Agricultural Community Support Across Boundaries

Final Report for CS04-027

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2004: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Tom Elmore
Land-of-Sky Regional Council
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Project Information

Abstract:

An exploration of interagency support needed by farmers and rural communities found that perceptions of the most important needs vary from group to group. Farmers want affordable health insurance, shared equipment pools, and support for direct marketing. Agricultural advisors suggest marketing assistance and farmland protection incentives. Community organizations want local government support in protecting farmland and payments to farmers for uncompensated services like flood protection. Local officials see value in local sales of farm products and in diversification of farm enterprises. These concepts complement each other and support collaboration for agricultural prosperity and thriving rural communities.

Tables, figures or graphs mentioned in this report are on file in the Southern SARE office. Contact Sue Blum at 770-229-3350 or sueblum@southernsare.org for a hard copy.

Introduction

In our region, agriculture is stressed by changing markets and land development. We are not maximizing collaborative opportunities to serve farm communities because talented and creative people – and existing support services – are often separated by professional, organizational and political boundaries. Our proposed solution to this problem was to assemble a working group representing a variety of professions, organizations and political perspectives to identify collaborative projects that will directly benefit our agricultural communities.

Project Objectives:

Goal One: Provide a setting where creative and forward-looking community and agricultural leaders can work across professional, organizational and political boundaries to help make agriculture and farm communities more sustainable.
Objective 1-1: Assemble a diverse working group of people from four counties with a history of cooperative work and innovation.
Objective 1-2: Host a series of meetings to explore problems and opportunities in supporting agriculture.

Goal Two: Identify strategic issues and projects that are important to the farmers, agricultural communities, and the agricultural economic base of our counties.
Objective 2-1: Assemble background information on agriculture and agricultural communities from the perspective of all participants.
Objective 2-2: Reach agreement upon what “agricultural sustainability” for our area will look like.
Objective 2-3: Systematically examine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to agricultural sustainability in our area.
Objective 2-4: Select the most promising strategic actions and collaborative projects for implementation.

Goal Three: Test the strategic concepts with outreach to the broader agricultural community and to the public.
Objective 3-1: Hold a workshop for policy makers in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to discuss the proposals of the working group.
Objective 3-2: Conduct similar workshops at the community level.
Objective 3-3: Prepare a report on the project and publicize it regionally and nationally.

Research

Materials and methods:

We used a group process approach to exploring the opportunities for interagency collaboration to support agriculture and rural communities. Our original plan as described in the proposal was to assemble a steering committee of agricultural advisors to do a systematic strategic planning exercise. We experienced difficulty in obtaining consistent attendance by this group at consecutive meetings. Participants often cited a mismatch between the work to be done and the time available to limited staff as a constraint to collaboration between organizations. In order to complete the project, we altered our approach to take the topic of supporting agriculture and rural communities to a variety of groups rather than to expect them to send representatives to another set of meetings within their busy schedules. By going to them, we also obtained a ranking of issues in order of importance. We used ideas from the steering committee as well as the literature as discussion starters. These groups included farmer groups, community groups, agricultural advisors, and locally elected officials. The comprehensive list of collaboration ideas, as well as the ranked ideas from each of the groups that we engaged in this topic, are presented in the appendix. The most important topics based on their popularity across these groups are described in more detail below together with action steps to address these issues. Key partners in pursuing each of these problems are also presented below.

Research results and discussion:

While there were many concepts in common as various groups discussed the needs of farm families and rural communities, the importance that they assigned to the various topics varied from group to group. The discussion below explores high priority interest areas in each type of group.

Farmers – Both farmer groups ranked affordable health insurance and other “fringe benefits” like retirement plans as very important to their future success. Similar to recent comments by auto manufacturers, agricultural entrepreneurs see the importance of providing medical coverage but see themselves at an economic disadvantage when they compete with growers in other countries whose medical coverage is provided by national programs at no expense to individual farm businesses. They also see value in minimizing the capital tied up in equipment when that equipment is critical but rarely used. A potato digger, for example, is used only a few days a year on most diversified mountain farms and can reasonably be shared with other growers. An equipment pool may be one way to free up some of the capital that is now tied up in the equipment shed for most of the year. Supporting and expanding producer-only markets is also popular with growers. In our area, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project supports the Mountain Tailgate Market Association that promotes direct sales to consumers with advertising, training, and management support. As a result of their efforts, as well as demographic trends, the increasing interest in direct purchase of local agricultural products suggests that this niche market will continue to grow.

Agricultural Advisors – The advisors group was very aware of shifting agricultural markets, the aging farm operator population, and development pressure on the agricultural land base. They presented a wide variety of ideas for consideration by others in their group. Local direct marketing infrastructure and assistance ideas came up often, as well as transition and financial planning assistance. They also saw the need for incentives to keep farmland in farming.

Rural Community Groups – While farmers focused more on the economics of their farm enterprises, rural community groups were more aware of the potential implications of urban growth for the future of their agricultural communities. They supported ideas such as impact fees to slow growth and restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to annex agricultural land. They also raised the idea of compensating farmers for services such as flood protection and providing scenic vistas as a new “cash crop” to consider.

Local Elected officials – Of the high vote-getters among the ideas generated by this group, two were very similar (diversification and knowledge-rich farm enterprises). Together these two topics pulled in a commanding 29 votes. This result suggests that local officials see farming as a business that needs to shift with the shifting demands of the marketplace. Local officials see the need to support the natural entrepreneurial spirit that exists in our rural communities without taking responsibility for the success of individual businesses. Two of the high vote-count ideas suggest action by local governing boards – supporting farmers markets and adopting local food policies. Farmers markets support could take place with existing staff and existing physical facilities like parks and pavilions. Adopting a local food policy could be a no-cost action, but some experiences suggest that there are implications for school cafeteria budgets and some training may be needed to deal with local food sources (local new potatoes vs. frozen french fries, for example). So there may be some costs involved at the cafeteria level. Some may say that students will receive a more nutritious lunch as a result of using fresh local food and will be better able to learn as a result, perhaps suggesting that any needed investment is worthwhile over the long term. Items related to taxes, new staff, or funding new programs were not very popular with elected officials. This outcome is probably not surprising given the timing of our inquiry during local government budget season. It also suggests that local governments are likely to play a stronger role in supporting the local agricultural economy through policy support than in direct funding or staff support.

The following documents are contained in the appendix to this report:

1. Supporting Agriculture and Rural Communities – Ideas List – August 2006
2. Groups Consulted and Highly Ranked Agricultural Support Ideas Summary (2006)
3. ASAP Marketing Conference Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (February 2006)
4. Land-of-Sky Regional Council Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (June 2006)
5. LOSRC Board Discussion Notes following the Ranking Exercise (September 2006)
6. Edneyville Community Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (September 2006)
7. Bethel Community Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (October 2006)
8. End-of-Project Ideas from WNC Agricultural Leaders (November 2006)
9. Press Release on Project Results (November 2006)
10. Most Promising Agricultural Community Support Projects – Proposed
Implementation Plans (November 2006)

In addition to the printed results listed above, each of the groups that we consulted gained an enhanced understanding of the strategic issues affecting agriculture as well as an understanding of the views of other individuals within those groups. New relationships and trust were established across professional, organizational and political boundaries

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Dissemination – We publicized the project by placing results on our website and by submitting our final report to SARE. We also issued press releases to popular and trade media to draw attention to project results and Southern SARE’s support of this project. (Appendix Nine)

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The following documents are contained in the appendix to this report:

1. Supporting Agriculture and Rural Communities – Ideas List – August 2006
2. Groups Consulted and Highly Ranked Agricultural Support Ideas Summary (2006)
3. ASAP Marketing Conference Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (February 2006)
4. Land-of-Sky Regional Council Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (June 2006)
5. LOSRC Board Discussion Notes following the Ranking Exercise (September 2006)
6. Edneyville Community Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (September 2006)
7. Bethel Community Ranking of Agricultural Support Ideas (October 2006)
8. End-of-Project Ideas from WNC Agricultural Leaders (November 2006)
9. Press Release on Project Results (November 2006)
10. Most Promising Agricultural Community Support Projects – Proposed

Implementation Plans (November 2006)

In addition to the printed results listed above, each of the groups that we consulted gained an enhanced understanding of the strategic issues affecting agriculture as well as an understanding of the views of other individuals within those groups. New relationships and trust were established across professional, organizational and political boundaries.

Implementation Designs — Based on a comprehensive review of the approaches taken regionally and nationally in addressing problems facing rural communities, we developed project designs that will serve as the basis for fundraising and project implementation (Appendix Ten.) These project ideas as well as the full range of project ideas will be shared with project participants and the general public.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Most Promising Agricultural Community Support ProjectsProposed Implementation Plans

Issue: Land Fragmentation, Subdivision, and Loss of Farmland to Other Land Uses
Proposed Project: Execute short term and perpetual easements to keep important farmland in farming.
Key Partners: Land Trusts, Cooperative Extension, NRCS, and local governments

Proposed Implementation Plan:

1. Create a fund to cover transaction costs for farmers able to donate development rights in order to keep their farmland in production. Assist those farmers in capitalizing on tax credits generated by that donation.
2. Purchase term easements and perpetual farmland easements pay pairing willing farmers with local donors that support their goal of keeping farmland in production.
3. Work with local government officials to set up a system for transferring development rights (TDR) where urban developers receive bonuses for protecting farmland in rural areas.
4. Pursue an outreach and publicity plan to help farmers, potential donors, and the general public know about the opportunities described in 1-3 above.

Issue: Globalization of Agricultural Markets and Growing Local Demand for Local Agricultural Products
Project: Support Local Direct Marketing of Farm and Forest Products
Key Partners: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Handmade in America, Cooperative Extension, NC Department of Agriculture, local governments

Proposed Implementation Plan:

1. Support the existing efforts of ASAP and Handmade in developing local markets.
2. Analyze the flow of food and fiber agricultural and forest products into and out of WNC.
3. Identify ten agricultural products that would plug the largest leaks in the WNC economy if they were produced here instead of imported from outside the area.
4. Provide research, extension, marketing and incentives support to growers that pursue those ten crops.

Issue: Affordable “Benefits Package” for Farm Families and Rural Small Businesses
Project: Assist farmers and rural entrepreneurs in acquiring affordable health insurance and retirement financing.
Key Partners: Private sector providers, independent financial advisors, Cooperative Extension, NC Department of Insurance, Small Business Administration, farmer commodity groups, other farmer groups

Proposed Implementation Plan:

1. Assemble a group to guide an exploration of “fringe benefits” for farmers and other rural small business owners. Include potential clients, potential providers, agricultural advisors, and state and local policy makers.
2. Poll farmers to find the approaches now used by growers in the area and poll providers to explore alternative approaches.
3. Issue a request for proposals to solicit proposals from a variety of providers.
4. Publicize the most promising approaches to growers and assemble a group to contract with the leading provider(s) for an affordable grower “benefits” package.
5. Seek legislative support as needed to improve the package over time with state and federal incentives for providers to serve grower needs more affordably.

Issue: Farmers Periodically Need Specialized, Expensive Equipment for Only a Few Days Each Year
Proposed Project: A shared equipment pool for farmers, foresters, and rural businesses
Key Partners: Rental equipment companies, Cooperative Extension Service, NRCS, Farmer Cooperatives

Proposed Implementation Plan:

1. Call a meeting of farmers on a county basis to develop a list of equipment that will be appropriate for sharing with other growers.
2. Check with area rental companies for their interest in providing listed items for short-term rent.
3. Pool grower funds to purchase items that are not locally available for rent. Accept contributions of rarely used equipment from growers in lieu of cash contributions.
4. Form a group of growers to oversee the equipment pool, reservations, maintenance and other management of the pool.
5. Seek grant support to expand the pool over time.

Issue: Aging Farm Operators
Proposed Project: Match aging growers with younger growers to help ensure that productive agricultural land stays in production.
Key Partners: North Carolina Farm Transition Network; area attorneys and financial advisors. Extension; NRCS; area vocational agriculture programs, colleges, and universities

Proposed Implementation Plan:
1. Provide a regional clearinghouse for older growers seeking transitional partners and younger growers seeking agricultural land to manage.
2. Provide transition assistance to older growers seeking to keep their farm in farming including growers with heirs interested in farming and those without interested heirs.
3. Provide education, outreach and informal networking sessions for both younger and older growers to explore and understand the interests and needs of other growers in keeping farms and forest lands in production.
4. Find support for staff to be available on a regional basis to help growers find the resources that they need to ensure a smooth transitions of farm operations from one generation to the next.

Issue: Farms Provide Services like Flood Protection and Scenic Vistas without Compensation
Proposed Project: Develop ways for farmers to receive compensation for the scenic vistas and the flood protection services that their farms provide.
Key Partners: federal, state and local flood management agencies, land trusts, tourism interests, NRCS, Extension.

Proposed Implementation Plan:
1. Assemble a group of growers, farm advisors and legislators with an interest in farmer payments for providing flood protection services. Introduce this concept into state and federal legislation.
2. Develop and deliver a series of county-level workshops on scenic easements for agricultural land.
3. Find support for third-party facilitators to assist discussions between growers interested in selling scenic easements and interested buyers.
4. Develop a list of attorneys and financial advisors that are qualified to assist in transferring scenic easements.

Future Recommendations

Implementation of the recommendations may point out the need for further study but the primary need at this point is time to pursue all the great ideas generated by farmers and others supporting them in our rural communities.

Grateful Acknowledgement of Support

Our thanks go to the USDA Southern SARE Program and the patient SARE administrators at the University of Georgia. Without their support and encouragement, this project would not have been possible.

Many thanks go also to the many people from our rural communities who gave their time, ideas and enthusiasm as we carried out this project.

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.