A trip into Epes, Alabama takes you down some curvy, bumpy roads. But given their history and connections, visiting the training center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is a necessary part of looking into grass roots economies in the South. After a phone call where I asked for a few minutes time on their busy schedules to introduce myself and the F4DC project, I was finally able to get permission to come by briefly back in May. It seems that they were in the middle of filing some important reports and submitting proposals to make sure their work could continue. They were also preparing for a training program on the advantages of developing cooperatives and a summer youth sustainable agriculture program. Once I got there, however, the distance and impatience that I had felt on the telephone disappeared and I was warmly received and not rushed through the discussion. Face to face contact remains the most effective way of introducing people and ideas.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been around since 1967. It is a product of the Civil Rights movement and has most recently been involved in struggles for black land retention and against the patterns of racism and discrimination that has up until recently characterized the US Department of Agriculture’s relation to black farmers. The victory in 1999 in the Pigford suite reflects years of effort to redress the grievances of black farmers in the south who were systematically denied loans and other support that white American farmers could take for granted. Unfortunately, the multi-billion dollar settlement has not been fully funded and is tied up in Washington bureaucratic red tape and budgetary complications.
The two people I got to talk to were Pamela Madzima, Forestry Program Assistant and Osagie Idehen, Cooperative Specialist. They told me about the Federations current work with Tuskegee Institute and Alabama A&M University on forestry and goat husbandry as well as work with the Alabama Association of Cooperatives on coop development. They were both excited about F4DC’s planned efforts to look at ways to strengthen grassroots economies in the south. In particular, they felt that if we could together identify sources of conflict on the one hand and the unmet needs of the many economic groups on the other, we could be instrumental in helping southern grassroots economies move forward. We talked specifically of finding overlaps that created intensified competition for scarce resources, as well as gaps in the economic chain that prevented the full development of the synergies needed to push the new economic ventures forward over the declining economies that are causing so much suffering in our communities.
Before I left, I got to go on a brief tour of the Rural Training and Research Center facilities. In addition to the offices, I got to see the dormitory space, classroom space, meeting rooms and the dining facilities. We then went outside to see the garden area and the goats that are to be used in a combination forestry – goat husbandry research to figure out the optimum number of goats that can be raised in wooded timber areas.
I am looking forward to going to Birmingham for the Federation’s award banquet August 19 and then back to Epes for the federation’s annual meeting August 20 and 21.