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Helping Farmers Survive
Pitt County Extension Director

sk longtime county agricultural agents about the mood of North Carolina farmers, and chances are they'll say it's about as low as they've seen.

The 1999 growing season began with huge quota cuts for tobacco and saw extremely low prices for such important North Carolina commodities as cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and pigs. If that weren't enough, many of the state's farmers endured an extreme drought, broken only by the devastating floods brought on by hurricanes Dennis and Floyd.

"Farmers are as down now as I've ever known them to be, and I've been in Extension for 30 years," said Billy Griffin, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension's Bertie County Center. "We've got a lot of farmers in trouble and it's not just small farmers, it's larger farmers, too."

Recognizing that these are times like none before, Griffin and other faculty members within North Carolina State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are prepared to be the first responders to those who find themselves in distress as harvest season comes to a close.

Through the summer, a team of College specialists and Extension agents prepared to offer four days of training aimed at giving agricultural and family and consumer education agents the skills they need to help farmers and their families cope with the stress.

During the intensive training, agents gained a better understanding of long-term trends affecting farm families, the short-term commodity outlook and the implications for farm families and business strategies, said Dr. Geoff Benson, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the department of agricultural and resource economics. Participants learned to assess the seriousness of individual family situations and to help families set realistic goals, evaluate alternatives and develop plans.

Extension as first responders

"The county Extension center is a focal point in the agricultural community, and this training will help position our folks as first responders," Benson said. "Each situation that the agents encounter will be unique: Some families can make it through with some fine tuning of the farm operation and family finances; others cannot survive in farming; a third group must make major adjustments to their farming operations if they are to stay in farming.

"By being able to help assess the situation and knowing what resources are available and where to direct people for assistance, our agents can provide a great service."

Extension also plans to strengthen its ability to respond by hiring knowledgeable people who can work one-on-one with families. "We don't currently have the personnel to meet the expected demand, so we plan to recruit and train people with both well-developed farming and business skills to help," Benson said.

These advisers were expected to be on board in October or November to counsel families over the winter.

The agent training and one-on-one advising represent new and highly focused efforts to address the critical stage that farm stress has reached. But Extension's efforts to help farmers cope with the situation stretch back to the early part of this decade, when university economists and Cooperative Extension administrators began predicting, and preparing for, tough times ahead.

The quiet revolution

wo years ago, Dr. Jon F. Ort referred to the situation as a "quiet revolution."

"Farm regulations are changing, markets are becoming increasingly global in nature, expectations for environmental and natural-resource conservation are higher, and consumer preferences are evolving," said Ort, director of the Cooperative Extension Service and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"All of these factors are forcing farmers and agribusinesses to make radical changes," he said. "Such changes call for equally revolutionary responses from the national Cooperative Extension system."

That response has taken shape in the form of a national Cooperative Extension initiative that is retooling the way land-grant universities teach farmers to approach management and business decisions.

Known as managing change or managing through change, the idea is that to be successful, today's farmers must be able to integrate technical production information with management principles, said Dr. Billy Caldwell. As he puts it, farmers must not only "do the right things" but "do things right."

"Cooperative Extension has always been committed to providing education and information needed for farmers to make those decisions crucial to their survival," said Caldwell, the Extension Service's associate director and a member of the team that developed the national managing change initiative.

"Teaching good production practices is essential, but it's not enough. Today, farmers need to develop a broad set of management capabilities to be able to approach the future strategically if they are to avoid failure."

Molding master farm managers

Throughout the 1990s, Cooperative Extension has offered educational programs aimed at helping farmers build their management skills. During the past nine Januarys, for instance, Dr. Arnie Oltmans, a faculty member in agricultural and resource economics, has conducted N.C. State's Master Farm Management Seminar.

The seminar was created in response to the severe financial crises encountered by many in the farming community during the 1980s, when the need for sound financial management became essential.

During the seminar, farmers learn how to marshal their resources both financial and personal to make decisions that strengthen their operations. Specialists lead sessions related to goal setting, strategic planning, creative problem solving, labor management, decision making, land ownership, income tax issues and other management topics.

The intensive training is designed to meet the diverse needs of participants who come from a variety of backgrounds some college educated, some not; some with traditional tobacco and livestock farms, some with nurseries or pick-your-own strawberry fields; some with small, mountainous acreage, some with vast expanses of row crops in the east.

Despite the differences, participants leave with something in common: They all have seriously considered their business goals and have begun taking steps to meet them. As one participant said, having taken part in the program "gives me an edge in making my farming enterprise more profitable and reducing family stress."

While Oltmans' program reaches a broad spectrum of North Carolina farmers, other specialists offer educational programs targeted to particular commodities. Benson, for example, brought Dairy Wise to North Carolina. Through the program, many of the state's dairy farmers have learned to prioritize management decisions and adopt feeding and health methods that increase milk production and profits. Because of its success, Dairy Wise's integrated approach has been expanded to other agricultural areas, including ornamental and field crop production.

Local problems, local solutions

t the county level, agricultural agents across North Carolina are also providing educational opportunities that encourage farmers to adopt sound production practices and solid management and marketing principles. All tailor their programs to fit the specific needs of their local growers.

In Bertie County, for instance, Billy Griffin has worked extensively this year with about 30 farmers, some of whom began the season not knowing if they were in a solid enough financial position even to plant crops this year. Griffin advised some to shift from cotton to soybeans, which are cheaper to produce and, thus, pose less of a financial risk.

Meanwhile, Pitt County Extension Director Mitch Smith launched an information campaign to help tobacco growers minimize costs and maximize earnings. Surveys have shown that growers have been receptive to some of Smith's advice and, as a result, have saved money. That's particularly important, since Pitt is the nation's leading flue-cured tobacco-producing county. This year's quota cut of 17.5 percent was expected to result in an estimated loss of $9 million to growers and $18 million to the local economy.

"Out there, there is the greatest level of discouragement I have ever seen in my 16 years in Extension," Smith said. "Our growers need sound advice to help them hold on during these tough times."

Smith's colleague in another leading tobacco-producing county, Columbus, has focused on helping his farmers find alternative crops and markets. Milton Parker, an area specialized agent for commercial horticulture, was instrumental in helping a group of growers organize a farmers market where they could sell fresh produce and other farm products.

"The quota cuts of 35 percent over the past two years have hurt our farmers, so we are looking at ways of helping farmers transition to new enterprises," Parker said. "Half of the 15-member committee that has organized the farmers market are tobacco growers who recognize the need to diversify and to find new markets."

Although he no longer produces tobacco, Irvin Brown is among those affected by the quota cuts because he owns a tobacco allotment he rents to other farmers. He and his wife, Shirley, saw the farmers market as a way to replace some of their lost income and perhaps to return one day to farming full time.

"We have always grown a big garden at home, but this is the first time we've grown vegetables for market," Shirley Brown said. "We are experimenting, but we are looking to do this for a living."

With commodity prices expected to be down again next year, Cooperative Extension's role in encouraging such careful consideration of the future will be critical not just in 1999 in helping farmers overcome the challenges of the growing season but also well into the future.