Session F: Social Issues
Chair: Robert Zabawa, Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama
Moderator: Charles Whitaker, USDA-Office of Civil Rights, Washington, DC
Collaborative Efforts on Behalf of Small Farmers: The Role of Non-Governmental Agencies
Edward J. Pennick
Federation of Southern Cooperatives
The debate over what defines a small farmer is one that may never be resolved. Nonetheless, since black farmers live in some of the most economically depressed areas in the country, they are, whether full or part-time, "small" or "large", more dependent on farm income than are other segments of the farm population. Although black farmers face many of the same problems experienced by others, their problems are compounded by factors unique to them, including discrimination in the lending and marketing places and lack of access to technical assistance. In fact, until the late 1980s black farmers were left to fend for themselves for the most part even though there were government programs mandated to assist all limited resource farmers.
As stated in the 1982 Report of the United States Civil Rights Commission, entitled The Decline of Black Farming in America, " there has been no significant federal effort to halt the loss of black-operated farms. Within the USDA, interagency efforts to assist small farmers have not been targeted towards minorities. Furthermore, those activities geared toward small farmers have lacked direction, specific goals, systematic program evaluation, coordination and communication among agencies, and flexibility in program guidelines and regulation necessary for their success."
These and other problems have led to a steady decline in black farms and land. Most data indicates that blacks are losing their land at a rate two and one-half times greater than their white counterparts. In the early 1900s, 746,717 black farmers owned or leased 41,766,238 acres of land. In 1922, 18,816 black farmers owned less than 2,310,349 acres. Some say that the remaining black owned land is being lost at an annual rate of 500,000 acres. Although that figure may well have been accurate during the farm crisis of the 1980s, it appears that the decline has slowed somewhat over the past eight years or so, especially in those areas where the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has an established presence. This is not to imply that the crisis is over or has subsided appreciably. It does indicate, however, that there is hope of reversing the still alarming trend of decline in black farms and land loss.
That hope lies in successful and transferable models of collaboration between governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations and 1890 Land Grant Institutions.
The development of such a model began in 1988 with the first cooperative agreement between the Federation and the USDA. This may well have been the first collaboration between USDA and a non-governmental agency (NGO) that was dedicated to the survival of black family farms. The goal was and is to provide outreach and technical assistance to limited resource farmers in order to enable them to receive maximum benefit from their farming operations and to solve some of the problems outlined in the Civil Rights Commission Report. The initial effort covered six counties located in southwest Georgia. There were 30 farmers participating. Today, the project covers four states and has 239 farmers enrolled.
The project has achieved notable accomplishments over the past nine years.
In 1988, none of the participants grew alternative crops. Today, 95% of current participants are involved in some type of alternative enterprise. These enterprises range from cut flowers to pecan processing
Over the past nine years, a total of $5,265, 654 in operating loans from the Farm Service Agency have gone to program participants
Approximately 2,000 acres of land valued at $1,220,100 have been saved
Participants have acquired 1,104 acres of land valued at $902,818
Five new cooperatives representing over 250 farmers have been organized
Farm income of participants has increased by an average of 29%
These were milestones that had to be met under the terms of the cooperative agreement. However, the impact of the project was felt far beyond any desired outcomes specified in that agreement.
Most notable was in the area of marketing. Prior to the Outreach and Technical Assistance Project, most farmers in the Federation's target area were at the mercy of a marketing system that either took unfair advantage of them by giving lower grades and prices for produce comparable to that of other farmers, or ignored them altogether. The problem was compounded by the fact that the farmers themselves had no coordinated marketing plan.
Through this project, the Federation was able to assemble a team of specialists to provide hands-on marketing assistance and conduct a series of workshops throughout the year. Subject matter at the workshops includes information on packing, grading, alternative crops and additional topics as the need dictated. The agriculture specialists develop individualized assistance packages for each participant. Continuous follow-up is provided throughout the year and the assistance packages are modified according to the farmer's need. In 1995-96 alone, over 1,000 farmers and 15 cooperatives received individualized marketing assistance, and over 1,500 farmers attended at least one of the more than 75 workshops held throughout the Federation's service area. This coordinated training and technical assistance now enables participants to successfully compete in the commercial market arena not as individuals, but as cooperatives. During 1995-96 session, these cooperatives will gross over $2 million in sales to markets such as Kroger and Kraft.
In addition to commercial markets, the Outreach and Technical Assistance Project was instrumental in the development of the Federation's Rural/Urban Marketing Program. The success of this effort depends largely on the collaboration between farmers, government agencies at all levels, religious organizations, foundations and nongovernmental organizations. The goal of the Rural/Urban Marketing Program is to help establish a stable, secondary market for member farmers while providing inner city, mostly poor, citizens with high quality affordable produce. In 1995-96, produce was marketed from 15 sites, over half of which are located in or near public housing. All are readily assessable to the poor. In addition, the Federation works with agencies that provide training to consumers in the areas of nutrition and fresh food preparation. Five cooperatives representing 100 farmers grossed over $500,000 by participating in the Rural/Urban Marketing Program.
The success of the above efforts are due to a collaborative effort in which each partner came to understand and accept its role. The primary role of the USDA is to provide financial assistance in several key areas. First, it provides the funds to enable the Federation (NGO) to put qualified agricultural specialists in the field. Second, it provides loans to program participants who can show management as well as pay back ability. It is also imperative that county and state officials buy into the program and not view other partners as a threat, but as a tool to make their jobs easier. The 1890 Land Grant Institutions play an equally important role. They make it possible to provide a much wider range of technical assistance than is available through this project alone. They also provide much needed research, especially in the area of alternative crops.
In order for the USDA or any other governmental agency to successfully implement this or any other project aimed at assisting small farmers, it must first be able to reach and get the cooperation of the farmer. Thus, the Federation's main asset to this collaborative effort is its ability to gain the trust of the target audience -- small farmers, most of whom, especially those who are black, view the government as the enemy and a threat to their farms. That fear is not totally unfounded. There were and to some degree still are individuals within the USDA who are no friends to small farmers. However, because the Federation and other NGOs have a proven track record, these farmers are more willing to try the various programs provided by the government and others. The NGOs must be allowed and empowered to serve as a bridge between all parties in a collaboration, if it is to be successful. In specific counties of the Federation's four state target area, this collaborative effort is being successfully implemented.
This model could and should be duplicated throughout the rural south, as it is one of the only ways for a small rural community without many resources, other than land, to develop economically and to ensure that small, especially black farmers, remain part of this country's agricultural system.
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Title Page