The Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network and its partners worked with two farmer groups to assist in forming marketing cooperatives in two rural areas of the state. ASAN worked with the Star of the Black Belt Cooperative, a group of farmers located in west-central Alabama, and River Road Agriculture, a group of eight farmers located in southeast Alabama. The project funded some supplies and a part-time marketing coordinator for each group to assist in developing profitable direct markets for their produce.
In Alabama, 45% of its 4.5 million people live in rural areas of the state, compared to an average of 20% nationwide (U.S. Census, 2000). Typical models of successful direct marketing have focused on marketing in urban areas, especially those with relatively high levels of income. In Alabama, many small farmers are located far from these potential markets in areas with high levels of poverty. By pooling resources to coordinate transportation and marketing, smaller producers can more efficiently tap into markets that can offer a higher price for their products. The Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network and its partners work with cooperatives and marketing networks around the state to assist in making these groups work.
Initial objectives, 2005
ASAN and its partners will use SARE funds to create a seasonal position of marketing coordinator for the next two years and provide start-up supplies for members of the network. The coordinator will work to assess produce availability from participating farmers, take orders from local restaurants, and collect and distribute produce and payments. The coordinator will also work as a liaison between buyer and seller, receiving feedback on the quality of the produce and requests for new products. Beginning with a few restaurants that have been enthusiastic buyers, we expect to create a structure for group produce sales. After two years to develop and grow this structure, we hope to have enough growers and buyers to create an official marketing cooperative with a democratic decision-making process and producers as owners. We can then use this project as a model for other growers attempting to work together to market their products.
Revised objectives, 2007
Collaborate with the leadership of the southwest district of the Alabama State Baptist Convention to demonstrate the production of sustainable food at the rural community level and the marketing of such within the larger urban congregations.
Establish sustainable food production demonstration sites, working with rural churches and other farm organizations. These sites will demonstrate production methods for sustainable fruits and vegetables, including the use of drip irrigation and organic and plastic mulches. We will use SARE and NRCS EQIP funds to provide some supplies for the demonstration sites.
Provide continuing education at the demonstration sites, link new farmers with experienced farmers to act as mentors, and provide information on other educational opportunities and scholarships for producers. ASAN will provide these services as part of their regular programs.
Collaborate with the larger congregations to develop a produce subscription program. The SARE SCI marketing coordinator funds will be used to develop this aspect of the program.
Working with a number of partner organizations and individual farmers, ASAN provided assistance to two groups of farmers working to develop marketing cooperatives. By leveraging funds and technical assistance from a number of sources, we were able to provide significant support for the groups in their initial efforts.
The Star of the Black Belt was formed in 2005. Some of the participating farmers had been marketing to upscale restaurants in Birmingham through a project with Heifer International. This project was an effort to form a more cohesive structure for this marketing and integrate other farmers into the group. The group’s marketing coordinator, Robert Dickey, worked part time as the manager of Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham and had experience in organic production methods and marketing to the best restaurants in Birmingham. Using SARE and Heifer International funds, we were able to fund a part-time position for Robert to provide marketing and production assistance to the cooperative’s growers. Other partners including Alabama A&M, Tuskegee, and Auburn University, the Federation of Southern Coops, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Tuskegee Cooperative Extension provided assistance in recordkeeping, organizational development, and technical assistance in production and marketing. Decisions were made by the coop’s board and at regularly member meetings and trainings.
River Road Agriculture was formed in 2007 by a group of farmers that were expanding into fruit and vegetable production on plasticulture. ASAN played a more limited role in the formation of this group, providing funding for supplies and marketing materials and for a part-time marketing coordinator, Elaine Melton. The group worked with the NRCS and ASAN to establish its plasticulture production and work on its organizational goals and plans. While we are taking a slower approach with this group, we hope to be able to provide longer-term organizational assistance.
We were unable to enlist the help of the Alabama State Baptist Convention in the time period of the grant. We will continute to work to involve churches as potential organizers and customers for local producers.
Star of the Black Belt
In 2005, five farms worked with Robert Dickey, the marketing coordinator, to sell $6200 worth of produce and cut flowers from a cumulative 1 ¼ acres. Marketing was done primarily through Birmingham’s Pepper Place farmers market and upscale restaurants. Each member of the group grew heirloom tomatoes, basil, arugula, sweet peppers, patty pan squash, filet beans, and cut flowers for direct marketing using sustainable production methods. Regular training was provided throughout the season with individual on-farm assistance and workshops. Two of the farms grew out transplants for the group in their greenhouses. Two others were primarily responsible for farmers market sales. Delivery of the product from the Black Belt to Birmingham rotated among three farms using a delivery van loaned by a fourth farm. The spirit of cooperation was evident. Unfortunately, it was not a good production season, with a very wet spring followed by a very dry early summer, and yields were low for most farms in the region. Some farmers that were interested in the network did not have enough produce to participate.
Despite some initial successes and good reception from customers, members of the group chose to market individually the following year. The outlet for the specialty crops required selling to markets an average of 1½ hours from their farms, and many felt that they were more interested in providing their neighbors with fresh, healthy, traditional vegetables.
While the cooperative did not continue, a number of promising things happened. At least three members are working on a new cooperative project to develop a local processing facility for fruits and vegetables from the area. Ten farms were able to participate in a number of training opportunities including individual farm visits and group training in organizational structures, sustainable production techniques and harvest and handling. The project also allowed farmers that did not normally work together to have a chance to share ideas and experiences, which is valuable for growers that rarely see their peers. Most of the participants are still farming, using sustainable growing methods, and direct marketing.
River Road Agriculture
Members of River Road Agriculture began their group marketing efforts in 2007. Participants were enthusiastic about their first year of production and impressed with the relative profits of direct marketing fruits and vegetables compared to row crop production. This year they plan to grow onions, zucchini, tomatoes, watermelons, greens, peppers, and okra, pooling their products to sell primarily at area farmers markets. Ms. Melton continues to act as the group’s marketing coordinator, and has focused on coordinating planting schedules and predicting harvest dates in order to line up additional sales outlets in advance.
Using our experience with the Star of the Black Belt, ASAN’s work with the River Road group took a different approach. This group is made up of farmers that are located in closer proximity to one another and can more easily bring their produce to one place to be marketed. They are growing produce with which they have experience on a smaller scale and will slowly expand into new vegetable and fruit crops. The group for now is loosely organized; if the farmers continue to work together the structure of the group will be formalized as needed. We hope that this group will continue to work together and expand at a moderate pace in response to their successes.
The Star of the Black Belt was one of ASAN’s first efforts with a marketing cooperative. We learned a great deal about developing projects on a local level. While we are able to provide support and assistance to a community-level organization, it is important to ensure that the project is strongly based in the community. Though the participating farmers had input in the project plan, we should have done more to ensure that they felt more like owners than participants. Also, basing the marketing coordinator position in the community rather than at the marketing end may have helped the project continue. We hope that this will work with River Road Agriculture, where Ms. Melton has an interest not only as a marketing coordinator but also as a member of a farm family involved in the network. Our experience has shown the importance of identifying local leaders that will garner community support.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Star of the Black Belt Marketing Network Planning Workshop, January 15, 2005, Marion, Alabama
The first meeting of the marketing network brought together nine farms from central Alabama with representatives from Alabama A&M, Auburn and Tuskegee Universities, Heifer International, ASAN, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to evaluate the marketing and funding opportunities available to the group. The network was also able to assess their interest in pursuing potential markets including wholesale cut flower sales, farmers markets and restaurant sales, and identify next steps in getting the project underway.
Star of the Black Belt Marketing Network Production Workshop, March 28, May 16, and June 27, 2005, Newbern and Marion, Alabama
Members of the marketing network attended all-day workshops on sustainable production and cooperative marketing options. The morning was spent discussing options for the group’s business structure, marketing agreements, and how to best work together to produce and sell their product. The afternoon was spent discussing soil quality, pest management, and harvest and post-harvest crop handling.
Birmingham-Black Belt Youth Exchange, Birmingham and west-central Alabama, Summer 2005. Youth from Jones Valley Urban Farm’s summer education program and The United Christian Comminuty Association in west central Alabama spent a week sharing their experiences and homes. The groups wroked together on urban and rural farms as well as taking in a ball game in Birmingham and visiting the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
Individual farm visits:
A number of farm visits were made by experienced organic growers to individual farms to assist in whole farm planning and farm-specific technical assistance. Members of the groups have continued to work with other local growers to provide assistance and ideas.
A CD was developed for members of the coop with the assistance of Tuskegee University focusing on the harvest and post-harvest handling of a number of crops including tomatoes, basil, cut flowers and arugula. Unfortunately this CD has not been released by the university for further distribution.
Poster Presentation by Jean Mills, “Developing Marketing Networks in Rural Alabama”, SARE’s 20th Annual Conference, Kansas City, MO, March 2008
Presentation by Jan Griffin and Bill Findley, “Stories from the Star of the Black Belt Cooperative and Birmingham-Black Belt Youth Exchange”, Heifer SE Project Partners Meeting 2005, Birmingham, AL, October 14-15, 2005
A fundraising t-shirt was developed for River Road Agriculture, featuring a member of the coop working in one of his fields.
Partnerships: The networks enlisted the help of non-profit partners and resources at the state, federal and local level. Partners including Tuskegee, Alabama A&M, and Auburn Universities, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Heifer International, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, SARE, and others assisted in offering help with funding, business planning, recordkeeping, publicity, farmer training, and technical production information.
Farmer-to-Farmer Training: Many of the groups’ farmers were able to participate in ASAN’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, which links experienced sustainable growers with beginning or transitioning producers. The growers were able to provide individual farm-specific training and were available to answer questions and visit the farms throughout the season. This program has helped new growers with the production challenges while allowing the network to focus on the marketing.
Participatory Decision-Making: Members of the networks were actively involved in the formation of the business, evaluating options for the business structure, deciding on profit-sharing arrangements and fees, and serving on the networks’ boards. This experience allowed each producer to feel more investment in the network and should help them with decision-making on their own farms.
Identifying Local Leaders: ASAN can provide support, but real community-based projects rely on local leaders to be successful.
Geography: Despite being in a primarily rural state, there are few vegetable growers in the state and they are widely dispersed. Coordinated pick-up and delivery can still require a significant amount of travel by each producer. While ASAN’s programs are encouraging new growers, new farms do not establish themselves overnight.
Farm Size: Many of Alabama’s organic and sustainable vegetable farmers are producing intensively on small acreages, often less than five acres. While this scale can be profitable, the small volume being produced must be marketed well to keep demand and supply in check.
Introducing New Products and Growing Methods: Many specialty crops and growing methods offer a higher price, but experimentation with niche crops and practices should be balanced with crops and methods that have done well in the past.
Cooperatives and marketing networks provide an efficient method to get farm products from rural areas to larger markets. The producers and project partners in these networks have had the opportunity to develop two models for marketing as a group. While the project was not one big success, these experiences will help not only the participants involved but future efforts for farm organizations and networks. ASAN continues to encourage the development of cooperatives and other farm organizations; we also encourage peer training opportunities to help groups learn from one another’s successes and challenges.
We believe that cooperatives and marketing networks provide improved opportunities for farmers and ranchers. Beginning and experienced growers can take advantage of the groups’ marketing capabilities. Producers can save money by purchasing and hiring as a group. Group training can help all members of the network or coop improve their production methods and quality. These networks also help improve communication between producers, allowing for the flow of ideas, support, and advice. The democratic structure of a cooperative encourages members to take an active part in the governance of the organization and may help them become better businesspeople. We don’t expect these networks and cooperatives to become overnight successes but we do believe that there is great potential for this marketing approach for farmers in Alabama and beyond.