Deep South Community Agriculture Network
“This value chain network helps people to look up, to look forward, to think very differently and see…They can create their own opportunities.”
—Barbara Shipman, farmer and Program Director, Cottage House
The Deep South has a strong agricultural history, but too many resources are concentrated in the hands of a few. Now a group of African American farmers in Mississippi and Alabama are banding together to access larger markets, engage young people and redefine farming as a path to prosperity.
People and place. Today, a quarter of African American owned farms in the country are in Mississippi and Alabama. Their owners have a wealth of know-how, but are disconnected from lucrative markets because their farms are small, in low-population areas, and without access to capital. They are “land rich and cash poor.” More than half of these farms earn less than $2,500 per year, and many aren’t in full production. But put to more productive use, they represent a real opportunity for the region.
Partners in place. Organizations rooted in the region recognize these assets are lying fallow. The Southern Rural Black Women In Agriculture Initiative, MileSton Cooperative, The Cottage House, The United Christian Community Association, and Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, have long worked to build a better farming system. Their common aim: improve the livelihoods of rural families in Alabama and Mississippi and sustain the region’s natural resources. In 2011, across two states and many communities, they began working together with local farmers to create what is now the Deep South Community Agricultural Network (DSCAN).
Support in place. Networks need care and feeding, especially in their youth. From 2012-2015, McIntosh SEED (Sustainable Environment and Economic Development) and Rural Support Partners stepped up to help strengthen the new collaboration, bringing local partners and farmers together to listen and think: What are our shared dreams? What is working and what is not? How can we produce for larger markets? Working together, how can we make that happen? McIntosh SEED continues to support and help grow DSCAN and works with other groups and communities in the rural south, while RSP supports networks and groups in Central Appalachia.
The Network farmers work land that stretches across the Black Belt—the midsection of Alabama and Mississippi named for its dark, fertile soil. They had been selling produce direct to consumers, mostly in local farmers markets or roadside stands. What they lacked was access to larger institutional buyers.
The growing local foods movement in the United States offers these farmers a huge opportunity. Consumers are demanding more organic and locally grown produce. Grocers—from down-home markets to national chains—are responding. Schools and hospitals want healthier food too—for students, patients and staff. And farm-to-table restaurants offer a new upscale outlet for fresh and specialty produce.
But it takes resources to meet this demand. The Network found many right there, in plain sight. Good land in abundance. Farmers with deep knowledge of the region‘s soil, climate and environment. Young people looking for a local future. The real value opportunity lies in farmers utilizing these resources in new ways, and increasing their control over the process. That is the job of DSCAN.
BBTCAC opened its main gallery in Camden, Alabama in a vacant car dealership in 2005, and later opened a satellite gallery in the Greenville Chamber of Commerce in Butler County, Alabama. BBTCAC also hosts a website with an online sales platform, along with information about the region and the artists. Initially serving 75 artists, BBTCAC’s roster has grown to over 450 artists in 2018, representing a variety of artistic traditions, and with artists from across the whole income spectrum, as well as artists of all ages and races.
BBTCAC plays an important role in helping artists establish fair market prices and increase their household financial security. BBTCAC uses a juried process to accept artists’ work in the gallery. This process is an important one to establish measures of quality and justify pricing. It has been important that the juried process be inclusive of diverse media and artistic styles, especially including local heritage crafts such as quilting, pottery, and basket-making.
BBTCAC Executive Director Sulynn Creswell says of the gallery: “We really want the diversity to show, because that represents the diversity of the people of the region. We have those who have been formally trained through college, and those who are folk learners and have taught themselves.”
BBTCAC staff and artists work to meet the region’s value opportunities together with other partners, including education providers such as schools and community centers; tourism businesses such as tour operators, hotels, food service businesses, and heritage tourism sites including the Camden Shoe Shop Museum, Gee’s Bend Ferry Terminal, Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective, and regional special events organizers; and regional and statewide arts organizations. Together they form a value chain, a network of businesses, organizations, and individuals who work in their own ways toward a common vision for community and economic development. The value chain receives key support from funders and financing partners and from institutions such as the Alabama State Department of Education, Alabama Tombigbee Regional Commission, Delta Regional Authority, Black Belt Incubator Network, and numerous centers and programs at the University of Alabama, Auburn University, and University of West Alabama.
Photo ©Kertis Creative
To begin, DSCAN went to communities across the region to identify potential buyers in restaurants, schools and grocery stores. They asked: What products do you want? How do you want them delivered? What standards or certifications must we meet? Armed with this knowledge, they identified three “hot spots”— places where real demand was emerging for products they could produce.
Hot spot #1. Farmers in two southeastern Alabama counties, working with The Cottage House, started by getting fresh produce into the schools. Predictable, larger orders close to home could quickly add to their bottom line. But they also knew that children who eat more fresh greens are better able to learn. The desire to improve the next generation’s lot resounds throughout the Network.
Hot spot #2. Women farmers in Mississippi, working with the Southern Rural Black Women In Agriculture Initiative, marketed sweet potatoes and sweet potato greens to local restaurants, while MileSton farmers supplied peas and squash to small groceries throughout the region.
Hot spot #3. In western Alabama, The United Christian Community Association (TUCCA) helped organize local farmers to sell collard greens into larger markets. They too started with schools, but a dozen restaurants across the region have become their best customers.
Women farmers in Mississippi, working with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, marketed sweet potatoes and sweet potato greens to local schools.
Photo ©Kertis Creative
Knowing where there is real demand—and which farmers in the region can help meet it—is a great start. But actually moving product to market is another story.
So the Network mapped the pieces of the value chain they had in place—every step it takes to get products to larger markets. They looked for gaps in the chain, especially ones they could address better together.
Gap 1: Get certified! To sell to larger buyers, farmers need USDA certification that they are following best practices. This takes time and costs money, both scarce for low-income farmers. DSCAN coached them through it. In just one year, 22 Alabama farmers working with The Cottage House became Global GAP certified, the highest certification level.
Gap 2: Produce more and better. Supplying higher-volume markets means using the land as productively as possible. Experts from Tuskegee University helped Network farmers adopt growing protocols and practices to meet buyers’ standards, increasing crop yields by at least 40%, along with their value.
Gap 3: Capture more value. Farmers earn more for produce that is cleaned and packaged. Mississippi’s MileSton Cooperative worked with local youth to turn an old gas station/convenience store into a facility to wash and bag peas and other produce. In Alabama, TUCCA secured space for an aggregation and production facility that now employs 13 people.
Gap 4: Find workers. Producing vegetables requires lots of people and partners struggled to find workers to meet growing demand. The solution? Engage young people. Farmers got labor at a fair price and 47 local youth in 2015 alone gained new opportunities in agriculture. Another value chain is tapping the prison reentry program to find willing workers.
Farmers got needed labor; local youth gained new opportunities in agriculture.
Photo ©Kertis Creative
So far, DSCAN has organized 35 small minority farmers and created entry points to wholesale markets. From 2012 to 2014, they generated over $266,000 in sales of collard greens, turnips, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and pinkeye peas to high-end restaurants, schools, groceries, and wholesale buyers—a 200% increase in sales across two seasons.
These early results have led them to engage a market developer who is seeking larger deals and coordinating the value chains to meet demand together. As a result, farmers are collaborating for the first time to grow and deliver produce for regional and national grocery store chains and wholesale distributors.
For far too long, communities across the Deep South have lacked ways to control their futures. Now, farmers who have been living on the edge see they have plenty to offer the larger economy. The region’s young people see opportunities in farming with new eyes. Organizations see the power of working together. DSCAN is building confidence that change can come. And, they are expanding to new places, including Georgia, so that this change can spread throughout the region.
At the close of 2013, Network farmers had generated over $250,000 in sales of collard greens, turnips, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and pinkeye peas to high-end restaurants, schools, and groceries.
Photo ©Kertis Creative
At the close of 2013, Network farmers had generated over $250,000 in sales of collard greens, turnips, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and pinkeye peas to high-end restaurants, schools, and groceries. (Photo ©Kertis Creative)
The Deep South Community Agricultural Network is redefining farming as a wealth-building strategy for communities in Mississippi and Alabama. But the Network members know they must track many bottom lines if they are going to make the turn from poverty to prosperity. Here’s what they track:
Specialties: Local Food, Placemaking, Renewable Energy
States served: Minnesota
Additional details: Enhancing the vitality and quality of life in Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties is the mission of Region Five Development Commission. Resiliency, inclusion and collaboration are guiding concepts in achieving mutually shared goals that continue to evolve with local municipalities, state, federal, philanthropic, non-profit and social advocacy agencies.
Contact: Cheryal Lee Hills, 218-894-3233
200 1st Street NE, Suite 2
Staples, MN 56479
Alternative contact: Dawn Espe, 218-894-3233
Specialties: Food, Forestry/wood products, Tourism
States served: Idaho, Oregon, Washington
Additional details: RDI was formed in 1991 in response to the timber industry crisis facing the Pacific Northwest. Our nationally recognized programs and services help communities help themselves with effective and results-oriented training and resources necessary for individuals living in rural communities to build and sustain a better future in their communities. Our work is based upon our genuine commitment to build rural capacity through Leadership Development programs and strengthen Rural Economic Vitality through moving capacity into action.
Contact: Amy Hause, (541) 255-9590
Rural Development Initiatives
91017 S Willamette St
Coburg, Oregon 97408
Alternative contact: Heidi Khokhar, (541) 684-9077 ext. 7011
Specialties: Food, Forestry/wood products, Housing, Tourism
States served: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming
Region details: RCAC serves 13 western states including: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. We also work in the U.S. territories of the Marianas Islands, Marshall Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Additional details: RCAC Value Chains, economic development and Wealth Works are embedded in RCAC’s Building Rural Economies program. With over 10 years of experience in these arenas we technically assist communities who wish to envision and create their future.
Carol Cohen, 435-671-7068
3120 Freeboard Drive
West Sacramento, CA 95691
Alternative contact: Ellen Drew, (575) 421-0261
Specialties: Energy efficiency
States served: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming
Additional details: Midwest Assistance Program (MAP) has been helping communities and tribal nations find solutions to their infrastructure and development needs through information, resource management, expertise, and technical assistance since 1979.
Contact: Chris Fierrros, 660-562-2575
303 N Market Street, Suite 2
Maryville, MO 64468
Specialties: Bio-energy, Food
States served: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas
Region details: Communities Unlimited serves seven southern states: Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee. Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alabama. This is an area that includes 60% of this country’s persistently poor counties, including large percentages of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
Additional details: Communities Unlimited has 40 years of community economic development experience in the South. It seeks to move rural and under-resourced places toward prosperity by identifying a community’s assets and the market demand for the products or services created from those. We then build value chain collaboratives based on WealthWorks principles to create new economic opportunities. Since 2013, we are demonstrating the success of this approach through a farm-to-fuel value chain in the Arkansas Delta.
Martha Claire Bullen, 479-443-2700
3 East Colt Square Drive
Fayetteville, AR 72703
Alternative contact: Debbie Luther, 870-509-1331
Specialties: Arts, Food, Forestry/wood products, Tourism
States served: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont
Additional details: Community Roots, LLC is a Vermont firm specializing in rural community and economic development consulting. Melissa Levy of Community Roots, LLC has been working with the WealthWorks framework over the past several years. She’s been a trainer, coach, workshop facilitator, and presenter in the WealthWorks community.
Contact: Melissa Levy, 802-318-1720
Location: Hinesburg, VT
Specialties: Arts, Energy efficiency, Food, Forestry/wood products, Manufacturing, Tourism
States served: Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia
Additional details: The Central Appalachian Network is a regional network of six anchor organizations that pursue collective sustainable economic development strategies across the Appalachian region of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. CAN builds regional partnerships and also works deeply at the sub-regional level around sectors and opportunities including local food value chains, forestry, new energy, small business development, social enterprise, recycling/upcycling, implementation-focused research, advocacy, and organizational capacity-building. CAN’s members are Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), Coalfield Development Corporation, Community Farm Alliance (CFA), Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF), and Rural Action.
Contact: Leslie Schaller, 740-592-3854
1456 C Patton Avenue
Asheville, NC 28806