Linking Small-Farm Agriculture to Community Development Efforts in Northern Louisiana
The purpose of this project was to investigate the degree of interest that farmers, community leaders, and agriculture and community development technical assistance providers in Northern Louisiana have: (1) in enhancing and developing local markets for produce grown in Northern Louisiana, and (2) in engaging in value-added activities such as processing and agritourism. It will use this information as the starting point to develop projects in the region to improve the profitability of small-scale and limited resource farms and to enhance local markets as an economic development strategy in a low-income, rural region of Louisiana.
The project had three components planned: (1) the development of a database of small farmers who are currently engaged in, or are interested in, direct marketing, value-added processing, or agritourism; (2) three focus groups of farmers in order to get input as to the barriers and opportunities that they perceive in marketing or processing in the region; and (3) the development of a committee of stakeholders in the region who are committed to working to improve the incomes of small and limited resource farmers or who are interested in developing local processing or enhanced marketing of locally-grown agricultural products. This committee will have representatives from the major research universities; farmers, extension and other technical service providers; the department of economic development, consumer and community representatives and small business experts. The grant would fund four meetings of this stakeholder group.
It turned out to be more difficult to identify farmers who were interested and engaged in direct marketing or value-added enterprises that we had initially expected. In order to develop a database of farmers that was relevant and provided enough information to be useful, we ended up using a two-stage process to identify appropriate farmers.
First we developed a master list of possible farmers from LSU AgCenter agents, from sign-in sheets from trainings that we conducted on value-added agriculture, LSU AgCenter sent out a postcard to farmers on their databases about the project inviting those who wanted to be included in the database to contact us. We also issued press releases about the project and the database to local media and developed a website.
Second, we surveyed the farmers by phone, in person, by mail, and we developed an on-line survey. In this survey we asked information about what they were currently producing, how they were marketing it, how they would like to market it, what value (if any) they were adding, and if they were interested in adding value. We also collected demographic data, information about their current equiptment and equiptment needs, and whether or not they would be interested in being listed in a directory. We ended up with a database of about 65 area producers.
Because we had had so much more personal contact with some of the most engaged farmers than we had expected when we wrote the grant proposal, and because the project was finishing up during the fall vegetable season, it was decided by the steering committee that the focus groups would not be likely to add much information and turnout was likely to be low. We therefore did not hold them.
Between April and November we did hold four meetings of the steering committee. Participants included Ag Extension personnel from LSU and Southern University, Department of Economic Development, SBDC, Planning District Staff, Regional economic development non-profit staff, farmer-leaders, and the Economic Development Specialist from the local utility company. These meetings were excellent opportunities for collaboration and information sharing. In addition, the steering committee members provided a great deal of feedback on the survey design and analysis of results.
The objectives of this project were:
1.To identify and develop a database of producers in the region who are currently engaged in or are interested in direct marketing, adding value to what they produce, or agritourism. In particular we will attempt to identify and include minority farmers who traditionally have been under-served by agriculture assistance programs.
2. To hold three farmer-focus groups that will identify the barriers faced by small and limited resource farmers in the region who are engaged in direct marketing and value-added enterprises, to examine the opportunities that they perceive in agriculture, and hear what assistance they believe would improve their situation.
3. To bring together individuals in the region who have the interest and capacity to work on value-added agriculture and a desire to enhance the productivity and numbers of markets of small farms in the region four times.
We held four meetings of the steering committee. Over 20 individuals from around the region participated at these meetings. The interaction of the steering committee members led to:
1. A conference at LA Tech in July 2004 on adding value to agricultural production. This conference was organized by the SBDC and Center for Rural Development in collaboration with LSU Ag Center and ATTRA. It was attended by over 25 area producers
2. A successful VAPG proposal for a soybean processing plant that was written by LA Tech, in collaboration with LSU in 2004.
3. Increased interest in and knowledge about USDA’s Value Added Producer Grant Program in the state. Two training sessions were held by LA Tech’s Center for Rural Development on the grant in 2003. Four training sessions were held by LA Tech in 2004, with assistance from LSU Ag Center. These sessions were planned at our second steering committee meeting. In 2005 (for the first time) LSU AgCenter staff are taking the lead on writing proposals for area producers and holding training sessions on the program. The collaborations, (in part) due to this grant have helped more technical assistance providers in the state become aware of this opportunity for farmers and increased their willingness and ability to offer assistance.
4. More awareness among the group members about the sources of expertise in the region regarding value added agriculture, processing, and marketing. At the meetings, participants would often ask other members for advice or assistance with solving a problem that a particular agricultural producer/processor that they were working with was facing.
The survey and development of the database of farmers has led to:
1. The realization that most farmers in the region (that we identified) are not actually that interested in adding value to what they produce at this time. Most of them would prefer to increase their direct marketing efforts or to access wholesale markets. In part this seems to be due to a lack of awareness on the part of many of the producers about opportunities to add value, but in part it is due to the fact that many of the area producers are elderly and are not looking to change what they do. Based on the survey, and on the types of individuals who came to our value added conference and information sessions about the VAPG program, linking farmers to local food-based entrepreneurs is probably a more viable strategy for adding value to produce in north Louisiana, at least in the short run. Most of the farmers that we surveyed would seem to prefer marketing assistance.
2. That area farmers do not use the internet very often, and definately will not participate in an on-line survey. Mail and interenet-based surveys were not that effective, even with a postcard sent out by LSU AgCenter informing area farmers about the project in advance. We ended up primarily surveying farmers in person and by phone.
3. The creation of a directory of area farmers, processors, farmers markets, and technical assistance resources. Many farmers who engaged in direct marketing were interested in being in a directory. We thought that this directory would also help small food-processing businesses identify area farmers.
4. The database was used to disseminate information about the southern sustainable agriculture working group’s annual meeting in February, 2005. In the past, north Louisiana was not well represented at this conference. This year at least 5 farmers from north Louisiana attended and all of them were on the database. This database seems to be an effective tool for targeting farmers receptive to sustainable agriculture in the region.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The primary impact of this project has been increased collaboration and outreach in the region around value-added agriculture and direct marketing.
The LSU AgCenter is now actively promoting and assisting farmers with the USDA Value Added Producer Grant Program. It was featured at two north Louisiana fruit and vegetable grower conferences. The organizers of these conferences were steering committee members in the project. This year there are three small producers in north Louisiana (that we know of) who plan to apply for VAPG funds. All of these producers are on our database and have participated in trainings that we held in the past year.
We have also developed a directory of farmers engaged in direct marketing and value-added activities, farmers markets, technical assistance resources, and area processing facilites. This directory is aimed at farmers and processors who do not use the computer frequently and area consumers who are interested in purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from area producers. We plan to expand this directory and we also plan to put it on-line this summer (2005).
Louisiana Department of Economic Development
LA Tech SBDC
LA Tech University
LSU Ag Center
LSU Ag Center
Southern University Ag Extension
West Monroe, LA