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Turning Around Our Rural Economies

Turning Around Our Rural Economies
April 22, 2007 |

There is trouble on the farm. Although agriculture is Alabama’s No. 1 industry with more than $5.15 billion in farm and forestry receipts, we continue to lose harvested cropland. Along with that land, we are losing jobs and revenue our rural communities need to survive. Granted, agriculture still provides 467,000 jobs or 21 percent of the state?s workforce, but the positive impact of agriculture should be even greater.Because of the vastness and greatness of agriculture, it is difficult to recognize the hemorrhaging in the agriculture community. In 1950, we had 20.9 million acres of farmland in Alabama. Today, there are 8.6 million acres. This is a decline of 12.3 million acres or 58.8 percent of our farmland in the last 55 years. We must stop the bleeding.In 1950, we had 211,512 individual farms in Alabama. But in 2005, the number had declined to 43,500 farms. This is a decline of 3,055 farms annually or a loss of 255 farms per month in the last 55 years. Any other industry with this kind of decline would be put on a priority list by Alabama Development Office or Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs to determine how to turn the situation around. Yet we have ignored what is happening in the farming community.Farming Is Rural And
Rural Is FarmingYou cannot have strong rural areas without a strong, vibrant farming community. Any initiative that is to have a chance of reclaiming our strong rural economies must have AGRICULTURE LEADING THE WAY.Farming is the foundation of a strong, vibrant agriculture economy and a strong rural economy. Our rural communities once were abuzz with activity. Dollars generated from local agribusinesses were supported by a strong farming community.

We must find ways to reinvigorate those rural economies.
On April 2, 1999, an executive order by Gov. Don Siegelman created the Alabama Commerce Commission to develop a long-range strategic plan for economic development in Alabama. “As the Commerce Commission began its assignment, it became clear there were two Alabamas, one urban and the other rural. The first is enjoying relative success, although there are deeply distressed pockets within urban areas. The second, for the most part, is making little or no progress and continues to keep Alabama from being recognized as a successful competitor,” according to the Alabama Commerce Commission Report Executive Summary. Although the Commerce Commission recognized there was a problem in our rural communities, it did not recognize the root cause or develop strategic initiatives to stop the bleeding and turn our rural areas around.Finding solutions to this decline will benefit the whole state because we are talking about real dollars to the economy. Each acre of harvested farmland lost since 1950 represents real dollars that support local banks, schools and businesses. For instance, if the 3.7 million acres of harvested cropland lost since 1950 were planted in irrigated corn that averaged 200 bushels per acre at a price of $2.50 a bushel, it would pump an additional $1.87 billion into the state’s economy.If that same land were planted in irrigated cotton yielding 1,500 pounds per acre at 50 cents per pound, it would generate $2.8 billion for the state’s economy.These dollars are turned over several times in a local community and are invested in our hometowns. This money does not go into the Wal-Mart bank or to Korea, Germany or Japan.Studies of the cost of community services have a 20-year history of showing conclusively that farmland pays more tax revenue to local governments than it requires from government in services. This is the opposite of residential property, where studies show government pays out more in services than it collects in property taxes. Therefore, one could conclude that government needs to invest more in its agriculture land base to keep it viable and productive, instead of trying to move land into other uses that will drain the local tax base.One program that has helped reinvigorate our rural communities is the Boll Weevil Eradication Program that began in 1987. Cotton acreage has increased under this program from 335,000 acres to 575,000 acres, an increase of 71 percent. While this added to the state and local economy, the program was also good for the environment by reducing the use of insecticides to control the destructive pest.Alabama government leaders will have other opportunities to put an emphasis on agriculture as support increases for us to become more energy independent. Renewable fuels should be a boom for the rural communities if this transition is done correctly. Also, the Alabama Irrigation Initiative not only could benefit farming, but it would help conserve one of our state’s greatest resources, our water. Agriculture must have water as does all life. We need to invest in capturing the water that we get during the winter months instead of letting it run into the Gulf of Mexico.There is plenty of lip service given to rural economic development. We need a vision on how to accomplish this. That will require leaders who will commit to advancing policies that are good for agriculture while vigorously opposing policies that have a negative impact on our farms. Mike Kilgore is executive director of the Alabama Farmers Federation. This article first appeared in material presented at an Alabama Agricultural Symposium earlier this year in Prattville.

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