An important recent report by the Wallace Center examines some of the issues that local farmers face in the Deep South, particularly historically disadvantaged farmers and those with limited resources. While more opportunities are developing for farmers to meet the growing demand for local produce across the United States, disadvantaged farmers in the Deep South face major challenges, including access to and use of market information, adequate irrigation, and availability of labor. The study calls attention to the obstacles these farmers face, and proposes a range of strategies for addressing their needs.
Beginning, limited-resource, and historically disadvantaged farmers make up 40 percent of farmers in the United States. In the South, African-Americans are the largest group of historically disadvantaged farmers. Over the years, African-American farmers have faced obstacles such as racial prejudice, uncertain economic environments, and poor public policies. As a result, many have left farming in search of better opportunities. Interviews with a number of African-Americans who still own their farmland indicated that many would re-enter agriculture if opportunities improved, according to the report.
Fortunately, there are opportunities for these farmers to expand their markets and increase their profits. One key strategy is the use of hoop houses–unheated structures with a plastic covering to trap heat, similar to a greenhouse–which allow farmers to extend the growing season for certain crops into the fall or winter. The crops grown in hoop houses can either be planted directly in the ground or grown in pots and planted in the field later. Using a hoop house enables farmers to sell some of their crops earlier than the competition, or to grow produce that is normally out of season for their region. Hoop houses can also help protect crops from chemical drift of pesticides from nearby farms.
There are ongoing discussions about ways to find a wider pool of labor to draw from in Alabama and Mississippi, but farmers are urged to consider reaching out to new populations for the labor that their farms need. The report lists state programs and offices that farmers in these states might wish to connect with to provide stable, experienced farm crews.
In addition to these ideas, it is important for farmers to collaborate and organize, building partnerships to achieve common goals. Envisioning that these groups will be mostly composed of– but not limited to–farmers, the Wallace Center speaks of the need for partnerships: “…there are a growing number of organizations and individuals working to support the success of regional food systems, and farmers need to tap into these collaborations.” Another good strategy is to implement mechanisms for accountability and built-in technical assistance, to make sure that the farmers receive support in completing tasks that are necessary to achieve long-term success. Also, farmers should consider using intermediaries in the supply chain, for activities such as information collection and distribution, in order to be able to reach larger markets more easily.
There is opportunity for local agriculture in the Deep South to develop, and the Wallace report is essential reading because it provides farmers int the South and across the country with concrete ideas for go-to-market strategies and building a solid workforce.