By Alvin Benn
Alabama farmers are doing a lot more than planting crops or raising cattle these days — they’re keeping track of everything else with the help of agricultural analysts.
The economics experts are "grown" in Alabama and they won’t be wearing Brooks Brothers suits when they stop by to chat with farm families from Scottsboro to Satsuma.
There are only six of them in the state, but they’ve become invaluable to the economic well-being of farmers who realize it takes a lot more than basic knowledge of agriculture these days to make ends meet.
"It’s called survival," said Autauga County farmer Harold Gaines, who helped organize the Central Alabama Farm Analysis Association 22 years ago. "We’ve come to rely on their help in so many ways. We couldn’t do without them today."
Sitting near Gaines at his Statesville farm was Hal Pepper, who is one of the six agricultural analysts in the state. He and Jamie Yeager work with farmers throughout a wide area of Central Alabama.
All farmers have to keep track of expenditures, revenue and other economic factors because they are required by federal, state and local governments, but they get much more by becoming members of farm analysis associations.
"One of the weakest areas in farming is record keeping, bookkeeping and the ability to make good decisions based on that data," said Gaines who, with his brother, Hank, operates about 1,900 acres in Autauga County.
Pepper, who graduated from Auburn University, picked up a master’s degree from the University of Illinois which is credited with helping to create the farm analysis movement in the country.
He may be an agricultural economist today, but Pepper grew up on a small peach farm in Limestone County where he and his dad were never quite sure if they’d have a crop each year because of weather variances.
Pepper also worked for agricultural lending agencies and the last thing he wanted to do was repossess farm equipment after a loan default. His dream was to find a job that could help, not hinder farmers.
He found it with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System which provides the economic analysis service for farmers throughout the state.
The first successful analysis associations in Alabama were in the northeast corner and in the Wiregrass region. Today, the associations reach nearly every farm in the state.
"Ag economists have tremendous value based on the fact they provide financial and statistical analyses for all agricultural disciplines," said Tommy Paulk, president of Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Inc.
Paulk said agricultural economists such as Pepper touch all aspects of farming because they can determine the profitability and feasibility of row crops; fruits and vegetables; nurseries and greenhouses; livestock; aquaculture and all other areas of agricultural production.
"They help producers by identifying and evaluating the effectiveness of different marketing options before production starts," said Paulk. "They have made significant contributions to our understanding of the value of technology-oriented research."
The service isn’t free, but farmers such as Harold Gaines who have taken advantage of it are quick to say that what they pay is returned many times over in productivity and profit.
Fees vary, according to the size of the farm and the type of farm business organization, according to Pepper.
The minimum annual membership fee is $550 and the average paid by members in a typical year is about $800. The fee for having bookkeeping done by the association is $420 a year.
Pepper said membership fees help provide "grants" by the association to the Extension Service which, in turn, compensates the economists for their help across the state.
Association members meet once a year to hear a recap by their economists. In Central Alabama, Pepper and Yeager met with their farmers in early November.
The four other economists are Jerry Pierce and Holt Hardin in Northeast Alabama, Steve Brown in the Gulf Coast region and Bob Lisec in the Wiregrass.
The analysts do a little bit of everything to assist farmers including management advice that includes studies of computer spreadsheets. They also provide market information on cotton, cattle and other commodities.
"Keeping records to satisfy the IRS isn’t good enough these days," said Pepper. "Harold and other farmers who are members of our associations recognized the importance of keeping up with other things to help make good decisions."
Farmers throughout the state have always helped each other if they can and that’s what happened when the Gaines brothers and others farmers in Central Alabama wanted to organize an association.
Two farmers from Northeast Alabama drove to Prattville where they met with their counterparts to talk about the importance of initiating an association.
Harold Gaines credits the late Jim Dismukes with leading the way in organizing.
"He was an outstanding farmer, an exceptionally intelligent man who knew what we needed to do," said Gaines, referring to Dismukes. "His initiative and motivation started it all for us here. He had been doing it all on his own, but he wanted us all to benefit from belonging to an association."
About 200 farm families belong to associations in the state and there is room for more, said Pepper, who encourages everyone to consider joining groups in their part of Alabama.
"This isn’t complicated," he said. "It’s just something farmers need to be dedicated to. The detailed information provided by us goes a long way in helping our farmers to end the year with a profit."
Harold Gaines is a firm believer in benefits derived from membership in an analysis association. He said "advice alone" from experts like Pepper can pay off in the long run.
"I’m not talking about just the tax side of things," he said. "What they can provide for us is detailed information on a month to month basis as well as other suggestions to help us make important decisions on whether we should or shouldn’t do something at our farm operations."
Memberships can be obtained by contacting county extension offices around the state. Details about the program will be explained by them.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.