With all of the devastating elements that farmers have to face, who can help them when a disaster comes?

November 2005

How relevant! And good question! Farm Aid kicked off a series of disaster trainings for farm advocates in Epes, Alabama last month. I was so inspired by my trip to this training that I started a journal to keep all the details fresh. I hope it answers your questions.

The visions of the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina in urban areas like New Orleans have almost been burned into our minds. But what about the rural communities who are far from television cameras? What about the counties that were drowned with the tidal surges from Hurricane Rita? What about the farmers? Where are their cattle? Vegetable crops? Who was there to document their losses and point them in the right direction for help?

Within a week of the Katrina storm clouds rolling out of Louisiana, it was clear that Farm Aid needed to help. Emergency food, money, water and basic supplies were first on the list of necessities. But what next? A disaster like this is a time when a team of knowledgeable farm advocates becomes central to the survival of family farmers in a disaster zone. Farm Aid, together with long-time partners National Family Farm Coalition, the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Farmers Legal Action Group decided to launch a series of advocates trainings, followed by public farmer clinics, to train new advocates and get everyone up to speed. The first of these trainings was in Epes, Alabama on October 20-21st. This is my travel journal from this trip.

Oct. 19th Traveling to Advocates Training in Epes, Alabama
I have never been this far south before. With no previous images in mind, I have no idea what to expect traveling into the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At the airport, I meet Scott from Rural Advancement Foundation International, Benny who works with Scott as a farm advocate, Jean a long-time advocate, Karen, Jess and JessAnne from Farmers Legal Action Group. Together we pack into a van -- most suitcases are heavy with handouts and documents for tomorrows training session. Benny and Jean dive right into conversation about times past and current cases. These two go way back -- working with farmers as advocates since the height of the farm crisis in the eighties.

Most of the farm advocates, like Jean and Benny, came together through that crisis, often because they were having trouble with their own farms, and became a cornerstone of the work that Farm Aid would do to help keep family farmers on the land. In the very early days of Farm Aid, Carolyn Mugar our Executive Director, worked very closely with the National Family Farm Coalition Credit Task Force, and some of the same advocates that will be at this training, to protect the rights of thousands of family farmers and keep them on their land. Eventually, Farm Aid helped found the Farmers Legal Action Group, a non-profit law center to help support the team of advocates and broaden the understanding of the laws that regulate the livelihoods of farm families and rural communities.

On the way to Epes, I realize that we were all acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. We rushed to plan this training in three weeks so that we could respond as quickly as possible to the almost incomprehensible damage that we have been struggling to understand over the past month. On the other hand, this is a gathering of long-time friends, respected colleagues and frankly just a group of really smart people who all really care about the same thing - a good future for family farmers. Among the farm advocates there is a tight bond that goes further than similar career paths -- these are people have been friends for twenty years or more. They call each other up to compare cases and notes on the latest rules and regs. Just seeing them interact, their passion and commitment, always fills me with respect and a strong confidence that we can make a difference. Corny? Yes, but also very true.

Driving west from Birmingham, the only sign of unusual activity is a steady streams of mobile homes, trailers and contractors trucks with FEMA signs headed in the same direction. Epes, where the Federation forestry training center is located, is very close to the Mississippi border and no doubt these rigs are headed in that direction to house workers and aid in the on-going clean up process.

When we arrive, it is too dark to explore my surroundings. I just take a minute here to write down my thoughts while they are fresh and then crawl into my sleeping bag -- too tired to do much else.

October 20th Advocates Training Session Day One
Laura at advocate trainingBefore launching into this day, which I am sure will be completely filled with valuable information and conversations, I should take a minute to describe our temporary “home”. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives runs this Training and Research Center. They host technical trainings, meetings, forestry classes, youth gardening programs -- in fact, they do so much here I am not sure I could cover them all. That said, it is a modest setting. Most of us slept in dormitory housing last night. The training is in a conference hall that is bright with murals of the civil rights struggle and the history of rural farming in Alabama. We sit around a horseshoe of work tables and there is a buffet of delicious food in the back of the room. There aren’t any distractions, like cell phones or computers, mostly people are here to learn and make the most of their time by soaking up as many details, handouts and business cards as possible.

We start the morning with breakfast and a welcome to the Federation Rural Training and Research Center. Forty people, representing more than 23 different food and farm organizations, gathered around a the tables. We are ready for action. John Zippert of the Federation, who is hosting the training, tells the story of the foundation of our home base for this session: in the late sixties a group of 100 farm families sued the owners of the cotton plantation for withholding their fair share of farm income. They won the case and were promptly fired from their jobs. At this time, the Federation was beginning to come together and started working with 40 of these families to help them find land. Together they were able to secure 1160 acres of foreclosed farmland  -- two-thirds of which would support the displaced farmers and the other third would house a rural training and demonstration center. John concluded this story by bringing us back to the present: “Race, class and poverty are still a part of this discussion with Katrina and Rita and this center is dedicated to work on this problem. This is what this place is all about.” He continued to stress the impact this history has had on the atmosphere of the center. “You shouldn’t be surprised if you are walking around here and you feel this spirit. The spirit is here.”

Ralph Paige, the executive director of the Federation, followed John’s history lesson with a comment on partnership: “What today is about is what we can do for the long term. What can we do about change over time? What can we do about these families? What can we do about long-term housing, about jobs? We have to figure out, at the end of the day, how we can work together and get help [for the farmers] all the agencies. We can only do this with partners.” Mr. Paige’s hope for the outcome of our work over the day was pretty tangible. “I hope that when we leave here today that we will have new advocates to help people get through the maze of red tape so they can put their lives back together.”

We run through an ambitious agenda that covers documenting farm losses, disaster unemployment, all the acronym agencies: FEMA, SBA, FSA and all the programs that disaster area resident farmers are eligible for, the nature of working with people in crisis, crop insurance, tax regulations and the ins and outs of the many programs that are available and those that are changed or affected by new rules and regs. put in place as a result of the disaster declaration. Policy experts report from their meetings on the hill. Everyone has an area of expertise to share. Staff attorneys from FLAG have spent sleepless nights getting ready to present the most up to date information possible -- I know because I bunked with them!

There are farmers in attendance -- in part to learn anything they can to help their own farms but in most cases they are really ready to work with other farmers to bring the information that is gathered here today back to their own communities. The stories are unbelievable: fishermen who lost multiple boats and their homes, one of the very few certified organic farmers in the state, waiting to see if his citrus fruit could hang on the branch long enough to ripen and dairy farmers dumping liquid milk because there was no way to ship or refrigerate it. Still, some farmers have already started talking about rebuilding -- no one seems ready to give up.

Tomorrow all the ‘advocates in training’ will get a chance to work together with our seasoned advocates to start cases with farmers who are coming for a clinic. We will role-play and take a few practice runs before the farmers show up.

The tone of the day is focused. No one wants to miss a single detail. The rules for each program (state or national) are complicated, they change often and this is the chance to get together and hash it all out. Benny, for one, spent the whole day with his volume of rules and regulations bookmarked and worn like a bible. As much as anyone can, Benny knows these rules inside and out. Even the lawyers around the table joke that Benny is always right. On the other hand, everyone took pages and pages of notes. There is always more to learn.

For this small network of farm advocates, a training is more than a place to learn it is also a valuable community. Sadly, we don’t have as many advocates like Benny and Betty and Jean and Bill who are all here today -- so the community of folks who really understand this work is really small. Coming together and sharing knowledge and success stories is really vital to making sure that they are able to continue with this work with a sense of community support and understanding. The truth is, people who care this much thrive in the company of others that share this particular passion. Of the advocates that I have met in my three years at Farm Aid, I can honestly say that they work magic with their farmers. In my opinion, the advocates are among the rock stars that I have the pleasure of working with here at Farm Aid.

Oct. 21st Farmer Clinic with new advocates and Training Evaluation
Starting off this last day of the training (it has only been one full day but there was so much to learn that it almost feels like a week!) we aren’t sure what to expect. Our host and partner in this project, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, has put the word out to farmers that they can come to the training center today to talk about their farms and get some help. We know that the best advocates are farmers who have struggled with their own farms at one time or another. This way, an advocate is a peer, a fellow farmer, someone to be trusted.

Even though we are working in a conference room today, most often an advocate would meet with a farmer out in the field or over the kitchen table as a partner who understands what it means to have your home and livelihood on the line. So, while it has been a hard couple of days for those farmers fresh from the tragedy of the hurricanes, we know that this pain comes with a certain compassion and understanding that could translate into help for countless farm families in the future.

We start off with a role-play. Scott, our facilitator extraordinaire, plays the role of a farmer. The more experienced advocates worked up a case after dark last night so the newer people would have a chance to pick up on specific points and discuss strategies. Scott runs through his bullet points and opens the floor. Still around our horseshoe, trainees start to point out some of the details of his case. “Were those crops certified?” “Has he started documenting his loss?” The details from yesterday are fresh and people are clearly ready to tackle the challenge.

Still, there is more to the story. We turn the floor over to Jean to walk people through her particular technique. “What do you need right now?” “Are you able to keep and store food?” “Is your housing safe?” As Jean and Scott talk a story comes out. Our “farmer” has a medical history. He also has a daughter who can help. Together they explore what programs might suit his situation, where to go, how to apply and generally offers a calm reassurance that there is help to be found. Jean concludes the conversation by explaining next steps. “I’ll help you every step of the way. What we need to do is first deal with your immediate needs, then we will tackle FEMA, the SBA and start applying for some other aid programs.”

With this three-dimensional interpretation of the technical info from the day before everyone feels more ready to get to work. Participants break up into four teams which each included an experience advocate, an attorney, a representative from the Federation who will be the primary contact person for follow up, and one or two trainees. About 15 farmers arrive over the course of the morning with a variety of different situations but everyone is looking for advice. For the most part, we talk with small, diversified vegetable farmers from Alabama and Mississippi who sustained crop loss, fence and tree injure as well as damage to their homes. I am constantly amazed at how calm and resilient they were. In their place, I am not sure that I would have been so level headed. I decide to listen to their stories before writing anything down. If there is one thing to be learned from the advocates it is that listening is the most important job we have when working with farmers.

I worked on a team with Benny. I mostly just listened, trying to absorb all of his ideas, as he helped two farmers figure out a whole range of immediate and long-term next steps. It was a pretty wide range of topics from applying for disaster unemployment, certifying lost crops so that they will be eligible for future disaster assistance, applying for fence repair cost-share programs and even creating a supplemental income through selling hunting rights forested land. It was fascinating to see a really good advocate at work -- he was clearly enjoying being able help these farmers weave their way through the system and make it work for them. They were happy also to be leaving with a list of things to do -- simple things to do, one by one, to get help and move on.

To conclude the training, we came back to the table for feedback. Listening to everyone debrief was really motivating:

“This conference has given me a lot of information to take back to the people at home. It helped a lot.”
“It is awesome to know that there are people to walk through this process with us.”
“It helped me to feel a support mechanism because you [advocates] are out there. Sometimes, you just want someone out there to embrace you.”
“This training has been beneficial for us to steer and guide [our organization] in what we need to do.”
“The kind of information that we got from this program is going to enable us to make this happen and feel a lot of pride.”

As I pack up my suitcase, shortly after this debrief, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. People were really pleased with the training. I think we have a few fledgling advocates on board and a lot to read on the way home. On the other hand, the next half of this trip will take me deeper into the disaster area to meet with farmers and see first hand the kind of damage that we discussed here in Epes. I am curious and a little apprehensive to be honest. Mostly, I simply have no idea what to expect. If you want to come along on the second leg of my travels, check out my photo album -- we all know that a picture says a thousand words.