Community members learn, explore and engage at the annual Small Farmers Conference

Sunny, clear skies welcomed local farmers and ranchers, academics, stakeholders and friends to the Natchez Convention Center for the annual Small Farmers Conference. Held March 26-28 in historic Natchez, Mississippi, this event was co-hosted by the Alcorn State University Extension Program, in conjunction with the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives' Center for Cooperative Development.

Nearly 400 individuals filed  the venue to engage plenaries, and breakout sessions focused on the theme, "Preserving Agriculture in the South: Innovating and Implementing Good Farming Practices."

The event began with a USDA and State Programs Pre-Conference where participants had the opportunity to interface with officials from a host of organizations, including the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; and more. Attendees collected contact information and asked questions pertinent to their individual issues.

Afterward, the lobby buzzed with excited conversation. For many of the socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who attended the Conference courtesy of scholarship funds from MAC, this was their first opportunity to meet and speak with movers and shakers from across the industry.

According to Dr. Franklin Chukwuma, associate director for the Extension Program, Alcorn State University School of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, the Pre-Conference was the zeitgeist of the course that he and other administrators had charted for the direction of the event.

"We wanted the Conference to be valuable for both beginning and experienced farmers" he stated. "We wanted to provide them with the latest information and research while giving them a chance to ask questions and interact with experts."

The keynote speaker for the event was Dr. M. Ray McKinne, dean and 1890 Extension administrator for the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University. During his time at the podium, McKinne offered "5 keys to Success."

He encouraged attendees that, "success and excellence don't occur by accident" and that they should view land-grant institutions like Alcorn as a "friend and partner on their journey." McKinnie left the podium with a rousing round of applause after one final word of encouragement. Participants were fortified to "Play Hard, Think Smart, and Stick Together."

Each day of the conference, attendees were exposed to new developments in the agricultural industry as well as innovative strategies to improve their enterprises. Sessions focused on common issues including marketing, acquiring financial resources, commercial distribution, mediation, nutrition, health and more.

Featured sessions included a Farm Bill Update from Eloris Speights, director of the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center at Alcorn, as well as "A Chat on the River" with Cornelius Blanding, executive director for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Land Assistance Fund, and Jacqueline Davis-Slay, director of Public and Private Partnership, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

During the "Chat on the River," Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliot, Foot Print Farms, LLC, enlivened the audience with her presence as she articulated the questions and concerns of local farmers for insight from Blanding and Slay.

On the second day of the conference, participants stepped outside of the venue to visit various interactive learning field tours on Alcorn's campus and at other local enterprises.

They saw and learned about wind tunnels or "hoop houses" for extended growing seasons at the University's model farm. They also learned about genetic modification of fruit from Dr. Girish Panicker, director of the Center for Conservation Research. At Berry Farms outside of Natchez,  participants learned about Grazing Herd Best Management Practices from Mr. Berry as well as the Alcorn Extension agents and Mississippi Association of Cooperatives specialists who interact with his enterprise on a regular basis. In the same manner, participants also learned about erosion, soil, and forage health at Johnson Farms in rural Adams County.

As buses and cars began to file away on Wednesday, a renewed sense of possibility was felt. Attendees expressed their desire to attend the next event and to apply the knowledge and resources gathered.

Anna May Green of Fayette MS stated, "This is my first time at the Small Farmers Conference. I was raised on a farm, but so much is different now. I came because the theme stated that we would learn about innovation and technology, and the event did not disappoint. I learned a lot of new techniques that I will use.

Mattie Malone, also of Fayette, stated "I came to the conference because I wanted to meet with officials to find out how to receive more technical support on my farm. I also wanted to learn about soil conservation. Many of the people who could provide the info that I needed gave their contact information across the podium. That was so valuable to me. We have a cattle farm, and I took away a lot of information that can help my family improve our cattle operation."

Jimmy and Virginia Durr of McGee, MS came to learn and "stay up-to-date." "We found out about new crops to plant as well as nutrition and ways to stay healthy. The information about timberland and gardening will help us tremendously. We also truly enjoyed the variety of speakers at the pre-conference and learned a lot from them."

According to Gerald Jones, conference chair and director of County Operations for the Alcorn State University Extension Program, the event was a huge success. He praised to leadership as well as his colleagues in the School of Agriculture & Applied Sciences for their tireless support.

"This year's event was inclusive of every unit within the School of Agriculture, and Applied Sciences and I applaud each for contributing to the success of the conference. I believe the bar has been set high."

Despite its name, the conference hosts participants from across all walks of agriculture and throughout the region. For more information, visit