Among the 50 or 60 in attendance were farmers, chefs, market owners, and distributors, along with many who fell into the category claimed by one attendee: "farmers market junkie." People came from as far as Holly Springs, MS, and Brownsville, TN, all looking to tap into the local market.
Mary Phillips of Urban Farms and Josephine Williams of GrowMemphis explained the conference's open-table format. They'd assigned a few topics with speakers - using technology to reach customers, creating a local farmer's cooperative, a networking session where farmers could connect with markets - but let attendees know that the main point of the conference was to share information between themselves. After a round of introductions, people submitted topics they'd like to explore along with those they could help explain, and those suggestions became the reference points for most of the day's sessions.
I participated in two sessions, the first about providing healthy recipes and reaching out to community members who may not be familiar with the foods they find at farmers markets. Input came from people with different levels of experience, and different tactics were explored; among them were connecting to people through cooking demonstrations a la the Church Health Center and, ideally, at the farmers market, and working with children to build excitement and pride in healthy cooking, thereby hopefully affecting their parents' diets.
A central question of the second session I attended was how to connect chefs to farmers. Many restaurants in town serve local meats and produce, but many more are interested in getting local food on their tables - the unfortunate problem is that both farmers and chefs have incredibly busy, unreliable schedules that just don't sync up. All agreed that a third party is needed, though the cost of bringing one in was a concern; a Nashville nonprofit distributor was mentioned as a model, as was a farm in North Carolina where customers can receive food in return for driving products to local restaurants.
The consensus was that many of the frustrations of the local food market are shared across the board, and all involved are willing to work hard to overcome them. It was an encouraging day, one that showed how far we've come already, and how invested each party is in creating and maintaining the relationships necessary to push us even farther.