After six years of working, waiting and planning, there was a ground breaking on Sunday afternoon, December 4, 2011 for the Black Belt Family Farm Fruit and Vegetable Marketing and Innovation Center on Highway 80, seven miles west of Selma.
The Marketing and Innovation Center was conceived and developed as a project of the Agriculture Committee of the Black Belt Action Commission, a group initiated by former Governor Riley and strongly supported by voluntary efforts of area farmers, farm organizations and the 1890 Land Grant Colleges in the state.The Center will be owned by the Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance, (AALGA) a joint venture of the three Land Grant Universities in the state: Auburn, Alabama A &M and Tuskegee. Tuskegee has taken the leadership on behalf of AALGA and will coordinate research, education and extension activities and services at the Center.
The actual produce marketing activities in the Center will be operated by a farmers cooperative of the family farmers in the Black Belt and surrounding counties. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which has been involved since the beginning of the project, will work to organize the farmers and train them in the principles, practices and operations of the cooperative.
The Center’s vision is to provide new opportunities, markets and incomes for family sized farmers and help to further the economic development of this depressed area building from the grassroots and the agricultural base in place.
Dr. Walter Hill, Dean of Agriculture of Tuskegee, who has been leading the AALGA effort to develop and build the project said at the ceremony before the ‘soil turning’ that, “ this project has had many partners and supporters, each of whom has helped us to get to this point, including the universities, AALGA, the family farmers, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, state government and the State Legislature, USDA and its many agencies, the Dallas County Commission, City of Selma and many others.
In addition, retail chains like Walmart, Sodexo and Whole Foods have been conducting a pilot project to purchase and market watermelons, peas and other produce from farmers to demonstrate the potentials of the Center.”
250 farmers, community leaders and friends of the project attended Sunday’s ground breaking or soil shaking – depending on your preference.
At the ceremony, each of the partners was given a chance to speak on the vision and impact of the project. The ceremony was also held in conjunction with the 69th annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference at Tuskegee.
Dr. Gilbert Rochon, the President of Tuskegee, who has been there for a year expressed support for the coalition that made the project possible and pledged the continuing commitment of Tuskegee to the initiative.
Senator Hank Sanders who helped to appropriate over $2 million for construction of the project from the Alabama Legislature said, “This is a great day for the Black Belt, the Black Belt Commission, the farmers, the partnership and community leadership.”Congresswomen Terri Sewell of the 7th District, whose home is in Selma, said, “This Center will enable you to market locally grown produce in stores across Alabama and the nation. We are fighting for a fair Farm Bill in Congress but we need your input and support. This project shows that the people in the Black Belt want a hand-up not a hand-out from the government.
“I will go back to the Agriculture Committee in Congress and use this project as an example of what can be done by people.”
The agriculture deans of the other AALGA member colleges pointed out that by 2050 there will be 9 billion people in the world in need of more food production.” We are only 38 crop seasons from 2050. This facility will help us get ready and involve new farmers in vegetable production’, said Bill Batchelor, Dean at Auburn.
Representatives of USDA agencies: Farmer Services Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Rural Development, Agricultural Marketing Service, Office of Advocacy and Outreach gave greetings and pledges of support. The Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture, Office for Rural Development and Alabama State Market Authority were also present and spoke.
Walmart, Sodexo, and Whole Foods representatives also indicated their continuing support for family farmers in the Black Belt and their willingness to work with the facility.
John Brown, President of the Selma-Dallas Farmers Cooperative who donated land for the project expressed gratitude toward the partners and hopes for the future of the project.
John Zippert with the Federation reminded the audience that the site of the Center was once the headquarters of the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative that marketed cucumbers, peas and okra in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The co-op also produced alcohol fuel from corn and other feedstuff. Zippert recalled the names of some of SWAFCA’s leaders: Albert Turner, Ezra Cunningham, Thelma Craig, Lewis and Mildred Black, who have passed on and said they were smiling down on the ceremony.
The architecture firm of Harris and Smith of Atlanta, an African-American firm, that did the design and plans for the building was also recognized.
Plans are to construct the facility during the coming year and have it fully available for use by the beginning of 2013.
The farmers will continue to organize, develop the cooperative and participate in pilot marketing activities in 2012 with a view to be fully operational in the facility by 2013.
Weather for Eutaw, Ala. Saturday Sunday MondayChance of a Thunderstorm90/70Partly Cloudy88/70Partly Cloudy91/66
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