PITTSBORO, N.C. — In the 1930s, small farmers faced tough times, with the mechanization of big agriculture making it hard to earn a living on small farms.
In the 1980s, a credit crisis and price squeeze – not unlike those now slamming homeowners and banks – again made survival difficult for small farmers.
And today, with the rise of the global economy and an increasingly complex distribution chain, small farmers still are struggling.
Addressing the challenges facing rural agriculture is the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, or RAFI, a Pittsboro-based nonprofit that traces its heritage to the National Sharecroppers Fund that was formed in the Depression.
The focus of RAFI is a “triple bottom line” for agriculture, “seeing that agriculture is fair, environmentally sound and economically viable,” says Betty Bailey, who will retire in February after working for RAFI’s predecessor organization since 1981 and, since 1991, serving as executive director.
With an annual budget of $1.3 million and a staff of 13 people, RAFI conducts research, provides education and training, and works as an advocate for farmers.
And the number of farmers has been shrinking.
The number of farms in the United States has declined to below two million from 3.5 million in the 1990s.
And in North Carolina alone, the number of tobacco farms has plunged to 2,000 from 12,000 in 2001.
As times have changed, along with the challenges facing small farmers, RAFI has broadened its focus to include “marketplace policies and trends,” Bailey says.
A big focus of RAFI has been spurring new enterprises that can help farmers take advantage of new opportunities in food and agriculture, particularly with the decline of traditional commodities like tobacco.
The Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund that RAFI launched 10 years ago, for example, has invested $921,000 million from the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and the Golden Leaf Foundation in 87 new agricultural enterprises, leveraging another $2.5 million from other investors and preserving or generating 747 jobs and $3.7 million in new annual farm income.
And with growing interest in food that is grown to better protect land and health, for example, RAFI has been involved since the early ‘90s in efforts that led to creation of an organic-food label and establishment of national organic standards overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Michael Sligh, director of RAFI Just Foods initiative, served as the first chair of a board created to set those standards.
“The interest by consumers in organic food has grown dramatically,” Bailey says. “We worked to try to make sure standards were fair and verifiable.”
Now, RAFI is working to help develop a domestic fair-trade label, known as “Agricultural Justice,” that would help small farmers distinguish their products on store shelves.
The label has been tested in the Midwest since the summer of 2007 and will be introduced in the South within several years, Bailey says.
And with the number of farms declining and demand rising for locally-grown food, RAFI is working to help small and mid-sized farmers retool their production and marketing.
Many farmers in North Carolina, for example, have focused on big farm commodities like peanuts and tobacco, raw products that farmers take to warehouses or processing stations, or poultry, which they sell under contract to big processors.
“In neither case do you have a relationship with the final consumer,” Bailey says.
So a big challenge, she says, is to “shorten that distance between producers of food or fiber and the people who are going to directly consume it, and helping farmers make the transition to different marketing or more profitable forms of production.”
In working to help farmers cope with big transitions in agriculture and the economy, Bailey says, RAFI continues to “advocate for policies that will help farmers in rural