this conference. Frankly, I was just as excited about going to the conference as I was about visiting the “Big Easy” for the first time, but when the meetings started, I got hooked to the concept, people, and program. This was a different kind of meeting: producers talked to producers about what had worked or failed on their farms and ranches. They talked about what was good for the environment and a sustainable future. I determined to bring producers every year so that they too could learn about their opportunities. Langston University has fulfilled that desire until this year.

I do not remember specifics that first time around, but I definitely remember the “Taste of Louisiana.” I believe the total attendance was 450. In 2012, there were over 1,000 participants.

I like the SSAWG conference because it is a source of ideas for limited resource producers. It is a source of inspiration and courage, showing producers what is possible. Its emphasis on building sustainable communities for us and our posterities cannot be surpassed by any other value. It shows that small producers can live better lives and dictate the prices for their produce. As iron sharpens iron, SSAWG producers sharpen other producers and together they continue to make this a better world.


Paul Dysinger, Bountiful Blessings Farm (TN)


My first time attending a Southern SAWG conference was an experience filled with information, interesting ideas, and farming stories. Imagine being surrounded by hundreds of people - all passionate about sustainable agriculture. But perhaps the best part is the opportunity to learn from other people's hard earned experience. I remember sitting and listening to a couple share about their farming experience and how they were making things work for their farm. It was an opportunity to catch a glimpse into the lives of other people who are tangibly changing our world at the "grass roots level". And so, while here is a huge opportunity to capture a lot of knowledge that is being shared - more importantly I'd say "come for the people". The connections and support you can find at SSAWG are definitely worth it!

Susan Pavlin, Global Growers Network (GA)

Photo by Sara Camp Arnold

Photo by Sara Camp Arnold

My first time at the Southern SAWG conference was really amazing. So much of the time I'm out in the field, by myself or with just a few others, working to address challenges that are new every day. The sessions were led by folks who had years and years of first-hand experience and expertise - and who could give practical, in-depth advice on options that might work for me. And some of the best learning came in the informal times, over a beer or a coffee, when I had a chance to speak with other growers about their own experiences. It was inspiring and energizing, and greatly improved my ability to grow good food. I work a lot with growers who have moved to the South from other countries, who are adapting their farming skills to our local environment. It's been great to see the changes in their own practices as they learn about innovative tools and strategies to keep their farming organic, and as they make connections with others across the region. 


Barbara Shipman, Farmer and Cottage House Program Director (AL)

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My first time to attend a Southern SAWG Conference was 2006, when I took a group of Ag Students from the Ag Technical School in Union Springs, Alabama. This was the only time the students were allowed to go on a trip out of the state. The students enjoyed the ride on their bus with their teacher and the bus driver. I road on the bus with adults from north Alabama. It iced over the roads. The school principal called us to send the students back home. The principal was afraid that the students and the bus would get stuck in the ice and snow. He thought that everyone would have to spend the entire week in Kentucky and student parents would be worried sick. The bus driver had never driven the bus in the ice or snow before. The students spent only one day at the conference in Louisville, KY. I cannot remember fully what happened next, except the students wanted to stay and see the snow.

Everyone was nice and I got to meet lots of new friends whom I have stayed in contact with.

This was an educational trip and I have been able to use all of the knowledge that I learned on my farm. It helped me to get my organic certification thru OIA North America.

Louie Rivers, Project Manager for the Small Farmer Outreach Training and Technical Assistance Program at Kentucky State University (KY)


My first time to attend a Southern SAWG Conference was when it was held in Lexington, KY (1995). It was a very cold and snowy weekend. The most memorable event of the Conference was the information provided to the producers and the interaction between the producers and the few University personnel that were present. The various types of farms and enterprises produced on the farms were mind boggling to me, in that there was something for everyone. Our producers came back from the conference with a zeal to learn and they always stated that they wanted to go back year after year. Southern SAWG provides information in a format that makes learning easy and yet fun.

By attending Southern SAWG, it allowed my oldest son to complete his Ph. D from Ohio State University. He was able to do his dissertation research on the minority farmers from across the southern states.

The individuals that I met at Southern SAWG are friends for life and they have enriched me both on a professional level and on a social level. It is the one conference that I will not miss and I would pray that Southern SAWG would continue to prepare farmers for a sustainable future.

Mengmeng Gu, Researcher at Texas A&M and Southern SAWG Board member (TX)

Dr. Mengmeng Gu

Dr. Mengmeng Gu

 Compared to a lot of people, I’m a very young ‘SSAWGer’. I just learned about high tunnel as a production technique and attended HT and cut flower short course around 2007. Around that time, I, along with other team members, received around $1M in various USDA grants to investigate high tunnel production and promote it to producers.

SSAWG introduced me to small and medium-sized producers. There are so many differences of these producers from people I met before. They care, about the land and people. They are passionate, about the land and people. They are always positive, just about everything. Even bad weathers don’t sound that bad in their conversation. They never complain about the government not doing enough for them. They are so hopeful and their next year is always going to be better. They are so eager to learn, and share. It’s a big family of 1200 conference attendees and those represented by these 1200 people. I’m glad to be part of the family and have been back to the ‘family reunion’ every year.

With connections made at SSAWG, I made a lot of friends and colleagues, and those $1M was well-spent. 

Judith Winfrey, Love is Love Farm, Slow Food Atlanta (GA)

Judith Winfrey's photo by Gregory Miller

Judith Winfrey's photo by Gregory Miller

 My first time at SSAWG was so invigorating. Joe and I had been hearing for years from all of our grower friends about how SSAWG was the best conference, the one where you really learn valuable, applicable information. We had just started farming our own operation and had so many big ideas about how we were going to do it all. It was wonderful to hear from experienced farmers from around the Southeast, who were so kind and patient with us. Not a one laughed. We have come to see the SSAWG community as an invaluable nurturing network where we get to catch up with friends and farmer heroes (Mark Schonbeck, Jean Mills, Alex Hitt, Ellen Polishuk among others) and look forward to the annual conference as a required touchstone, reminding us each year where we've come from, where we are and where we want to go.

Sandra Simone, Huckleberry Hill Farm (AL)

Sandra Simone

Sandra Simone

SSAWG was instrumental in the decision to go from my little organic garden and begin “farming”. After moving from Atlanta, GA to Talladega, Alabama, my husband and I were going to raise goats. Kathy Colverson, of HPI, put us in touch with Jean Mills. We were able through scholarship, to attend our first SSAWG conference in January of 2000. I remember it well. It was held on Jekyll Island. Such enthusiasm and such energy. SSAWG was a much smaller community then. It seemed that we all knew each other, I think because of our shared values to live sustainably on this earth. Folks brought their harvests and shared freely. I remember that we came home with a box of oranges among other goodies.

Harold was ill (he transitioned the following month) and was unable to attend sessions, but I did. They were great, and they opened up the world of agriculture to me.

My daughter, Tynesha, who lives in Atlanta, attended the conference with me that was held in Florida. I had not been successful in getting her to be interested in involvement with the land. That conference flipped a switch in her and she was turned on. She called everyone to tell them about what she had learned in the conference and convince ME that WE should try a CSA. WOW! So Jean Mills took us under her wing until we could fly. Last year was our eighth consecutive CSA!

Tynesha and I have attended several conferences since that time. We have even been presenters! We always come home rejuvenated and full of ideas, and useful information. The networking has been fabulous! The new connections were valuable beyond measure.

Thank you SSAWG!!