Summary Report on Social Issues
Sarah T. Warren
Alabama Consortium on Forestry Education and Research
Tuskegee University, Alabama
Although there were five distinct presentations in the concurrent session on Social Issues, two themes emerged in common. First, who is the small farmer, and why does it matter? And second, what are some working models of institutional collaboration in projects designed to meet the needs of small farmers?
In an overview of the demographics of small farmers across the United States, Ronald Wimberly (North Carolina State University) used recent proposed changes in census counting of farms to illustrate how redefinition might affect our perceptions of American agriculture. For example, if the census definition were to change upward from the current minimum $2,500 annual sales figure to one of $10,000, then the number of farms in the U.S. would decline by 45%. Viewed in another way, 47.1% of the farms that have the lowest sales figures produce only 1.9% of sales' value in the agricultural marketplace. Rather than employ minimum acreage or minimum production, as has been the pattern in the past, Wimberly suggested that engaging in certain agricultural behaviors -- specifically the production of food and fiber, on a scale that meets household consumption, sales, and/or leisure requirements -- might be a more useful definition.
Why does definition matter anyway? Wimberly proposed three primary grounds for continued re-examination. First, definition matters in terms of program practicalities. Second, it matters for environmental reasons -- particularly biological and cultural diversity. And third, it matters in understanding small farm structures as determinants of quality of life. For example, why are areas of poverty so frequently areas of small farms? Wimberly concluded his presentation by suggesting that small farms keep poor areas from becoming worse.
Is the small farmer in Alabama the average farmer? By no means, according to George Paris (Alabama State Department of Agriculture and Industries). The average farmer is where we locate our expectations, but no one fills that role exactly.
Paris then progressed to the second theme -- that of institutional collaboration. In addition to describing specific programs that the Alabama State Department of Agriculture and Industries directs to small farmers, such as the permanent farmers' market in Montgomery, alternative agricultural production, and marketing local produce to chain stores, Paris described several of the constraints to maintaining a small farmer's way of life. Of greatest
importance, he suggested, is the need to change the farmers' age-old habits of not sharing new idea and improvements with their neighbors.
Taking the definitional issue to a more conceptual plane, Robert Zabawa (Tuskegee University) submitted that the manner in which we look at the numbers (which are abstractions in any case) is all wrong. In order to determine the value of small farms and farmers in U.S. society, it is necessary to look at their productivity at a regional or local level, rather than nationally. It is necessary to look at them in terms of community, not simply as individuals. Further, we should see them as a voting block.
Programs designed to reach small farmers would then need to be examined in terms of their (1) availability, (2) accessibility, and (3) equitability (both in funding and implementation). If programs are further re-examined in the context of regions, culture, and farmer characteristics, then their response to definitional issues would be more successful.
The second theme -- of collaboration and collaborative models -- was illustrated by two case studies: one of the Southwest Georgia Alternative Agriculture Project, and one of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The former is a new consortium-like project newly created; the latter has several decades of history.
In describing the Alternative Agriculture program, Frederick Payton (University of Georgia) emphasized the way in which the six participating institutions work together. The opportunities available to the institutions have contributed to early successes of the original "good idea": serving an under-served population, using a systems approach, and paying careful attention to the "mix and fit" of the institutions themselves. The multidisciplinarity within multiple institutions has helped to create longer-lasting relationships between the institutions and the communities they serve. Additionally, such collaboration is generally very attractive to donors. The challenges that face such a group of diverse institutions, however, still require consideration. These include institutional practices and patterns of behavior, concerns over boundaries and turf, the increased labor required to coordinate communication among the collaborating institutions, and the maintenance of community focus in the face of outside pressures.
The model of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives contrasts with the consortium approach. Rather, the collaboration has been one of a grass-roots non-governmental organization with a major government agency (the USDA).
Of importance to Jerry Pennick (Federation of Southern Cooperatives) was defining the roles that different types of collaborating institutions can play. In the structure he described, the financial role was taken by the USDA as the institution that pays for program development and implementation. The 1890 institutions in this case have provided the technical assistance role. The Federation itself plays the vital role as intermediary between funding and technology and the target audience -- acting as a bridge between collaborators and the community, and building trust within the population.
In summary, the Social Issues session covered well-worn themes, asking questions to which one would think we should now have the answers.
After all, there has been agriculture since before recorded history. Why do these questions recur with such regularity? Is it because they are intrinsically and intellectually fascinating? Is it because our values are so fluid and change so rapidly as to require constant redefinition? Is it simply a pragmatic response to shrinking dollars? Or more optimistically, is it because we are all co-learners? There is an element of each of the alternatives with us at all times, but perhaps recently too much of the second and third alternatives to be of significant comfort.
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