Gathering Together in Common Conversation

Every August for the past three years, it has been my job to put together the educational sessions for the Annual Southern SAWG Conference.  While the rest of you are immersed in heat and tomatoes, my focus is on mid-winter: the third week of January, 2012.  

All year long I gather suggestions of topics and speakers, and layer them with feedback from previous conferences.  In June, I assemble a list of the best session ideas (this year it numbered over 120), and consult with an advisory committee for further input.  Then I begin the process of pruning and shaping the collective program until it matches the needs of our diverse audience.  That brings me to August, when I call 90 to 100 prospective presenters, and further build the program based on their response. 
I am blessed to have this position, to have a reason for checking in with so many people in our region at once, allowing me to put my finger on the pulse of our movement.  And I am always amazed that despite whatever drought or government follies are going on at the moment, there is almost unanimous enthusiasm for gathering together again.   
I’ve recently become aware of a book by Michael Bell called " Farming For Us All: Practical Agriculture and the Cultivation of Sustainability".  Based on years of interactions with over 60 Iowa farm families, Bell attempts to answer two critical questions concerning sustainable agriculture: why some farmers are becoming sustainable farmers and why most others are not.  One conclusion is that sustainable farmers “…seek to create an agriculture that engages others—farmers, university researchers, government officials, and consumers alike—in a common conversation about what agriculture might look like, but without insisting that a common conversation requires a common vision.”  
For farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture, Bell believes that differences are seen as a source of learning and new ideas.  As Liam Hysjulien points out in his review of Bell’s book on the website, "As It Ought To Be", “…the importance and uniqueness of sustainable farming lies in its dedication towards community and dialogue.”  
That, as well as anything, explains why Southern SAWG has hosted an annual conference for the past 20 years, to give you all a location for common conversation and community.  I’ll see you in Little Rock in January.