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February 02, 2009

Terra Madre: Extension professionals attend Slow Food International conference

Leah and Natalie at Terra Madre
Leah Chester-Davis and Natalie Hampton participate in a workshop at Terra Madre. Headphones allowed participants to hear presentations translated. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Hampton)

Fast food, slow food, local food. What does it all mean? Here in North Carolina, consumers have shown much interest in local food. Across the state, there are many examples of ways that North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents and specialists are helping to bring consumers and producers together through farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture and other marketing strategies.

In October, three Cooperative Extension professionals from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences decided to take a global look at the issue of local food by attending Terra Madre, the world conference of Slow Food International in Turin, Italy.

Leah Chester-Davis, Extension communications specialist and coordinator of communications and community outreach with the program for Value-Added and Alternative Agriculture in Kannapolis; David Kendall, Extension agent from Madison County; and I, Natalie Hampton, news editor and media specialist in Communication Services, were the Extension participants. With nearly 40 members, North Carolina had one of the larger delegations from the United States. More than 700 delegates represented the United States, making it the largest visiting delegation.

Slow Food is a fairly young organization, founded by Carlo Petrini in response to a plan to open a McDonald’s restaurant in a historic area of Rome, Italy. Petrini, who still leads Slow Food, spoke at N.C. State University in 2007 as the Sustainable Agriculture lecturer.

The mantra of Slow Food is providing food that is “good, clean and fair” through a partnership of producers, consumers and chefs. The 2,000 delegates attending this year’s conference included producers, chefs, educators and students. The three of us were among the educators’ group of the U.S. delegation. Observers and other attendees brought the conference attendance to 6,000 to 7,000 people.

The five-day conference provided delegates opportunities to interact with others around the globe involved in work related to food. Where else can you talk with a vanilla bean grower from Madagascar while waiting in line for dinner? And since waiting in line with the other delegates was a regular activity, many interesting conversations took place.

“What impressed me was the genius and the wherewithal to pull off such a diverse global gathering of people who share a common interest: local foods and sustainability. The opportunity to meet and talk with people from around the world was quite inspirational,” Chester-Davis said.

Just weeks before I left for Terra Madre, I saw a documentary, Black Gold, about a fair trade coffee cooperative in Ethiopia. While waiting in line one day at Terra Madre, I realized that I was standing behind the Ethiopian delegation, and I wondered if they were coffee growers. I soon recognized that Tadesse Meskela, the head of the cooperative featured in the documentary, was among the Ethiopian group.

I talked with him about the documentary, and he showed me his Black Gold button. Later in the week, I had the chance to speak with Meskela and his colleagues, who were very excited to meet someone from a U.S. university. I’ve since received an email from a prospective graduate student in his group, who is interested in finding a communications program.

David Kendall at Terra Madre
David Kendall, center, talks with other delegates, including author Patricia Klindienst, left. (Photo courtesy of Leah Chester-Davis)

Among the U.S. educators’ group were a number of authors, including Patricia Klindienst of Connecticut, author of The Earth Knows My Name, winner of a 2007 American Book Award. The book is about food, culture and sustainability in the gardens of ethnic Americans. After Leah convinced Patricia to hand out her card on our bus to the conference one day, other authors in the group felt empowered to hand out their book promotions. Two authors have written a book on food in New York City, and another writer, a baker, has written a book on baking bread.

Terra Madre took place only two weeks before the U.S. presidential election, and there was great interest among the delegates. Delegates from around the world mentioned the election, their knowledge of the candidates and their hopes for relationships with a new administration.

“I gained a much broader understanding of the importance of our decisions and policies here in the United States. Our decisions impact the world,” Chester-Davis said. “It seemed that most of the delegates I met, when they learned I was from the United States, asked me about the elections.”

Though neither Leah nor I had ever met David Kendall of Madison County before, he was one of the first people we met in Turin. On the first day of the conference, I went outside our quarters to find out when the bus was coming. David came up and asked where I was from. When I replied, “North Carolina,” he said, “Oh, me too. I work with North Carolina Cooperative Extension.” Such a small world!

Kendall said that he learned new ways that North Carolina’s small farmers can use to develop niche market products and marketing strategies. “Associative marketing is becoming almost mandatory to compete with industrial farming and large-scale production,” he said. “I am already planning how I can re-invent all my programs in the context of sustainable agriculture principles learned at Terra Madre.”

“Terra Madre’s commitment to small, sustainable farming cannot be described in words or captured images: You had to be there,” Kendall said.

Chester-Davis said she wants to incorporate the experience into her work helping promote consumer education related to local food through the Value-Added Web site -- www.ncvalueadded.org. She recently shared news of the conference as part of a panel discussion in her hometown of Davidson. And she’s trying to get word to other Extension colleagues about the value of attending Terra Madre.

“I love this quote from St. Augustine: ‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,’ ” she said. “So many of our Extension colleagues would find this conference quite valuable, I'm telling everyone they must apply in two years. Slow Foods pays most expenses, except for travel. Apply for scholarships, apply to be a delegate and go!"

Posted by Natalie at February 2, 2009 02:35 PM