Sustainable Agriculture for Future Economics (SAFE)

Final Report for CS04-019

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2004: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Wendy Allen
Mobile Bay National Estuary Program
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Project Information

Abstract:

The project SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture for Future Economies) was proposed due to the extreme growth pressures drivng up the loss of farmland and the impact that was having on the environment in the coastal region of Alabama. The goal was to bring the farming community to the table with municipal, county, and business interests to discuss the issue of farm preservation and sustainable farming practices. The key objective was to link the two segments of the community together to enhance agriculture for the future as an important quality of life component.

Prior to any activity, the current status of agriculture in the region needed to be assesed and any indigenous knowledge of sustainable farming needed to be identified. A fact sheet was created for the South Alabama region called “Priceless but Perishing”. It not only gave census facts about agriculture in Mobile and Baldwin Conty but it shows what the pressures are on farmland and how the community is trying to address the issues.

Then information was gathered from the farm and non-farm communities to assess the general state of agriculture in the region. When asked about sustainable practices, the farmers in the region said that rotational grazing, soil conservation, and nutrient management were the top three used.
The Mobile Farmers also used water quality practices regularly. The top three crops identified were Nursery/sod, cotton, and cattle and calves. When asked about preserving farmland, 97% of the respondents said they would support a preservation program. 92% of the non-farm community felt that the region needs some kind of agriculture preservation program. Some of the other 8% didn’t want to impose anything on the farm community without their imput.
Two thirds (66%) of the growers feel agriculture has a postitive future in the region while the non-farm respondents(72%) seem more optimistic.
Both groups feel that agriculture plays an important role in the quality of life in the region.
There were interviews done of intergenerational farmers who saw things a little different. These farmers see a real disconnect with the larger community due to the decline in the number of farms and the display of little or no interest in understanding farming needs. The interviewees indicated that with so few people today dependent on agriculture in the community as compared to earlier times, the community no longer thinks about it (farming).

In order to bring the results of this study to the larger community, two focus group sessions were held. The survey and the interviews were shared with the groups made up of farm and non-farm folks. A dialogue was begun between the groups to talk about what can be done to preserve farmland and enhance the future economies of the existing farms insuring the future quality of life.

There were 15 attendants at Mobile focus group and 20 at the Baldwin County focus group. The sessions were opened with an exercise to establish ground rules for discussing the issues raised at the meeting. This allowed both farm and non farm participants to give permission to say what they thought without being challenged. Each focus group had a representative of the business community so there were issues raised about value added possibilities to enhance the economic future of agriculture. It was suggested that a future meeting with the restaurant and grocery chain representatives take place to try and encourage the use and promotion of local produce. The main suggestion that came out of the focus groups was to hold a workshop on Farmland Preservation.
On September 20th, a workshop was held in Baldwin County. The speakers included two attorneys and a developer. The workshop included 20 farmers who were interested in farm preservation issues in Alabama. Ray Vaughn of Wildlaw, a non-profit environmental law firm, presented how preservation has been implemented in Alabama. He offered to meet with each farmer individually to see if their individual situation would be appropiate for an attempt to use preservation. The farmers discussed with Ray the Farm Bill in Alabama that they have been told would protect the farmers. After hearing about several unexpected consequences of the bill, the group decided that they would like to have another meeting with Ray and the local legislators to explore how the Bill might be adjusted to provide better protection for the farmers. Another issue covered by Greg Leatherbury, an attorney with Hand Arendall, was inheritance issues which affects the ability of farmers to pass their property on to their children. Greg talked to the participants about different options to utilize customized programs to help pass their land on to future generations. The developer, Frank Leatherbury, talked to the farmers about preservation from a developers perspective. He suggested that they consider conservation subdivisions which Baldwin County has approved for use in the unincorporated areas. He also suggested that there should be a push to establish farm districts within the county that would let people know that if they move into those areas to understand the different farm practices that will be occuring in their neighborhood.

The impacts of the workshop and the focus groups discussions is a strong interest in preserving the future of agriculture in the coastal region of Alabama. Many groups of diverse backgrounds have partnered with the agricultural groups to begin the dialogue about what the region wants to do to make that happen. Of course there are more opportunities to gather and dialogue but there are also things that can be done right away to start preserving farmland and connecting the two segments together more closely. That will be the challenge for future planning.

Introduction

SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture for Future Economies) originated from the need to develop and encourage linkages between the environmnetal and civic communities of the Gulf Coast region of Alabama to enhance sustainable agriculture and economic development. Historically traditional and environmental groups do find themselves sharing similar goals and interests. Yet, as the fastest growing region in the United States with dramatic and rapid changes occurring throughout the Southeast from the increasing array of problems associated with a decline in the agriculture economy, urban sprawl, and other land use issues, these groups are sharing the pressures of survival.
SAFE brought together these groups and began a process of working toward a common interest of land preservation.

Project Objectives:

The Primary Objective for SAFE is to establish linkages between agriculture and non-agriculture entities in Mobile and Baldwin Counties that will encourage the public and private policy of sustainable development.

There has been an initial linkage made at a
Smart Growth Workshop which has sparked a request for a meeting between local chambers and the farmers. The continued linking of these segments of the community will encourage dialogue heretofore missing from local growth discussion. These linkages will further enhance any regional planning that will result in a policy of sustainable development.

The key objectives are the continued connection of the farm and non-farm segments of the region through focus groups and workshops given to enhance the stability of the agricultural community which is an important quality of life component. These were started and now the effort will turn toward formulating a plan to formalize the preservation of farmland and the value added opportunities that could increase the community connections needed to allow farming to continue in this region of fast growth and development.

Research

Materials and methods:

SAFE collaborated with a wide array of organizations, services and community groups concerned about the sustainability of lifeways in the Gulf Coast region of Alabama. To assess the general state of agriculture in the region, a survey of the farm and non-farm segments of the community. There was also a fact sheet developed to be used to generate dialogue about the issues facing agriculture.
There were two focus group sessions held to review the results of the survey and conduct interviews with intergenerational farmers. The results of those sessions was the identification of a workshop issue common to all the survey respondents and that was farmland preservation.
Finally, a workshop was held on farmland preservation and the future economic stability of agriculture in the region.

Research results and discussion:

While the Gulf coast of Alabama is still smarting from the effects of hurrican Ivan, the farming community is trying to recover and recoop. This major natual disaster has hindered the progress of the SAFE project for several months.

However, there have been some milestones that are encouraging as we move forward toward creating linkages between the agricultural community and the larger community. The first link occurred when the farmers were invited to participate in a Smart Growth Workshop where constituent groups came to discuss smart growth initiatives that could be adopted for our region. As a result of this linkage, the farmers talked to their local AG extension agent and requested a meeting with the local Chamber of Commerce to talk about their contribution to the local economy.

A Fact Sheet was produced in partnership with the Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. It gave facts from the census bureau on the amount of agriculutral lands in the region and what they are producing. It also showed the impacts of sprawling growth on the farming community and the overall quality of life in the region.

SAFE has compiled survey information from three different sources about the state of farming in our fast growing region. The first source was the farmers themselves. The survey was sent out in partnership with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Systems of both counties. The second source was the non-farming community, and this survey was sent out electronically in patnership with Envision Coastal Alabama. The third source was generational farmers in the region who were interviewed by partnership with Dr. Martha Daughdrill of Faulkner State Community College, Smart Coast staff and a student volunteer. This combination of sources helped to provide a good picture of how the whole community views the benefits of agriculture in the region and how the farmers saw the future of Agriculture in the coastal region of Alabama.
Nearly every farmer (97%) who responded felt that farms play an important role in the quality of life in their communities. The need for some type of farm preservation program was identified by 94% of the farmers in the region. When asked about sustainable practices currently used, Mobile county farmers reported rotational grazing as their most popular, and Baldwin reported soil conservation as their most popular. These practices match their top three crops identified as peanuts, cotton, cattle and calves.
Two thirds (66%) of the growers responded agriculture has a positive future in the region though only (41%) would advise a young person to enter farming.
The non-farm respondents (96%) agree that farming is important for the quality of life in local communities. This same percentage responded that the region is losing farmland at a faster rate than we have in the past. 92% responded that the region should have some kind of agricultural preservation program. 72% responded that agriculture has a positive future in the reigion.

With this information in hand, focus groups discussions were held to see how other farmers responded to the survey information and what direction they believed was needed to enhance the stability of existing agriculture. The focus group sessions had farm and non farm community representatives. There was one session held in both Mobile and Baldwin Counties. The partners for the sessions were the Alabama Cooperative Extension Systems, Main Street Mobile and the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance.

The results of these sessions indicated that a workshop on Farmland Preservation was of great interest to local farmers. To this end, a workshop was held in July and an attorney with Wildlaw, a non-profit law firm that has done farmland preservation in Alabama, was the main speaker. As a result of the workshop, the farmers who attended voiced an interest in having another session inviting the legislators to come and dialogue about how to aid in the preservation of farmland in our state.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

During the project grant period, SAFE produced a Farm Fact sheet called “Priceless but Perishing”
This fact sheet has been distributed through The Alabama Cooperative Extension System and at workshops and conferences to the community at large and the farm community in particular.

A survey was done along with interviews of intergenerational farmers and it was compiled and analyzed by Dr. Martha Daughdrill of Faulkner State Community College. The results of this research was presented in power point form to the focus group participants. A hard copy is available for participants of future groups dialogue sessions.

There is also a database of farm contacts that will be used to continue the dialogue on an as needed basis and to keep them apprised of other community development workshops and conferences to continue the linkages to the rest of the region.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The Community Innovation Grants were designed to encourage civic engagement that strengthens the involvement of diverse groups, institutions and organizations to develop and implement plans that recognize the economic, environmental and social interdependence between farming and rural communities.

SAFE was a one year project that has brought together farm and non-farm groups to begin the process of identifying the concerns and the potential for agriculture in the future.

The first efforts involved gathering information on the state of agriculture in the region. A fact sheet, “Priceless But Perishing”, was developed by Dr. Martha Daughdrill of Faulkner Community College and designed and produced by the Mississippi/Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. This fact sheet has been distributed in the region at work sessions and conferences to help the larger community know the facts about agriculture in South Alabama.

Then surveys were designed for both the farm and non-farm communities to get a snapshot view of agriculture and the perceived future of its stability in the region. The Alabama Cooperative Extension Systems partnered with SAFE to gather the results of the surveys. Interviews were conducted with intergenerational farmers which gave a more indepth look at how farming has changed over the years. One interesting point that came out of these interviews is the fact that none of the intergenerational farmers incorporated the indigenous practices used by their parents or grandparents. The major changes made over the years, according to the interviewees, centered around technology. As one informant said, “We have gone from no technology to technology with no end in sight”.

Both farmers and community members see that farming plays an important role in quality of life for the region but that runs up against the fast loss of farmland to development. The farmers stated that they feel the local community has lost its connection with farms and as a result their role has dimished over time. Both segments, farm and non-farm, say that a farm preservation program is needed but the farmers feel that the next generation of farms will be the larger, corporate entities and fewer farms. Two thirds (66%) of the farmers surveyed thought that there was a positive future for agriculture in the region however only 41% would advise a young person to enter farming. 56% would mentor someone who is interested in learning to farm.

With this information in hand, focus group sessions were held in Mobile and Baldwin Counties to present the results and dialogue about the future. There were 15 attendants at the Mobile focus group and 20 at the Baldwin County focus group. The sessions were opened with an exercise to establish ground rules for discussing the issues raised at the meeting. This allowed both farm and non-farm participants to give permission to say what they thought without being challenged. Each focus group had a representative of the business community so there were issues raised about value added possibilities to enhance the economic future of agriculture. It was suggested that a future meeting with the restaurant and grocery chain representatives take place to try and encourage the use and promotion of local produce. The main suggestion that came out of the focus groups was to hold a workshop on Farmland Preservation.
On September 20th, a workshop was held in Baldwin County. The speakers included two attorneys and a developer. The workshop included 20 farmers who were interested in farm preservation issues in Alabama. Ray Vaughn of Wildlaw, a non-profit environmental law firm, presented how preservation has been implemented in Alabama. He offered to meet with each farmer individually to see if their individual situation would be appropiate for an attempt to use preservation. The farmers discussed with Ray the Farm Bill in Alabama that they have been told would protect the farmers. After hearing about several unexpected consequences of the bill, the group decided that they would like to have another meeting with Ray and the local legislators to explore how the Bill might be adjusted to provide better protection for the farmers. Another issue covered by Greg Leatherbury, an attorney with Hand Arendall, was inheritance issues which affects the ability of farmers to pass their property on to their children. Greg talked to the participants about different options to utilize customized programs to help pass their land on to future generations. The developer, Frank Leatherbury, talked to the farmers about preservation from a developers perspective. He suggested that they consider conservation subdivisions which Baldwin County has approved for use in the unincorporated areas. He also suggested that there should be a push to establish farm districts within the county that would let people know that if they move into those areas to understand the different farm practices that will be occuring in their neighborhood.

The impacts of the workshop and the focus groups discussions is a strong interest in preserving the future of agriculture in the coastal region of Alabama. Many groups of diverse backgrounds have partnered with the agricultural groups to begin the dialogue about what the region wants to do to make that happen. Of course there are more opportunities to gather and dialogue but there are also things that can be done right away to start preserving farmland and conecting the two segments together more closely. That will be the challenge for future planning.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

As a result of the SAFE project to date, future dialogue is planned in coordination with the Alabama Farmers Federation and the RC&D Council for Baldwin County.

Future Recommendations

The future of agriculture in the coastal region of Alabama is at a critical juncture. In order to allow some preservation to occur, more sessions with the farm and non-farm community need to be held. The dialogue must include business, development and agricultural stakeholders as well as elected officials.

Having the Alabama Farmers Federation at the table with environmental groups as well as business and development folks is going to make the difference in whether a plan is implemented or not.

SAFE was a good beginning but now the work must continue by scheduling the next session with the legislators and Wildlaw to discuss the farm protection bill in Alabama.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.