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Southern sustainable farming conference in Little Rock 

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  • At Falling Sky Farms

Many people spend the better part of their 20s behind a desk or on their feet: clocked in eight hours a day, working under a boss, plugging away to earn a paycheck and work their way up the professional ladder. But Cody Hopkins and his wife, Andrea Todt, chose an alternate path. In 2007, the college-educated couple was disappointed in the lack of jobs available in rural Arkansas, so they leased 30 acres of land from a neighbor, purchased a brood of chickens and turkeys and started a new life that is incomparable to that of most couples their age.

"One day, you're chasing pigs who have gotten loose, and, the next day, you're watching a calf being born," Hopkins said.

Hopkins, 32, and Todt, 27, the owners of Falling Sky Farm, are part of a wave of young, first-generation farmers who are ditching the daily grind of the office to experience farm life. The couple will speak about this and also share sustainable farming practices, as part of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group of Fayetteville's conference, Jan.18-21, at the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock.

The event is geared toward members of the farming industry, merchants and advocates of organic farming to promote sustainable farming techniques and to build connections between farmers and merchants. All events are open to the public. General admission passes for the four-day conference are $190 and include a meal, featuring produce and meat provided by local farmers and prepared by Andre Poirot, executive chef of The Peabody. A dinner ticket can be purchased individually for $40.

The event includes a breakfast talk by Kathleen Merrigan, USDA deputy secretary, on Saturday. Merrigan manages USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative, which focuses on the need for a reconnection between farmers and consumers and, in effect, the improvement of rural economies.

Another highlight will be Will Allen, a former pro-basketball player turned urban farmer, who will speak Thursday on the issue of eliminating "urban deserts," which refer to impoverished, inner-city areas that have little or no access to nutritional foods.

More information, including a full conference schedule, is available at ssawg.org.

Southern SAWG, a non-profit organization, was founded in 1991 and now has representation from 32 states, D.C. And the Virgin Islands. The group strives to support organic farming efforts and encourages the practices of "locavores," people who eat locally grown and raised food.

"There was a time when consumers knew where their food came from," said Shari Hawley, spokeswoman for the conference and Southern SAWG member. "The desire to reconnect with our food roots is growing." This sentiment, coupled with the emergence of a better informed, environmentally and health-conscious consumer base, allows for non-traditional farms, like Falling Sky Farm, to gain popularity because of their use organic principals, sustainable practices and their method of marketing directly to the consumer.

This is the first time the conference, which usually attracts about 1,200 farmers and advocates of sustainable farming from around the U.S., will be held in Arkansas, and pre-registration numbers indicate this could be the largest conference gathering to date.

The goal of this conference is to help nurture and equip the small, sustainable, family farm, Hawley said.

"It's about meeting successful farmers, learning from them and building a network," Hopkins said. He attended his first Southern SAWG conference in Kentucky in 2007. Throughout the years, particulary in the early stages of his farming career, he has depended on the gatherings to gain useful knowledge. For example, Hopkins learned how to implement software to create an online farmers' market, and has since started conway.locallygrown.net.

Now, Hopkins and Todt lecture on their sustainable techniques, which, although growing in popularity, are still atypical of traditional farming. They keep their 50 chickens in mobile tins, which they move to a different patch of fresh grass every morning: allowing them to feed on fresh greens and keeping the chickens out of their own maneure, which prevents sickness among them, allowing Hopkins and Todt to use antibiotics sparingly. They use similar techniques in rotating their pigs weekly throughout a wooded area and bringing cattle to fresh pasture daily.

The farmers accomplish this on the 200-acre farm they are currently leasing and preparing to buy. "We are growing every year," Hopkins said. He and Todt started out with only themselves as workers and now might have up to six people working on the farm some days. They still consider the farm as being in a start-up phase. However, they sell their product to several restaurants, including Ashley's Bar and Grill at the Capital Hotel, Brave New Restaurant, Boulevard Bread Co., Heifer Cafe, The Root Cafe and the Country Club in Little Rock. Hopkins says restaurants provide half of their sales.

They sell at the Argenta Farmers' Market in North Little Rock and have started a program where customers can purchase meat in bulk, and it includes a freezer in which to keep it and home delivery.

"We are on our way to making a good living," Hopkins said, but he, like most, did not start farming for the money. "For one thing, you get to live your life outdoors," he said. He also likes being able to bring his 14-month-old son, Sam, to work with him every day.

Many young farmers get started because they're pursuing a quality of life, Hopkins said. "There's a lot of beauty in it."

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