Meeting the Diverse Needs of Limited-Resource Producers
|For close to two decades, educators at a California community-based organization have taught production and marketing skills to hundreds of immigrant farm laborers from Central America. Many have since become profitable independent farmers. |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
In the mountains of southwestern Virginia, where jobs are scarce and the living is hard, agricultural educators and community advocates trying to encourage farmers to grow something other than tobacco or grain have a tough sell. Despite that mindset, a dynamic partnership known as Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) improves conditions for farmers living on the economic edge. They provide training in sustainable vegetable growing and, possibly more important, ferret out new markets health food stores and restaurants in whats known as the tri-city area of Appalachian Virginia willing to buy from them at a premium.
Today, southwest Virginia farmers sell a variety of produce, from cucumbers to watermelon, and have improved their net returns by a few to several thousand dollars per year, according to ASD. The effort, which the group hopes will expand, provides a successful model for extension educators, nonprofit organizations and other groups trying to improve agricultural economies using environmentally friendly practices as a hook.
We had a basic idea at the beginning to create local economies that are better for people and better for the environment, said ASD director Anthony Flaccavento. In agriculture, that translates to creating markets that reward sustainable practices and make farming economically viable.
This bulletin was written for agricultural educators who want to improve their outreach to farmers and ranchers who do not usually participate in traditional government educational programs. It showcases innovative educational approaches for use by Extension, government agencies and community-based organizations trying to better connect with and improve the lives of diverse farmers and ranchers.
The Appalachian Sustainable Development story describes a mountain county in southwest Virginia, but it could be in any county in the U.S., said John OSullivan, a state extension specialist with North Carolina A&T State University. In many counties, there are two economies one very successful and well-connected, the other poor and inhabited by limited-resource families. Small farmers frequently live in this other economy.
Sustainable agriculture, with its emphasis on profits, not farm size, offers a range of possibilities for producers with varied resources. Many sustainable methods, such as rotational grazing systems for livestock, inexpensive high tunnel-like greenhouses for vegetables and local marketing strategies for farm products, are more realistic for producers of limited means than embarking upon larger, more capital-intensive production systems.
Initially, the market for the new crops grown by the Appalachian farmers was small, limiting the number who could participate. In 1999, ASD offered to supply local tomatoes to a small, family-owned chain of supermarkets that was planning to introduce a limited line of organic produce. It was a gamble.
Theres a high expectation that youll deliver, Flaccavento said. We had a huge risk because we had to fill the shelf space with a solid supply.
When the group started their sustainable vegetable production project in 1997, partially funded by USDAs Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, tobacco farmers were looking for profitable alternatives, and ASD was providing them one, if they were willing to take the financial risk.
ASDs series of about 75 hands-on workshops in sustainable vegetable growing, which were held mostly on farms and taught both by trained educators and farmer collaborators, yielded a pool of interested farmers.
When two of the more traditional farmers from their workshops agreed to grow tomatoes for the local grocery chain, Flaccavento knew the venture would work. As de facto leaders in the community, the two influenced others to grow tomatoes, and what had been an ambitious scheme became reality.
We had enough success with solid on-farm workshops reaching farmers that we were able to get our first tobacco farmers to come on, Flaccavento said. The early adopters were young and willing to take risks.
By 2002, 25 farmers affiliated with ASD were growing vegetables on up to 16 acres on their small, diversified farms. Their earnings provide a real success story for those working with growers of limited means who fall beneath the radar screen of many public programs. (Click here for a complete story about this project.)