Tuskegee continues agricultural legacy with conference, new facilities



TUSKEGEE, Ala. (December 7, 2011) — The themes of growth and innovation heavily marked this year’s Professional Agricultural Workers Conference at Tuskegee University on Dec. 4-6. In its 69th year, the conference serves to help to enhance the skills and contributions of agricultural professionals by sharing new technologies and information. This year, organizers and participants saw the start of more growth with groundbreakings for two new facilities aimed at helping underserved farmers in the Black Belt region.

On Sunday, Tuskegee University welcomed conference participants and political dignitaries to Selma, Ala. to help break ground on the Black Belt Family Farm Fruit and Vegetable Marketing and Innovation Center. This facility will be used by farmers to receive, package, temporarily store and ship produce. Therefore, they will have the ability to earn more money for their crops and have their produce available for buyers more quickly.

“The primary producers will get a living wage for their products,” said Tuskegee University President Gilbert L. Rochon.

Major buyers now

Walmart, one of the conference’s major sponsors, will be one of the buyers purchasing produce from the center along with Whole Foods, Sodexo and C.H. Robinson. Ronald McCormick, Walmart’s senior director for Sustainable Agriculture Produce and Floral, believes it is beneficial to all parties when the company purchases crops from small local growers.

McCormick said Walmart has been buying produce such as watermelon, okra, and collard and mustard greens from local growers since February.

“It’s all part of the revitalization of agriculture in this part of the country,” McCormick said.

He also said the center project will allow the area stores to provide a fresher and more cost-efficient product to customers.

The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by several dignitaries, including members of the partnership responsible for the center project, the Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance; Dallas County probate judge Kimbrough Ballard, Selma Mayor George Evans, Alabama State Sen. Hank Sanders, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell and representatives from the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Indeed, this is a great day for the Black Belt,” Sewell said of the groundbreaking. “I know what’s possible with a little resources and opportunity.”

Farmer LaTerra Rutledge of Camden, Ala. considers the center project an opportunity to improve her business. She has been farming her land at James Hill Farms since 2007 and has been selling her vegetables primarily through farmers’ markets.

“You can sell a large quantity at one time instead of one-on-one. It’s an incentive to grow,” Rutledge said.

Women encouraged to become leaders

The conference featured sessions on successful marketing opportunities, farm risk and safety, and innovative programs as well as student poster and oral presentations.

On Monday, the White House Project held a session aimed at advancing female leadership. According to their website, this non-profit organization “… creates a culture where America’s most valuable untapped resource — women — can succeed in all realms.”

Organization representatives, Rhonda Briggins-Ridley and Elizabeth Johnson, led a group of about 30 women and men through a mini-workshop on identifying and achieving goals at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center at Tuskegee University.

“We need more women at our decision-making tables,” said Johnson, the organization’s national director of rural leadership.  “With women being the largest growing sector in farming, this makes a lot of sense.”

Outreach efforts at Tuskegee

In an announcement during a conference lunch on Monday, John Inman, general manager of the hotel expressed support of the conference and projects to help area farmers.

“One hundred percent of my commitment is to spend my dollars locally before I go anywhere else,” Inman said.

During a break in the sessions on Monday, ground was broken at a second facility meant to help farmers and rural communities — the Carver Integrative Sustainability Center. The facility will serve about eight counties and provide information on government programs and other benefits as well as expertise from United States Department of Agriculture agents. Also, researchers and Tuskegee students will study and test local produce for quality and safety.

“The little guy has always been left out and the middleman has always made a killing,” said farmer Al Hooks. “Now, we have all of the technology that is going to be here and we will be able to go forward and do things in a mannerly way and in a safe way.”

The facility on Franklin Road will be built in three phases. The first phase will be the building of office space, a lobby and a conference room. The second phase will be additional offices and a training room that is designed to also serve as a storm shelter. The third phase will be a laboratory and locker room.

“This site will bring justice to the historically disadvantaged farmer and help them get services from the USDA,” said Walter Hill, dean of Tuskegee University’s College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences. “It will fulfill the original mission of George Washington Carver in helping the people who have been left behind.”

Harris and Smith are the architects for the Selma and Tuskegee projects. Raynal Harris, firm partner, said the buildings are designed to be environmentally friendly. Both facilities include solar panels for energy, and heating and water reclamation systems.

“We have a long-term commitment to being engaged with this community, this region and this world,” Rochon said before the groundbreaking.

The conference concluded Tuesday night with an awards banquet and lecture in the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center.

For more information about the 69th Professional Agricultural Workers Conference, go to http://www.pawc.info.

Tuskegee University President Gilbert L. Rochon speaks with farmer LaTerra Rutledge and her family after the groundbreaking in Selma, Ala., on Sunday.

Participants at the Professional Agricultural Workers Conference gather at a session on Monday in the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center at Tuskegee University.

Briggins-Ridley, left,  and Elizabeth Johnson from the White House Project speak during a session on Monday.

Artist rendering of the Carver Integrative Sustainability Center in Tuskegee.

Artist rendering of the Black Belt Family Farm Fruit and Vegetable Marketing and Innovation Center in Selma, Ala.


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