URBAN AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT:Solutions to Southern Rural Problems Sought
By Janet Terry
Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 27-28
Is the South truly in the midst of an overdue, unparalleled economic boom, or is the image a mirage, fashioned by media hype, overeager expectations, and scattered development?
Participants on the rural development panel at SRC’s Annual Meeting did not debate the question long. In the words of Charles Prejean, executive director of the Atlanta-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), “Despite the unsubtantiated claims of explosive Southern growth which emanate from Northern observers, the South, and especially the rural South, remains deeply impoverished.”
The poverty rate of Southern states, according to a report compiled by the Federation, is 22 percent double the 1! percent rate of the rest of the nation. Ten million of the total 27 million poor people in the country live in the 11 states of the South. If that’s not sobering enough to deflate the notion of a land of milk and honey, Prejean also revealed that half the Black families in the rural South are poor, as compared to 17 percent of the White families. In fact, he says, 17 percent of all Southern Black families live on less than hQlf the income that is defined as the poverty line.
To explain the reasons for it, Prejean pointed to imbalanced growth within the national economy and capital intensive methods of modern agriculture. That translates into measurably increased personal income for some over the last few years, but only for those who live in sections of the industrialized North and in a few skyscrapered Southern cities (with growing pockets of inner city poverty). It also means that Southern agricultural workers, including thousands of Black small farm owners, have been forced off the land, their way of life disrupted by new technology, and left without adequate industrial employment opportunities and training to take up the slack.
The search for solutions to the Southern rural realities of the 1970s has led a growing number of individuals and organizations to believe that the answers lie more in cooperative efforts, than in strictly competitive methods.
Since 1967, for instance, FSC has maintained a multi-state association of community-based, communitycontrolled co-op programs which provide a number of services and training opportunities to 30,000 member families: health care, legal services, literacy training, energy conservation, and housing rehabilitation. Agricultural training is provided on the Federation’s 1,325 acre farming demonstration center in Sumter County, Alabama. And 100 VISTA volunteers work in research, education, and co-op credit unions.
A second project grounded in
cooperative economics was outlined during the session by Lindsay Jones, a staff member of the Agricultural Marketing Project (AMP). AMP is an organization which operates by the old adage, “find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands and the mouth.”
Organizers of AMP believe that the current shift to corporate agribusiness, away from familysized farms, has created “a managerialbureaucratic-financial overhead that is crushing farmers and consumers alike, along with rural communities all over America.”
AMP’s approach to a workable solution is Food Fair, a project conceived on a “human scale.” A Food Fair is a neighborhood farme(s market, often located in a church parking lot, at which homegrowers sell their vegetables, fruits, cheeses and honey on regularly scheduled sales days. Since 1975, AMP has established Food Fairs in 26 cities in Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina.
In addition to an estimated $500,000 in sales during this initial period, the Food Fairs have resulted in lower prices and fresher products for urban consumers, Jones says, and has increased income for participating farmers “by 10 percent the first year of participation, and 16 percent the second year.”
But more importantly in the long run, according to Jones, Food Fairs, co-ops, and other cooperative economic ventures will become increasingly strategic as small farmers and agricultural workers struggle to survive in a rural South where land and production are becoming more monopolistic.
Both Jones and Prejean agree, that while large agribusinesses survive and sometimes thrive, economic reality for the majority of rural Southerners is a far cry from the prosperity often attributed to the South today.
A freelance writer, Janet Terry lives in Atlanta.