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  • Growing Good: Agriculture Industry Overview

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    In the River Region, these operations are equally important. According to Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, in Autauga, Elmore and Montgomery counties, the economic impact of agriculture is more than $3.8 billion, proving that whether it’s by raising animals like cattle and poultry, planting and harvesting crops ranging from pine trees and soybeans to cotton and peanuts, or selling the myriad supplies and equipment needed to manage today’s modern ag operations, farming factors into the lives of many area residents.
    Doug Thiessen, CEO of Alabama Ag Credit, knows this well. He’s been with the bank for 12 years and has watched it provide the lending power farmers and others in agribusiness require to thrive, whether it’s loans to buy land or funds to meet shorter-term needs like operating expenses. “Just drive in any direction out of Montgomery, and you will see row crops, cattle grazing in pastures, hay fields, sod farms and nurseries,” he said. “And where you have enterprises like these, you tend to have the next level of processing entities like cotton gins, farm and large equipment dealers, livestock auction facilities, logging and trucking companies, and paper and lumber mills. Plus, you have organizations like Alabama Ag Credit who help finance them. All these entities take people to run and manage them, and that means jobs.”
    Tradition of Excellence
    The industry’s numbers are impressive, yet the significance of agriculture and agribusiness rises
    far above facts and figures; there’s something truly special about our rural areas, as Jimmy Parnell, President and CEO of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance, expressed. “They’re such beautiful places, and farming is our history and our heritage,” he said. “Plus, it’s something we still do extremely well.”
    The Farmers Federation is a key part of this heritage, founded by concerned farmers in 1921. They formed the organization to give themselves a unified voice, and today, representing the interests of those in agriculture and agribusiness is still a vital piece of Alfa’s and the Farmers Federation’s missions.
    “Agriculture is the parent of this entire company,” Parnell said. “We would not be here, would not have this insurance company without agriculture, and the way the Federation is set up, the member farmers are actually our bosses. Everything the Farmers Federation does is driven by the farmers at the local level; that keeps us grounded in our roots.”
    Those roots run deep beneath the pastoral landscapes, where corn stalks wave in the wind and cows graze under shade trees. But these bucolic scenes paint more than a pretty picture: They’re evidence of how closely agriculture is tied to our daily lives, a message our Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Rick Pate preaches like the gospel. “Without agriculture we would not survive. We
    all typically eat three meals a day, and that food comes from a farm one way or another,” he said.
    “So, if indeed we all need to eat to survive, I’d say agriculture is vital to our state and the River Region.”
    Thiessen echoed Pate. “The benefits of agriculture to the River Region start with the basic needs of life. The industry provides the very food, fiber and shelter every human being needs to survive,” he said. 
    People Power
    Agriculture does not start and stop at the farm gate, and the countless “off-the-farm” aspects of agribusiness are built on the state’s robust agriculture activities, as Pate stressed. “There is a tremendous amount of research and planning that happens way before a crop is planted or livestock breeding takes place,” he said. “Once a crop is harvested or livestock leaves the farm, there are many hands that contribute to finishing the product that ends up on your dinner table.”
    And the many people working in agriculture and the agribusiness industry are our friends and neighbors and are often found out of their fields and offices and engaged in the surrounding community. “I can’t speak for the entire industry, but Alabama Ag Credit and our team members are involved
    in all of our local communities in many ways,” Thiessen said. “Our employees are members of or support local organizations like FFA, 4-H, Alabama Wildlife, Alabama Farmers Federation and multiple trade associations. One example here in the River Region area is our sponsorship of Pintlala Elementary, where we donate supplies, equipment and volunteer our time as needed. Additionally, each year our association chooses an organization to be the recipient of our annual giving campaign.”
    With a long tradition and centuries of progress, the agribusiness industry is old and strong in the River Region, but it is not without challenges. Farmers particularly face multiple obstacles. Weather has been and will always be a threat, and one that’s uncontrollable. The hurricanes that devastated parts of the Gulf Coast last year wiped out entire crops and countless acres of timber. “Many cotton producers in Alabama believed their 2018 crop was going to be one of the best in years until Hurricane Michael hit,” Thiessen said. But farmers have learned to take these struggles in stride.
    Other “manmade” issues are begging for solutions. Parnell pointed to a few of the most pressing.  “We are not where I would like us to be in terms of young people getting into agriculture,” he said. “The average age of our Alabama farmers is retirement age.” It’s essential for our area, our state and our country that we increase the number of farmers coming up to fill that gap. “The industry has to grow in order to meet demand and allow the United States to remain a country that can feed and clothe itself,” Thiessen added.
    Parnell believes a falling profit potential is part of the problem. As commodity prices decline but the costs to run a farm go up, the opportunities to make a decent living as a farmer – or in other agribusiness ventures – are fewer and more elusive. “Prices have dropped, but I think as we see profit potential return, we will see more farmers,” Parnell said. “There are young people out there interested, and more profit potential will bring the next generation into the industry.”
    But how does that get done? According to Parnell, international trade deals play a major role. “Trump renegotiating trade treaties with other countries is a vital for agriculture and agribusiness,” he said. “What we’ve done with Mexico and Canada is a big step in the right direction.” China and other Asian countries take a lot of America’s agriculture production, and Parnell says a good trade agreement with them is “crucial.” “China is a huge market for our crops and meat,” he said. “It is such a large population, and that demand is growing.”
    The right trade deals put agriculture – in the River Region and around the country – in a better position for the future. But while these larger policies are debated and decided, here at home, those in agribusiness industry keep moving through each season, their efforts often unnoticed by others. It’s a paradox Thiessen ponders often. “There are people who believe that food simply comes from a grocery store or restaurant with very little understanding of how the food got there or what all it takes to grow it,” he said. “And yet, the industry continues to provide for our needs.”
    In Pike Road, agriculture has long been an important sector. “Historically, the livelihoods of many in our area depend on agriculture, and we see many opportunities for economic development in agriculture and agribusiness,” said Pike Road Mayor Gordon Stone. “So, as we look forward to our future job creation, we think an ag-based recruiting effort is very appropriate for our area, and that means we also want to put an emphasis on agriculture and agribusiness in our education.”
    To ensure the Pike Road School system students understand the opportunities available in the industry, the schools are working closely with FFA (Future Farmers of America), 4-H and the Alabama Extension Service. “The industry is changing every day, and we want our kids to have all the information they need about what’s available in the natural resources and agribusiness sectors,” Stone said.
    Pike Road is also soon to break ground on its new agriculture, recreation and performing arts center, a facility that will be a base for the Extension Service, will host livestock events and will be used for agriculture technology and science-based learning. “There will be chances to learn things like how drones can be used in the industry, how other forms of tech are used to manage land and to explore
    the scientific advancements behind hybrid seeds and more,” Stone said.
    Tuskegee University is also arming its students for today’s and tomorrow’s agribusiness careers.
    “The field of agriculture is changing,” said Dr. Raymon Shange, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science in Tuskegee University’s Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. “It’s not the same old sweaty, outdoor work.”
    Mirroring every other sector of our economy, the culture of agriculture is becoming increasingly digital. “A lot of our students are interested in the satellite and sensor technology aspects of our agriculture program now,” he said. And they’ll need that training. “The USDA and other agencies are pushing students to have a background in geographical information systems and other tech-driven systems.”
    Farmers markets and farm stands have been around for years, but recently, their numbers have surged in response to new interest. According to The Alabama Farmers Market Authority, in 1999, there were 17 farmers markets in the state. In 2018, there were more than 170, with almost 1,000 farmers selling in those markets. “As consumers have an increasing desire to know where their food comes from, farmers markets or locally sourced produce have seen an increase in demand,” Thiessen said. “We have borrowers who have started a farm after retiring with this very much in mind.” Agritourism [farm tours, expanded farm stands with farm animal petting zoos, etc.] is growing too, giving farmers an additional revenue stream.
    And people who care about where the food they cook in their kitchens comes from carry that same philosophy to the restaurants they choose to patronize, leading to an explosion of eateries with an emphasis on “farm-to-table” cuisine. In Montgomery, Cahawba House is one such spot. Opened in 2016 downtown by brother-sister team Tim and Tara Essary, the restaurant uses fresh ingredients sourced from local farms (Naturally Rad, Handey’s Farm, Hornsby Farms, Urban Hives and more) in old Southern recipes. Tim explained their commitment to supporting area farms. “Our family always maintained a large garden where we grew up picking peas with our dad or shucking corn with our grandparents,” he
    said. “I think it was during those summers sitting around with buckets of produce in our laps that the seeds of sustainability were sown. Not only did we learn the importance of where our food came from, but also the amount of labor and love that goes into every dining experience.”
    While Tim and Tara know that fresh food tastes better, they get more than superior flavor. “We’ve gained so much knowledge about seasonal produce and when certain vegetables hit their peak of availability by building a relationship with farmers,” he said.
    Keep your food dollars in your local economy and get access to fresher, better-tasting food by shopping at local farmers markets.
    • EastChase Farmer’s Market, Montgomery
    • Montgomery Curb Market, Montgomery
    • State Farmer’s Market, Montgomery
    • SweetCreek Farm Market, Montgomery
    • Wright’s Produce, Montgomery
    • Kendrick Farms, Prattville
    • Ingram’s Farmers Market & Garden Center, Millbrook
    • Oakview Farms, Wetumpka
    • Prattville Farmers’ Market, Prattville
    • Slapout Produce, Holtville
    Rick Pate was elected Alabama’s  Commissioner of Agriculture and  Industries in 2018. MBJ asked him why he sought the position and how he and his team are working to better agriculture and agribusiness.
    MBJ: What motivated you to seek the position of Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries?
    RP: Both of my parents taught me the value of leadership. My father, being a cattleman, served as the president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and the Southeastern Livestock Exposition. He also served on the American-International Charolais Board. My mom served as president of the Alabama Cattlewomen’s Association, at the time called the CowBelles, and went on to serve as permanent treasurer of the organization.
    I learned from them that you should give back to the profession you’re involved in. I have served in many leadership positions throughout my career, and once several farmers approached me about running for Ag Commissioner, I felt it was the right time. I saw this as an opportunity to use the experience I’ve gained over the years as a farmer, agribusiness owner and community leader to contribute to the agricultural industry in the state.
    Do you have a farming/agriculture background?
    I grew up working on my family’s cattle and poultry operations in Lowndes County, where I learned the value of hard work and perseverance. In college, I studied ornamental horticulture and received a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University’s College of Agriculture in 1978. I started my own business, Pate Landscape Co., Inc., more than 36 years ago. Even though I spent most of my career operating Pate Landscape, I maintained a purebred Charolais cattle herd in Lowndes County. When my dad passed away in 2012, I took over the family cattle operation, Pate Charolais Ranch, and still operate it today.
    What is the purpose of the Department of Agriculture and Industries?
    Our agency could easily be named the “Department of Consumer and Agriculture Protection.” The services we provide touch every citizen in some way each day. It can be the eggs, milk, cereal or grits a consumer has for breakfast that has been tested by our Food Safety Lab or the gas pumped in their car on the way to work that was verified for accuracy by the Weights and Measures division. There are so many practical ways this department protects the quality of life for Alabama citizens without them even knowing it.
    We also have a responsibility to work with farmers and all agriculture stakeholder groups for the common good of agriculture, while continuously implementing disease prevention programs in our plant and animal industries. Each farm, commodity and industry is significant to our state. Our department is here to serve and support the livelihoods of farmers and consumers.
    What’s the future of farming and agribusiness in the state and the River Region?
    With ongoing research, I expect there to be solutions to many issues farmers face. These solutions have the potential to improve soil quality and yields; increase disease resistance for plants and livestock; and improve the overall health of crops and livestock.
    The quality of the soil, water and air is critical in feeding the world now and in the future, therefore, all citizens share a common goal of making sure the land remains productive for years to come. Farmers have a vested interest in preserving the productivity of the land because it is their primary resource for creating their product, whatever it may be. It is important as we move forward that farmers and consumers work together for effective solutions that benefit all, so we can feed an ever-growing population.
    What is your advice when it comes to buying and/or selling rural land?
    I am a partner with National Land Realty, a full-service real estate brokerage company specializing in farm, ranch, plantation, timber and recreational land across the country. One of our bigger land investing markets in the River Region is timber land investors who also want to capitalize on the recreational use of their property. Land investing is not a “get rich overnight” scheme, but it definitely represents a good solid way to diversify an investment portfolio. Making profitable land investments starts with the right property at the right price, a strategic plan and a good networking source to help achieve the client’s goals. I personally think one of the biggest returns on investing in land is enjoying the great outdoors. Corporations can print more stock certificates but they ain’t making any more land!
    Why, in your opinion, are farming and related agribusiness important to our area and our state? 
    Agribusiness is the No. 1 industry in Alabama by gross receipts and is a huge part of the local and state economy.  As farmers and ranchers, we only make up around 1 percent of the population, but we punch above our weight class in gross revenue. Our world population is growing rapidly, and in order to keep up with the growing protein demands of that growing population, we use state-of-the-art technology and implement the most sustainable management practices possible to do more with less. Finally, the Montgomery area is deeply rooted in agriculture, and that agricultural heritage is woven well into the community. Farming is crucial to the success of any society at any population level, and I am proud to be a part of it.
    How do agriculture/agribusiness associations like the Cattlemen’s Association benefit their members?
    Trade organizations like the ACA represent specific interests and for us, that is the cattle producer and the beef industry. Our role is multifaceted, but membership provides cattlemen with a lobbyist specifically concerned with cattle issues both in Montgomery and in Washington, D.C. We stay involved in issues such as environmental regulations, tax and property rights, animal welfare and the overall climate of the cattle industry. Our voice represents more than 10,000 members across the state and has a large footprint in the policy arena. 
    How does the large agriculture/agribusiness industry in the River Region benefit the area?
    Agriculture/agribusiness plays a critical role in the entire life of the economy. Agriculture is the backbone of the economic system. In addition to providing food and raw material, agriculture also provides employment opportunities to very large percentage of the population.
    “I think it will revolutionize agriculture in Alabama. The market is focused on CBD oils, but that’s only the tip of iceberg.” 
    - Dr. Raymon Shange, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science in Tuskegee University’s Department of Agriculture and Environmental Science
    When Alabama legalized the growing of industrial hemp in March 2018, it garnered a lot of headlines, with some proclaiming the agricultural product the state’s next “major cash crop.” Alabama Agricultural Commissioner Rick Pate weighed in. “Industrial hemp is a new crop in Alabama to be on the lookout for. The department is in the process of administering the pilot production program for farmers to grow industrial hemp,” he said. “After this first growing season is complete, data will be collected from program participants. More research will need to be done since there are no current feasibility studies for industrial hemp production here.”
    Jimmy Parnell, President and CEO of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance, agreed with Pate, underscoring the Commissioner’s thoughts on the need for additional information. “Industrial hemp has the potential to be another option for farmers looking to diversify, but research and education is still needed. It has been a profitable crop in other states, but farmers need to understand the costs and risks associated with industrial hemp. It can be an expensive and labor-intensive crop, and there are legal considerations related to the purity of seed and crop management,” he said. “Like many new crops, there’s a lot of interest, and some will try to profit from the excitement. We would advise farmers to thoroughly study the crop and potential markets before making a large investment.”
    Doug Thiessen, CEO of Alabama Ag Credit, also stressed the “unknowns” surrounding the industrial hemp. “Hemp production has a lot of risks and unanswered questions today, but many farmers are hoping hemp will be another crop option for them to grow,” he said. “Again, a lot of unanswered
    questions remain though.”
    Dr. Raymon Shange, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science in Tuskegee University’s Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, sees a bright future for hemp in Alabama. The university is one of the five in the state that have been granted licenses to grow industrial hemp and just started this summer. “We’ll conduct research trials to determine the best management practices and explore the technology needed for extracting oils from hemp,” he said. Some of the university’s alumni and its current students were also granted licenses to grow hemp and will be doing smaller trials.
    “That’s great because we will be able to walk with them and give them information they need to be successful,” he said.
    Shange believes the addition of hemp to the state’s agricultural line-up will be a boon for Alabama. “I think it will revolutionize agriculture in Alabama,” he said. And not only because of CBD oil, the “miracle” product that’s dominating the news. “The market is focused on CBD oils, but that’s only the tip of iceberg,” he said. “The fiber made from industrial hemp has multiple uses; you can even make concrete blocks with it. We are very excited because the university’s material sciences program will be working hand-in-hand with us on this.”
    The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries has currently licensed 152 GROWERS, 59 PROCESSORS and FIVE UNIVERSITIES to grow, cultivate, process and research industrial hemp in 2019.
    BIG DEAL: Port Proportions
    Earlier this year, Governor Ivey signed a bill to raise the state’s gas tax to fund multiple needed infrastructure projects. One of these — the expansion of the port of Mobile — will directly and positively affect agribusiness, as Jimmy Parnell, President and CEO of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance, explained. “The gas tax will pay for the state’s portion of a package that will allow us to deepen and widen the channel and get larger vessels into the port of Mobile,” he said. “We will be first in the Gulf to have this kind of capacity, and that’s important because we ship agricultural products (and many other products) to other countries via sea-going vessels. Currently, some ships that require deeper water bypass Mobile for Charleston or Savannah. The proposed expansion would stop that and make Mobile’s port larger than the one in New Orleans. “That puts Alabama on the forefront of shipping out of the Gulf,” Parnell said.
    Coblentz Equipment & Parts Co., Inc. serves homeowners and those involved in light agriculture, selling Massey Ferguson and Mahindra tractors and other labor-saving equipment like chain saws, mowers and more. According to owner Craig Coblentz, there’s now big demand for small tractors. “There’s been a dramatic increase in the popularity of small tractors (under 60 horsepower) as more and more people move to the country,” he said. “It takes equipment to maintain multiple acres even if the only farming is a garden. It seems a lot of people just want their own space and working with their tractor almost becomes a form of recreation.”
    The manufacturers have stepped up, offering a wide variety of small tractors that are a far cry from the vehicles used only a few decades ago. “They’re making them comfortable and easy to operate. Some have air-conditioned cabs with stereo available,” Coblentz said.
    These bells and whistles are a natural side-effect of more technology in every aspect of our lives and work, but Coblentz points out that more technology is not always a positive. In addition to ag equipment, Coblentz also sells tractors and right-of-way maintenance equipment (tractor-mounted boom mowers, pot-hole patchers, etc.) to most of the 67 counties as well as the state. “A notable trend that is building steam is the self -propelled multi-purpose boom mowers with the ability to add all kinds of combinations of tools for the same carrier,” he said. “One of the reasons tool carriers are becoming more popular is that it is becoming more difficult to mount things to today’s tractors. There are so many emission control devices surrounding the engine, that there is no room. The mechanical parts of today’s tractors are better than ever, but the increasing demands of the EPA are, in our opinion, becoming counterproductive. Technology can be great, but it also needs to make sense and be achievable.”
    Family Matters
    Agriculture is often a family affair. The same is true in one local agribusiness company, Coblentz Equipment & Parts Co., Inc. The Coblentz family has been in the tractor, truck and equipment business for almost 100 years, although not in the same location. “In 1921 Herbert and Arthur Coblentz opened Coblentz and Son in a small town in the northern Indiana,” current owner and fourth generation of the family Craig Coblentz said. In 1967, his dad Max purchased the GMC truck dealership in Montgomery. The truck dealership was sold in 1999, and in 2000 Craig purchased Equipment & Parts Specialty Co., Inc. In 2010, Craig’s son Matthew joined the company. In 2012, they purchased Helms Tractor Co. and moved the business to its current location. 
    Today, advances in technology are making agriculture operations more efficient and providing farmers and other producers with more information, leading to enhanced growing methods and larger distribution networks. It’s a fact that flies in the face of the stereotypical image of farmers.
    “The agriculture/agribusiness industry has embraced technology as much or more than any industry even though unfortunately, most folks think of a farmer as some old white-headed granddaddy out in field,” said Jimmy Parnell, President and CEO of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance. “It may be a granddad, but they’re out there using a laptop with their crops, using technology to do all kinds of things in ways that my granddaddy could never have even imagined.”
    Drones are delivering precision data, showing exactly what’s happening in acres of fields and when. Smart irrigation and GPS mapping of land allows for a higher level of accuracy for soil testing and fertilizing. Research delivering better plant breeds allows for higher plant populations. All of these things are giving farmers a better understanding of tried and true techniques, bridging the old ways with the new and resulting in bigger yields and more stability. “Today, it’s not out of line to see 200 to 300 bushels of corn per acre, thanks to advanced methods reliant on technology,” Parnell said. “My granddad used to aspire to 25 bushels per acre.”
    Modern technology has immensely altered agriculture processes in ways that are beneficial for farmers, but the connection between man and land that farming creates remains. And technology is strengthening that bond, making it easier than ever to implement sustainable practices that are also good for the land, air and water. “Science-based research is allowing farmers to have a smaller carbon footprint, since we have developed technologies that limit soil erosion and improve disease resistance, so fewer and fewer pesticides need to be applied,” said Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Rick Pate. “Advancements in livestock breeding and animal disease prevention significantly improve the quality and health of animals.”
    And new discoveries and advancements are being made all the time. “It will be interesting to see where the next 20 years take us as research in agriculture continues to make major breakthroughs that will improve food production for all,” Pate said.
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