Charlie Mitchell: One of Mississippi's greatest assets is 'arable land'

May 6, 2013 9:36:49 AM



OXFORD -- OK, it was tacky to notice -- but I did. At a gospel singing to benefit efforts to get more nutritious food into Oxford schools, a couple of the choir members were -- and I have no room to talk -- "over-nutreated." Plump. Too much fried chicken. Not enough raw veggies. 


But that little factor should in no way overshadow (sorry) the message, the effort. 


As a resident of this town, I'm proud to have observed the kindling of a trend. For whatever reason, people here are getting back to their roots (including carrots and turnips). Oxford has a thriving community garden and at least three vegetable and fruit cooperatives that are, from all appearances, becoming more commercially successful every season. Local restaurants are also diving into the farm-to-table movement, and patrons are increasingly shopping for local fare when dining out or when visiting one of several farmers' markets. 


Longtime readers may remember previous gripes about living in such a fertile locale and having so much food shipped in. I like to buy a pineapple from Hawaii or a banana from Belize at the supermarket as much as anybody, but it has never made sense to me why a pig that grew up in Utica had to be shipped to seven or 15 states before returning as a package of bacon for sale in the corner store. It has never made sense to me why we are offered flash-frozen (and uninspected) catfish and shrimp from Asia when there's such bounty in Delta ponds and the Gulf of Mexico. Same for fruits and veggies. 


I know, I know. Economies of scale. American workers want too much money. The federal government has too many regulations. Blah, blah, blah. 


But even accepting all those factors, it has always been incongruous so see so much open land devoted to so few food crops. 


I think about a flight I once took on a clear day from Amsterdam to Johannesburg. From the window I could see the Mediterranean, then the Sahara began. I took a nap. When I woke up, I looked out the window. We were still over the desert. Sand, sand sand. Couldn't grow a pea. 


I was also in Iraq. There, 8 percent of the land is "arable." That means 92 percent of the entire area was not suited for producing food. 


In Mississippi, there are 11 million -- 11 million! -- arable acres available, almost 40 percent of the entire state. 


The Oxford enterprises have varying business models. For the most part, people are invited to purchase "shares" of whatever the owners grow. Some offer "pick your own." Some offer front-door delivery. Individuals and families can combine, depending on need. For an entire harvest season, the produce comes in. Some also offer farm-fresh eggs and limited quantities of chicken, other meats and cheeses. 


Restaurants can buy shares, too, or just purchase whatever becomes available after individuals pick up their boxes. Then, innovative chefs tailor their menus to what ripened that week. 


This ancient style of doing business with neighbors is ratcheted up to light speed by the Internet, with shareholders getting regular emails and updates. "Ding, your squash is ready." And, of course, the owners willingly offer and share recipes keyed to the moment. 


From over in the Delta, there are reports that more and more people are returning to gardening, pursuing for pleasure and fitness practices that shielded their grandparents from starvation. 


It's not a bad thing that the 1950s and 1960s happened. Nothing wrong with plastic or mass packaging or microwaved meals. Nothing wrong with warehouses or fleets of 18-wheelers shipping stuff coast-to-coast and back again. But things had gotten out of balance. 


The Oxford schools initiative, at least on the surface, is about finding more ways to get more locally grown items on school menus. That means navigating the maze of nonsensical USDA rules and regulations. It may even mean restaffing school kitchens with cooks because several have converted to 100 percent heat and eat items (with the same nutritional content as the cardboard packaging). 


We're too fat. We don't eat well. Our fate is in our hands. 


This is the time of year when a $2 package of Kentucky Wonder seeds will send shoots up a pole and yield enough green beans to feed a family -- excellently -- for many months. We're getting back to that. 


It's so great to see trends such as these blossom. (Sorry, again.)