Advancing the Frontier of Community
Sustainable agriculture is helping rewrite the story of rural America's out-migration. Between 2000 and 2003, population declined in nearly 60 percent of rural counties as young people and families followed the economic lure of larger cities. But in more and more communities around the country, a host of new initiatives and farm-based enterprises - from value-added products to horticulture education - are helping revitalize local economies.
SARE invests directly in community development initiatives and research through its Sustainable Community Innovation Grants in the South and Northeast, and other programs in all regions. SARE also partners with Regional Rural Development Centers, which directly involve land grant universities with communities to find new strategies for keeping people and profits at home
Southern SARE has teamed up with the Southern Rural Development Center to implement a community grants program. The program funds such initiatives as nutrition classes centered on local foods and agritourism training for county officials and farmers. Including a one-time contribution of $200,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the program has invested more than $700,000 in 60 community projects.
In Maine's Hancock County, a SARE-funded project connects farms and schools to open new markets for farmers while improving child nutrition. As of fall 2007, a total of five schools - 820 students - will regularly purchase from eight area farms. Maine Extension distributed a farm-to-school directory to every county office.
Latinos comprise one of the fastest growing farmer groups in America. A tri-state project in Illinois, Michigan and Missouri helped Extension and other educators design assistance programs for Latino communities. Another tri-state project in Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska trains educators on how best to assist beginning farmers.
Although the majority of Idaho and Washington farms are small, educators offer this group only limited assistance. Today, the SARE-funded Cultivating Success program trains educators in community-based sustainable enterprises. One result of many: Area universities now offer courses in the subject.
Getting the Word Out
SARE invests heavily in trainings, websites, community centers, educational curricula - such as Tilling the Soil of Opportunity (see below) - and a host of other outreach efforts to help farmers and community members get, and stay, involved in revitalization.
|Above John Allen with Tilling the Soil, his groundbreaking course book for ag entrepreneurs. Below: Turning a Nebraska farm into a vineyard has brought new income into the area. |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
Rural Revitalization through Farm-Based Enterprise
The ten U.S. counties with the greatest population losses between 2000 and 2003 are located in the western United States, and small towns are scrambling to save what is left of their communities. Like many other parts of the nation, western farmers are discovering that sustainably raised livestock and crops can help revitalize economies. And these farmers have an ally, John Allen, whose life's work is helping farmers develop the skills needed to build businesses that benefit the farm and also the surrounding community.
Allen, who works with the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, says the trick is to focus on farm-based businesses that produce and hire locally. "It's the multiplier effect. When I started in this business 20 years ago, if you spent one dollar in your community, it would get used two or three times around in the same town. But now, where everything is owned externally, the money goes straight to the shareholders, who live outside the community."
Allen founded the NebraskaEDGE program in 1993 at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The program has helped thousands of people explore business opportunities. In 2000, Allen and NebraskaEDGE Associate Director Marilyn Schlake - both SARE grant recipients - led a team effort to develop what is now considered one of the important national training programs for agricultural producers, Tilling the Soil of Opportunity: NxLeveL Guide for Agricultural Entrepreneurs. The course has been offered across 20 states at universities, small business development centers, and other educational facilities. More than 50 percent of the participants complete the course with a business plan.
Tim Nissen, born and raised in Cedar County, Neb., was one farmer who took the course. Industrial agriculture was squeezing his business and he needed to make changes. Tim enrolled in the 12-week intensive Tilling the Soil program, which opened his eyes to the potential of small-scale farming. In 2003, he turned his life around by opening a vineyard with his brother Dave in the grassy hills of Bow Valley.
Today, Westphalia Vineyards offers five varietals, one made with native wild plum. Nearly 60 percent of the customer base comes from outside the area.
Allen continues to find innovative ways to help rural communities, but now he is using SARE funds to develop workshops for western farmers and ranchers. By providing technical training in processing, packaging and labeling their products, along with Internet marketing strategies, Allen continues to help grow rural businesses and maintain rural communities.
"Our project draws upon SARE's historical values of matching farmers with educators. But this time we are moving into new territory by helping farmers break into the Internet and retail markets. That's the innovation." [For more information, go to www.sare. org/projects and search for EW06-005.]