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Federation of Southern Co-ops: three decades of sustaining rural Southern communities, saving black-owned farmland.

Since 1967, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation) has successfully provided self-help economic opportunities and hope for many low-income communities across the South. The Federation is, in fact, the only organization in the Southeast United States that has as its primary objectives the retention of black-owned land and the use of cooperatives for land-based economic development.

"Cooperatives are businesses that are locally controlled and build wealth through the participation of people," says Federation Executive Director Ralph Paige. "They are an ideal way of helping poor folks advance their own interests and provide for their own destinies."

In 1984 the Emergency Land Fund, the pioneer organization in black land retention, merged with the Federation. This led to a much stronger and more comprehensive program that retains, acquires, manages and develops land and other resources using cooperative principles.

Membership includes 12,000 black farm families, who individually own small acreage, but collectively own more than a half million acres of land and work through 35 agricultural cooperatives to purchase supplies, gain technical assistance and market their crops. It also includes 15,000 small savers in 16 community development credit unions that have accumulated $24 million in shares and made $113 million in loans since inception.

The Federation owns and operates the Rural Training and Research Center (RTRC) on 850 acres of land near Epes, Ala., where members learn farming skills, rural business development practices, leadership skills and ways of working together in cooperatives and credit unions.

The programs of the Federation are comprehensive. They cover agriculture, credit, housing, markets, land retention and advocacy. While its programs are implemented in its offices in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, the RTRC is the hub of the Federation's outreach and training efforts. Primary programs include:

* Small Farm and Sustainable Agriculture--The Federation is committed to providing outreach and technical assistance to black family farmers as integral to its overall thrust. One of the avenues of outreach to farmers was the 1990 Minority Farmers Act (Section 2501 of the Farm Bill). As an initiative of the Federation, Section 2501 addresses the need for USDA to offer more services to limited-resource minority farmers by offering grants to community-based organizations and landgrant colleges to offer outreach services. The primary goal of the sustainable agriculture program is to help farmers develop successful family farm businesses through: financial analysis of farms; technical assistance in setting individual farm goals; technical assistance in farm management; assistance in debt restructuring; and alternative crop analysis.

* Land Assistance--Black rural land ownership has declined drastically over the last century, from 16 to 19 million acres owned in 1910 to only 7.8 million acres in 1997. And the decline continues. To help retain and protect rural land ownership, the Land Assistance Fund Program focuses on: legal assistance; education; tax sales; wills and estate planning; adverse possession; eminent domain and condemnation; mineral rights; and financial assistance.

* Cooperative Marketing--The average size of an African American farm is just over 100 acres. The Federation encourages alternative crop production that is more suitable to smaller farm size to help ensure sustainability of the farm. The focus of our marketing program is: production/marketing assessments; cooperative development; value-added projects; rural/urban marketing; and emerging market opportunities.

* Credit Unions--The focus of the credit union department is to provide technical assistance and training to individuals from low-income rural communities who have determined a need for low-cost, community-controlled consumer credit. Technical assistance is offered in the following areas: chartering; computerizing; non-member deposits; business plans; youth credit unions; auditing; board training; and committee training.

* Housing--The Federation has been instrumental in building quality affordable housing and manages its housing programs through the Panola Land Buyers Association. The housing department focuses on three major areas: multi-family housing development; multi-family housing management, and technical assistance for single family housing

* Advocacy and Coalition Building--To ensure appropriate and relevant program services for rural communities, the Federation works in coalition with other organizations and advocates for: rural community-based economic development; affordable rural housing; farmers' rights; fair trade policies; cooperative and credit union development; renewable energy strategies; environmental policy.

Contact Information:; (404) 765-0991; 2769 Church St., East Point, GA 30344; Executive Director: Palph Paige.
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Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Date:May 1, 2004
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