Sustainable Agriculture for Future Economics (SAFE)
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 assessed 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 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.