Three years ago, as Roy Jones switched his family's vegetable farm in Valley Head, Ala., from conventional to organic farming techniques, he drew on the advice of his elders.
Jones pored through fraying and weathered journals kept by his ancestors as they started their farm in the 1840s, and he revived fungus- and pest-control methods used generations ago on the same land before chemical pesticides were developed in the 1930s.
"Basically, in the 1800s, it was organic production," said Jones. "Now it's come back around."
He was among 1,200 farmers, community food advocates and farm policy experts attending the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group's 20th annual conference, held Friday and today at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
The conference is sponsored this year by Gaining Ground, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit promoting locally grown food to boost the economy and improve health.
Farmers congregated with other growers and proponents of sustainable farming, sharing hard-won knowledge and learning new farming techniques, attendees said.
The camaraderie was a major draw for some farmers.
Inspiration comes from "knowing you're not alone," Jennie Bartoletti, urban farmer at Chattanooga's Crabtree Farms, said between educational sessions.
One session focused on the hot-button issue of U.S. food policy. Some critics question government subsidies supporting corn and soybean farmers more than fruit and vegetable growers.
But speaker Scott Marlow of Rural Advancement Foundation International -- a private nonprofit in Pittsboro, N.C., focused on equity in agriculture -- said antitrust concerns are the root cause of these disparities.
Government subsidies are necessary for farms that grow commodities such as corn and soybeans because multinational food corporations who buy those products wield enormous market control, Marlow said.
"Commodities markets are far more concentrated than fruit and vegetable markets," he said. "I'm tired of being in places where people are taking pot shots at commodity farmers who are trying to make a living and not focusing on the corporations who are forcing their hand."
Conference participants have made field trips to organic farms in the region, including Crabtree Farms, for practical tips on growing food and organizing plant sales, as well as improving community outreach tips to attract a bigger following, said Joel Houser, executive director of Crabtree Farms.
Padgett Arnold, market manager for the Main Street Farmers Market, said many farmers have emerged to bring local food to a wider audience in the last 10 years.
"I guess this is just our time. It feels good to be part of it, to help instigate and pave some new roads," she said.
Contact staff writer Emily Bregel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6467.