Minority and limited resource farmer organizations, regional non-profit organizations, universities, and several local customers collaboratively identified opportunities and challenges associated with expanding access to diverse agricultural markets and creating incentives for sustainable production. Through a community-based focus group and action research process, participants identified niche markets, value-added production opportunities, new direct marketing techniques and possible demonstration projects showing the potential economic viability of sustainable production. Project collaborators included Southeastern Louisiana University, Delta State University, the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, the Northeast Louisiana Black Farmers and Land Owners Association, the Morehouse Parish Black Farmers and Land Owners Association, and Heifer Project International.
*This project was provided financial support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program of the US Department of Agriculture. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors based on their research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the funding agency or the partner organizations.
For more information, please contact: Anna M. Kleiner, Ph.D., Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Southeastern Louisiana University, SLU 10686, Hammond, LA 70402, Phone: 985-549-2006,
Tables, figures or graphs mentioned in this report are on file in the Southern SARE office. Contact Sue Blum at 770-229-3350 or firstname.lastname@example.org for a hard copy.
This project was designed to meet the following objectives:
(1) The planning team, consisting of minority and limited resource farmers, regional nonprofit organizations, and regional universities, began to collaborate and build upon existing networks and expertise of farmers/producers and their local communities and customer base.
(2) Information gathered through joint meetings and focus groups helped identify niche markets, value-added production opportunities, new direct marketing techniques targeting customers, and the possibility of establishing demonstration projects in the region that show the potential economic viability of sustainable production and the types of production practices that will mitigate the environmental impacts associated with conventional agriculture.
(3) Information gathered through the planning activities is being used to develop a larger plan and funding proposal designed to establish specific marketing programs linking minority and limited resource farmers/producers with a variety of customers and increasing the economic potential of sustainable agriculture in the region.
Historically, underdevelopment, poverty, and socio-political exclusion have plagued minorities in the southern United States. The political, economic and racial inequalities that underlie the barriers to livelihood security and quality of life continue to pose hardships for small-scale, limited resource, and minority agricultural producers (Green and Lovell 2003). Agricultural restructuring has negatively impacted the South, having particularly troubling consequences for agricultural producers (CRAT 1997; Green and Lovell 2003; Wood and Gilbert 1998).
Conventional agricultural market access points are increasingly being cut off by the growing concentration of control over the agri-food system by large agribusiness firms (see Heffernan 2000). Concentration is also occurring in the organic food market (Howard 2003). Marketing problems encountered consist of the prevailing systems privileging large-scale producers, insufficient information on market outlets and prices, and the cycle of market price disasters (Green 2000; Green and Picciano 2002). Exploring the viability of sustainable production and markets, including organics, could result in a worthwhile alternative market outlet for these producers. Still, the potential for these producers to enter and succeed in alternative outlets, including organic markets, faces challenges in the South, despite the inevitable domestic growth of large supermarkets and nationwide producers in these arenas (Walz 2004).
Six partner organizations collaborated and utilized existing networks and the expertise of farmers/producers and organizational liaisons to begin identifying and developing diverse market opportunities for minority and limited resource farmers. Dr. Anna Kleiner of Southeastern Louisiana University and Dr. John Green of Delta State University took the lead in organizing and scheduling the various collaborative activities in cooperation with the other project partners. They are both social scientists with a variety of qualitative and quantitative research experiences focusing on agriculture and rural communities. The partner organizations in Louisiana included the Northeast Louisiana Black Farmers and Land Owners Association, represented by President Dexter Davis, and the Morehouse Parish Black Farmers and Land Owners Association, represented by President Harper Armstrong. Elvadus Fields, Farm Management Specialist for Southern University, served as a regional collaborator for these organizations. Heifer Project International was represented by Emily King, Field Coordinator for Louisiana, Jesse Strassburg, Field Coordinator for Mississippi and Roger Jones, South Central Program Manager. The Mississippi Association of Cooperatives (MAC) was represented by Director Melbah Smith.
Project activities were modeled on the community-based research framework that focuses on involving people at the grassroots level in collecting and analyzing data in efforts to inform social change (see Pretty 1995; Selener 1997; Stringer 1999; Reason and Bradbury 2001). Focus groups have demonstrated effectiveness in facilitating participation in the research process and tapping the views of minority and other often neglected populations (Baker and Hilton 1999). Several of the project partners had successfully used focus group techniques toward such ends. Each of the partners sponsored, or co-sponsored, at least one focus group meeting and assisted with additional focus group activities throughout the duration of the project. Drs. Kleiner and Green provided focus group training and related technical assistance. Both had prior experience with organizing and conducting focus group research with farmers (see Green and Picciano 2002; Rikoon et al. 2002). The overriding purpose of the focus group meetings for this project was to obtain information regarding people’s experiences, interests, and concerns relating to rural food markets.
Each partner organization was responsible for inviting farmers and community representatives to one focus group meeting, drawing from lists of organizational members and external networks in the respective region. Sponsors also secured meeting locations, facilitated focus group discussions, and provided refreshments. The focus group discussions, ranging from approximately 6-15 participants per discussion group, lasted about 1-2 hours, commencing with the participants reading and signing consent forms ensuring confidentiality (see attached, p. 16). The focus group discussions explored these topics (see attached, pp. 17-19):
(1) The role that agricultural operations play in local communities.
(2) The effect of recent hurricanes on agricultural operations.
(3) Existing and desired customer bases and market outlets.
(4) Opportunities and challenges associated with the desired market outlets.
(5) The meaning of sustainable agriculture.
(6) Resources and organizations currently available to support sustainable agriculture.
(7) Resources needed to explore opportunities in sustainable agriculture.
Focus group participants were also asked to complete a written questionnaire seeking information about the location of their own food purchases and the issues/values associated with their food purchases, the scope and type of farming or gardening operation in which they may be personally involved, their knowledge about a variety of potential market outlets, and their general demographic characteristics
(see attached pp. 20-24). To gain additional information from farmers, relative to marketing through cooperative arrangements, field visits were conducted with representatives of the Beat 4 Farm Cooperative (Macon, MS) and the Indian Springs Farmers Association (Petal, MS) in July 2006.
Five focus group meetings were conducted between December 2005 and June 2006 and included 82 participants. The meetings were held in the communities of Cleveland, Louisville, and Collins, Mississippi and in Bastrop and Oak Grove, Louisiana (see Table 1, p. 25).
Based on responses to the written questionnaire given to focus group participants, the mean age of the participants was 49 years, with the ages of participants ranging from 17 to 77 years (see Table 2, p. 26). Seventy-two (72) percent of the participants were male, and 86 percent of the participants were African American (see Table 2). Over one-third of the participants had earned a high school degree, and nearly 60 percent were currently employed full-time. Twenty percent of respondents identified themselves as self-employed. About 65 percent of the participants were married, and about 44 percent of the respondents had children below the age of 18 living in their household. Over one-third of the respondents earned less than $20,000 per year, with 44 percent of the respondents reporting an annual income of $40,000 or more.
Written responses indicated nearly three-fourths of the participants either farmed or had active involvement in a farming operation, while 65 percent participated in gardening (see Table 3, p. 27). A full 82 percent of respondents owned land, ranging from ½ acre to 300 acres. Total acreage in production in 2005 equaled 1,800 acres or more for only 4 percent of respondents, with the average (mean) being 130.23 acres. The average number of acres in production for 2006 was 126. Only 10 percent of respondents participated in some form of contract production.
Only 19 percent of respondents sold vegetables or fruit in 2005, with 30 percent expecting to do this in 2006. Nearly half of the respondents produced commodity crops in 2005, and three-fourths raised livestock, with cattle being most common. Over three-fourths of the respondents reported the value of their total annual farm and/or gardening sales in 2005 as less than $10,000, with 45 percent reporting it as less than $1,000. Only three percent reported their 2005 sales as ranging from $60,000 to $70,000.
Food Purchasing and Market Outlets:
Respondents were asked to identify existing food outlets in their area (see Table 4, p. 28). Approximately 80 percent noted the existence of a full service grocery store. Slightly less than half identified a “mom and pop” grocery store existing in their area. Ninety percent of the respondents were aware of a convenience store in their area that sells food. Relative to agricultural markets existing in their area, half of the respondents said that a farmers market exists, 44 percent identified community supported agriculture as being available, 66 percent noted the existence of roadside stands, and 62 percent indicated the availability of on-farm sales of fresh foods. Relative to their overall access to nutritious food in their community, just over half of the respondents identified it as “good”, while a third identified it as “fair.” Only 13 percent rated local access to nutritious food as “excellent.”
Table 5 (p. 29) shows how respondents rated the importance of particular issues when making food purchases. Two of the most important issues impacting these decisions were the freshness of the product and supporting local farmers, followed by the nutrition of the product and worker pay. In fact, at least 58% of all respondents rated each issue as “very important.”
The written questionnaire explored participants’ knowledge of food marketing outlets that may be used to sell food products and whether they had ever used these outlets. Respondents were very familiar with traditional commodity buyers, wholesale markets and marketing directly to grocery stores; however, less than a quarter of them had ever sold products through these outlets (see Table 6, p. 30). While 60 percent of respondents were aware that selling directly to restaurants comprises a market outlet, only 7 percent had ever sold products to a restaurant. Less than 3 percent had sold products to public institutions; however, over half had heard of this market opportunity. While three-fourths of respondents were familiar with roadside stands and door-to-door direct sales, less than one-fourth of them had utilized these market strategies. Knowledge about farmers markets and community supported agriculture was approximately 50 percent; however, only 33 percent and 14 percent of the respondents, respectively, had ever sold products through these outlets. Almost 70 percent of the respondents had heard about cooperatives, as a type of market outlet; however, only 20 percent had ever sold products through a cooperative.
Focus Group Discussion Results:
Focus group discussions were organized around three broad topical areas (aggregate results appear in Tables 7-11, pp. 31-36).
(1) The role of agriculture in the community and existing customer bases;
(2) Desired local food outlets for agricultural products and the opportunities and challenges associated with them;
(3) Producing for local food markets, including sustainable production and the opportunities and challenges associated with this type of production.
Cleveland, Mississippi (Bolivar County): The first focus group meeting was held at and sponsored by Delta State University (DSU) in January 2006. Participants within the single discussion group (n=10) represented the farming community, education, nutrition interests, and farmers markets in the region. About one-half of them were actively involved in farming. They emphasized the need to be creative with agricultural marketing opportunities, including a variety of niche marketing, Internet marketing, and closer coordination between producers as a means of accessing larger customer bases, such as casinos and grocery stores. Local food markets are valuable as they can bring farmers and customers closer together, adding an element of quality to the food products and the relationship between these two groups. Strategies for doing this may include “you pick” farms, youth activities centered on local food production, and the sale of local products in cafes, stores, and schools. Other opportunities lie in agrotourism, cooperative commodity production, the use of Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and other vouchers at farmers markets, and in the establishment of food policy councils that bring together producers, consumers, and community developers. Challenges facing the expansion of local markets in the Delta region are the limited incomes of residents, which may affect their purchasing habits, and the smaller population base, overall, compared to other regions in the South.
When exploring the issue of sustainable production, participants noted that this type of production, such as through truck farming, needs to be profitable. People need access to more land, technical assistance on how to get started, research information, and financial resources to engage in more sustainable methods of production. An important factor is to get youth to recognize the value of agricultural production, as a vocation, which is not being done through existing programs like FFA. The country of Cuba was cited as a success story in how small farms get the support they need, and people have access to land.
The participants made several recommendations for expanding local food markets. Specific information on marketing opportunities needs to be accessible to people, including youth. Farmers need to unite in order to be more competitive, but need the technical training and information to do this. Diversity in production is also important in order to have products available throughout the year. Local planning meetings should be held in communities and include all stakeholders. Perhaps food policy councils could be formed in conjunction with this effort. Lastly, the information from this focus group process could be used to inform the Farm Bill.
Louisville, Mississippi (Winston County): The second focus group meeting (n=19) held in March 2006 was sponsored by the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives in conjunction with the Winston County Self Help Cooperative. About 83 percent of the participants across the two small discussion groups at this meeting were involved with farming. The participants identified several market options for this East Central region, including a variety of vegetables and livestock, agrotourism, pecans, quail, catfish, and timber. Other interesting market outlets identified by participants were the local “switch and swap” radio program, the Tradewinds and other area newspapers, flyers and posters, and basic “word-of-mouth.” Some markets were impacted by recent hurricanes through damage to tracts of timber, vegetable production areas, and the Gulf Coast casino food market.
Local food markets desired by the participants included more farmers markets, goat production, fruit production, including wholesale production and collective marketing for muscadine grapes, flower and herb production, and the development of processing plants, including a cannery. Participants also identified opportunities for youth in agriculture and for senior citizen gardening. Several challenges associated with expanding local markets, however, were extensively discussed. Financing and capital development were key issues. Related issues were time constraints, labor requirements, transportation and storage of products, access to equipment (e.g. corn grinder), legal bureaucracies, price, insurance, and marketing plans for how to deal with uncertainties, such as weather. The participants were interested in more market and production coordination, such as partnering with the Beat 4 cooperative in Macon, a comprehensive identification of new markets, advertising, multi-year contracts, education and technical assistance, and the need for an overall willingness to expand marketing opportunities on the part of local farmers.
If they are to engage in sustainable agriculture, it needs to be profitable and dependable each year to be successful. It should also involve alternative production, such as forestry, producing substitutes or product diversity, and maintaining the environmental and nutritional integrity of the land. Participants identified several organizations they believed to be supportive of sustainable agriculture, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), University Extension, USDA/SARE, MAC, and the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SAWG); however, many more resources are needed to support these methods of production. People need fences, equipment, dogs for herding, land, ponds, labor, ability to rotate crops and grazing, water, buildings, seasonal housing, and general education and creativity to help sustainable production become a reality.
General recommendations for planning and organizing local market potential focused on combining the economic and production power of farmers and of consumers. This could be implemented through combined transportation and storage activities, value-added production, and reaching out to key groups in local communities, such as chambers of commerce, educators, youth, non-profits, and a variety of producers. Town hall meetings could help bring people together, supplemented by research on what people are willing to purchase locally.
Bastrop, Louisiana (Morehouse Parish): The third focus group meeting (n=11), held in April 2006, was sponsored by the Morehouse Parish Black Farmers and Land Owners Association and the Northeast Louisiana Black Farmers and Land Owners Association. About 82 percent of the participants across the two discussion groups were directly involved with farming. They expressed the value of having agriculture in their community through the food and clothing material it produces, employment opportunities, the way local farms can help reduce the monopolization of farm production, through numerous opportunities to develop new ideas in agriculture, and as a strategy to keep youth in the area, especially if farms can become inter-generational.
Participants identified existing markets and products that could be expanded in the region. Farmers markets are located in several communities, though some are privately operated or have “closed” participation. One local mill is pursuing organic certification, and there are efforts being made to develop a mega-dairy and an ethanol plant in the area. Expansion potential exists for farmers markets, vegetables and fruits, grocery store shelf space, pecans, ranching, livestock, and feed to support game hunting. New opportunities may also lie in catfish and seafood production, supplying the nursing home market, and getting more youth involved in agriculture. Participants discussed interest in developing a commercial kitchen for value-added products (e.g. sweet potato pies) and a vegetable packing and processing facility, converting vacant school buildings into kitchens and processing plants, and establishing markets with institutions
(e.g. schools, hospitals, prisons).
Recent set-backs affecting current agricultural activities were associated with crop damage due to hurricanes and with rising fuel prices impacting production and transportation systems. Participants identified challenges associated with expanding local food markets similar to those identified at other focus group meetings. Common challenges were financing, marketing/advertising, securing a decent price, locating needed labor or keeping local youth in the area to fill labor needs, dealing with the transporting of products to market outlets, and improving public relations in relation to agriculture. Participants also desired more family farm agriculture, crop loans, and general information about production strategies. Concerns continue to exist in regard to strict regulations (e.g. food inspections and other standards) limiting new market potential, the bidding process for institutional sales, fears about potential risks associated with some types of production (e.g. mad cow, bird flu), and cultural factors, such as racial inequality in regard to access to financing, sale barn prices, and contract specifications.
Participant views of sustainable production were equated with the achievement of quality of life, enhancing the community, ensuring long-term stability and profitability for agriculture, and producing safe products and food. When assessing the potential for sustainable production, some participants viewed sustainable agriculture as potentially cost-prohibitive unless savings can be realized through large-scale production. General economic viability of sustainable production was a concern. There continue to be risks associated with environmental factors and with rising fuel costs. Farmers often receive confusing messages about what sustainable products are in demand, and the public faces the same confusion about what to consume in order to stay healthy. Lastly, if organic production is to be pursued by farmers, the term “organic” needs to be clearly defined.
Based on their understanding of sustainable production, the participants identified some existing resources as NRCS, Louisiana State University Extension, Southern University, University of Louisiana-Monroe, Farm Services Agency (FSA), a few local banks, and the regional transportation infrastructure. Local hardware businesses and lines of credit or loans offered by chemical companies are also viewed as resources for sustainable production. To expand these opportunities, however, producers need access to capital and to collateral that is unencumbered (not connected to every other aspect of their existence). People need access to the Federal Land Bank, to the Fannie Mae housing program, and other federal resources. Information about sustainable production, such as through Heifer, is desired, along with the ability to network and pursue alternative production through a farmer organization. Like conventional production, farmers will need appropriate labor, equipment, acreage (e.g. for custom cutting), and “in time” inputs.
Overall, farmers need a way to sell products if local markets are going to be expanded or developed. They need more information about how to do this, such as from local loan offices. They need a better transportation infrastructure to do this. They want consumers to pay less for local produce, while allowing the farmers to get better prices. Additional ideas offered were developing a website for showcasing and selling Louisiana and Mississippi farm products, expanding farmers markets with easier access to stalls, and having markets take produce on consignment. Advocacy to policymakers, such as at the state level, and receiving information from them, is critical, as is public education and awareness of what is produced in this state and this region of the US.
Collins, Mississippi (Covington County): The fourth focus group meeting, where 84 percent of the participants farmed, or were actively involved in the management of an agricultural operation, was held in April 2006. The meeting was sponsored by Heifer Project International and consisted of three separate discussion groups (n=33). Analyzing the importance of agriculture to the local community generated a comprehensive list of its benefits. Relative to culture and society, agriculture provides food, economic development opportunities, employment, supplemental income, a hobby, youth development, family participation, the development of work ethic, team-building, recreation, opportunities for the ownership of land and/or livestock and general land stewardship, self-motivation, survival skills, connections to other organizations, such as churches, and inter-generational connections. Agriculture can improve the environment, involve sustainable/organic production, protect the soil, provide food security, and support a perpetual cycle of production and sustainability.
The participants identified several market options in the region, most of which could be expanded. Several wholesale and retail options relate to specific types of animals, vegetables, and fruits. In addition, the need for customized meat markets, restaurant sales, person-to-person sales, support by local stores, and permanent roadside stands or farmers markets, were also identified. Niche markets (e.g. garlic, herbs), community supported agriculture (CSAs), nurseries, the Marion County organization, and the Indian Springs Farmers Association, are all viewed as assets in the region and potential areas for growth. Additional recommendations for planning and organizing local market potential focused on opportunities for wholesaling, financial planning, information on how to organize producers and build networks, perhaps through a local coop, processing plants, youth involvement, developing a regional marketing plan, and establishing a farm bank.
Unfortunately, several market set-backs were experienced due to recent hurricanes and this region’s proximity to coastal areas. Extensive damage was done to homes, fences, timber, livestock, food availability, gas availability, employment, processing plants, sheds, and barns. Some producers experienced a total loss, essentially ending their agricultural business and their family legacy in agriculture. The farmer-to-farmer economy was affected through the loss of support services, and refinery shut-downs affected many components of agricultural production. To make matters worse, a drought continues, resulting in hay shortages in the short-term, and broader cultural and land development issues in the long-term. Even for some with irrigation systems, land may remain unusable due to the high salt content of flood water polluting their soil. Others have struggled with various levels of personal loss. These experiences have short- and long-term personal and community-wide affects, such as suicides, stress-disorders, depression, abuse, poor health, and increases in poverty and welfare dependency. It remains unclear as to what extent agriculture may recuperate within this region.
Despite these challenges, participants were able to identify several desired food markets for this region. Processing plants for both livestock and vegetables are needed. Other places to sell these products could be through local farmers markets and food stands, through cooperative arrangements, through contracts (e.g. poultry), through CSAs, Internet marketing, and export markets. Perhaps a local office with a coordinator could help export products out of the region and outside Mississippi; however, people want consumers to have access to local products and not have to import them. If markets continued year-round, the community may be more inclined to support them. Families have health concerns and want to know what they are buying and how animals are raised. Other consumers buy and eat according to cultural parameters, which may open up niche markets. Participants discussed how food markets can succeed if they are established properly, can help producers make money and even enable them to live solely off of agriculture, can provide safe and nutritious food for consumers, and can support a system that keeps tradition and a way of life alive. Challenges perceived to be associated with expanding local food market opportunities continue to focus on the need for land, equipment, money to get started and to continue indefinitely while supporting a family, as well as cooperative networks. Farmers are also facing competition from large stores, high advertising costs, labor shortages, wage issues, community-wide housing issues associated with hurricane evacuees, and a general lack of local representation for small farmers.
When examining the components of sustainable agriculture, the discussants believed sustainability means a form of agriculture that will last forever (be cyclical) and be profitable. Sustainability also means protecting the soil, improving animal and human health, increasing grazing and composting activities, protecting natural resources, and adding value to products. Sustainable production means getting youth involved early with these methods, re-educating people through a paradigm shift, finding ways to get more out of the land and its resources, and generally thinking “bigger” through cooperation and networking. Sustainability can also mean bringing suitable industry to a community that provides jobs for youth. Existing resources to help communities and producers pursue sustainability include USDA, FSA, NRCS, Southern SAWG, Extension, and livestock associations; however, agency services can vary depending on the quality of agency personnel. To make sustainability achievable, farmers need the appropriate financing, useful assistance from Extension agents, less red tape acquiring the necessary resources, equipment, land, demonstration projects, and networking with other participants.
Oak Grove, Louisiana (West Carroll Parish): The project’s fifth focus group meeting during June 2006 was co-sponsored by Heifer Project International and Southeastern Louisiana University and consisted of one discussion group (n=9). Less than one-third of the participants were currently active in agriculture; however, several were in the process of developing a Heifer project in the region. Participants identified multiple benefits associated with having agriculture in this region. Benefits included the availability of fresh, high quality, healthy products, customer service, employment, economic development opportunities, and public awareness of agriculture. These benefits could be enhanced through the development of institutional markets, Internet sales, roadside stands, export niche markets, restaurant markets, ethanol-related markets, grocery stores, better accessibility for vehicles, and processing and/or slaughtering plants for local products. Potential exists for organic and/or all-natural raised products to be grown in this region. There is an abundance of land for growing and processing, as well as existing buildings that could be converted to these uses. Certain organizations can provide the technical assistance to help farmers expand markets (e.g. Southern University, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Louisiana Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association).
Challenges associated with market expansion could be the ongoing threat of monopolies, the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome impacting processing plant locations, lack of access to capital, “red tape” associated with some marketing arrangements (making a Heifer project a good strategy to pursue), limited time and capacity of local people, regional biases that may suggest this region is not suitable for growing a particular product, and a lack of consumer awareness that buying local/regional is acceptable and even possible.
If market expansion can occur through sustainable production, this means that agriculture should be able to continue indefinitely through environmental stewardship and economic viability. Several existing organizations can support this, such as Heifer and other non-profits, FSA, land grant universities, and various governmental groups involved with conservation; however, farmers will need computer training to increase PC literacy, access to updated technology, people to operate equipment, youth to assist with sustainable production activities, general education on agriculture and the positive aspects of sustainability, and information on how to deal with the regulations of organic production.
Several common themes have emerged through this community-based research project with minority and limited resource farmers in Louisiana and Mississippi. Key challenges that have faced agricultural producers in the US for several decades in conjunction with growing concentration in the agri-food system continue to disproportionately impact small producers in the rural South. These challenges necessitate that farmers unite in their effort to identify and pursue alternative and innovative market outlets for the wide variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, and value-added items that they are capable of producing. Across the two-state region, the farmers identified a lack of financial and technical resources needed to develop new markets, though they believe that more farmer networking and cooperative marketing may open up these opportunities for them. An important element for success, in addition to economic viability, will be acquiring the information and education necessary to access new markets. Farmers recognize that resources exist, yet they may not necessarily know how to access these resources, relying on agency personnel and other organizations to make this information available to them. Farmers want to explore sustainable and/or organic agriculture if they can first clearly understand what these terms mean and have the necessary resources and customer base to ensure long-term economic viability. If the financial risks associated with investing in new market outlets or alternative production methods appear too great, farmers are reluctant to pursue them. There is simply too much at stake given that agricultural production continues to be financially risky.
There are several market outlets at the local level that farmers can access, or already do access. While several participants are aware of alternative market outlets, very few of them have ever pursued these markets. Truck farming, farmers markets, and other sales strategies with low-overhead costs are common outlets; however, to expand these opportunities to include larger customer bases, such as institutions, restaurants, grocery stores, and Internet markets, farmers need local processing and distribution facilities, commercial kitchens, canneries, better transportation networks, and cooperative arrangements between producers to consistently meet the ongoing and diverse demands of these markets. Regulations associated with these markets (e.g. inspections, standards) need to be adequately addressed by the producers without undue restrictions. Dealing with “red tape” has been viewed by some as a detriment to market expansion. Farmers need to acquire the appropriate financial resources, equipment, land, and labor when pursuing new markets. Technical support, financing, and opportunities through contractual arrangements need to be equally accessible to and fairly administered for minority and small-scale producers. Historically, this has not necessarily been the case.
In several focus groups, the desire to get youth involved in agriculture was an important issue, not only to maintain agriculture as an inter-generational tradition and livelihood activity, but as a way to encourage young producers to expand their agricultural markets into more technical and innovative arenas. Having computer skills and experience with the Internet are two common advantages that youth may already possess. If agriculture is going to continue in rural communities of the South and respond to the needs and wants of new customers, the youth need to be involved. Younger producers may also be more inclined to experiment with sustainable production methods, such as organic. There is already an active youth component within the Mississippi farmer organizations of Beat 4 and Indian Springs.
At least three discussion groups explored agricultural policy issues, noting the importance of farmers staying politically active regionally, statewide, and nationally. Participants proposed that research, such as the data from this project, could be used to inform discussions on the Farm Bill. This research could also be used to inform state-level policies and be a catalyst for receiving information from state governments about agriculture. One focus group proposed establishing a food policy council, which could be a local, regional, state, or national organization that brings together producers, consumers, community developers, and other stakeholders who study the food system and make recommendations for improvements through public policy change. This council could build consumer awareness about agriculture and the food system and support the argument that buying locally-grown food is beneficial to farmers, consumers, and the community, as a whole.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The results of the focus group discussions and participant surveys have been presented to project partners and their members, as well as to academic/research audiences at national and regional professional meetings. A research paper titled “Expanding the Marketing Opportunities for Minority and Limited Resource Farmers in Louisiana and Mississippi” (A. Kleiner) was presented at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society in August 2006. In addition, a research paper titled “Expanding the Marketing Opportunities and Sustainable Production Potential for Minority and Limited Resource Farmers in Louisiana and Mississippi” (A. Kleiner and J. Green) has been accepted for presentation at the annual meeting of the Southern Rural Sociological Association in February 2007. Based on the latter research presentation, a manuscript will be developed and submitted for peer-review and possible inclusion in a special issue of Southern Rural Sociology focusing on sustainable agriculture and quality of life.
Impact of Project
This project accomplished the goal of bringing together a variety of organizations across two states to examine marketing challenges associated with minority and limited resource farming and opportunities for expanding these markets using more innovative and sustainable strategies. While some of these groups have been working for several years to address these issues, others have only been recently organized. This project presented an avenue for these groups to discuss their common experiences and collaboratively develop new ideas to increase their livelihood security through agricultural production and broader community development initiatives in the rural South. The project partners and their organizations have been reviewing the survey data and the results from the focus group discussions. They have reconvened to discuss building a larger collaborative network of participants in the two-state region. The larger regional network is intended to more broadly represent a diversity of interests, such as farmers, consumers, farmers markets, nutrition and health practitioners, economic development practitioners, school administrators, and youth. Together they will work to develop related public policy initiatives, as well as specific marketing strategies and/or demonstration projects involving producers in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Areas needing additional study
One of the outcomes of this project was a larger unfunded grant proposal designed to potentially link local agricultural producers with consumers needing access to high quality and nutritious foods in the Mid-South Delta region of Louisiana and Mississippi through alternative access points such as local grocery stores, farmers markets, and other locally-based food operations. Attention was to be directed toward comparing different socioeconomic groups in terms of the processes and dynamics involved in accessing and consuming nutritious food, with emphasis on gaining the perspectives of low-income consumers. This type of research remains important for informing programs aimed at improving access to food, increasing the prevalence of healthy food choices, and enhancing overall health and wellness in the Delta region. A better understanding of these processes will facilitate the ability of policies to more effectively target and change the lived realities of vulnerable populations.
Future research attention should also focus on the variety of micro-finance strategies that might be used to start and expand businesses that will help to establish a stronger sustainable agriculture and food security base. This would be an important catalyst for increasing farmer adoption of sustainable production methods that can be viewed as economically viable for them. In addition to this research, regional networking and collaborative efforts could be pursued for greater regional food system coordination.