EDITOR'S NOTE — The Wiregrass region of southeast Alabama once dominated the state's peanut production. However, due to changes in the government peanut program and poor rotations, much of the peanut acreage has shifted to counties in southwest Alabama, wreaking havoc on the economies of some of the small towns and communities in the southeastern corner of the state. In this and the next two issues, Southeast Farm Press will take a closer look at how rural communities are affected by the loss of peanut farming and what is being done to help row-crop farmers stay in business and sustain their yields.
It was once a thriving town, buzzing with the traffic of the first settlers crossing into east Alabama. Today, the abandoned buildings of downtown Newville in Henry County look more like a ghost town, proving that the city shares the fate of many other small Southern towns, after the decline of agriculture left some economies helpless.
“Some people are trying to revitalize Newville,” says Larry Smith, Henry County's official historian. “It's hard to revive a dead town, but it's still breathing.”
Thanks to soil well-suited for peanut production, Newville continues to barely breathe. But changes in the farm program and poor rotation have threatened even this staple crop for many places in Southeast Alabama.
“We have seen a decline in peanut acres in traditional southeast Alabama,” says Kris Balkcom, agricultural program associate with the Wiregrass Research Extension Center. “Now, 45,000 acres of the 190,000 acres in the state have shifted to counties in southwestern Alabama.”
Balkcom says some farmers feel they cannot make a profit with the new government program, while others have backed off trying to get a good rotation. “They realized that to grow peanuts at $355 per ton, they need a good rotation. Others just went to the fresh ground in southwest Alabama.”
Much of the land previously used for peanut production has given way to other crops, pine trees and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
In Newville, some fields once used to grow peanuts now bear only weeds and “Land for Sale” signs.
Carl Brackin, owner of Brackin Realty in downtown Newville, says he has seen a lot of the land converted from farm land to timber land, with most of it going to CRP land.
“There was a big push over CRP land 10 years ago,” Brackin says. “Now, things have stabilized. People have already put their marginal land into it and are now trying to maximize their crop land.”
Local farmers say they're glad the popularity of CRP has faded. “When you put land into CRP, it's gone for good,” says Myron Johnson, a peanut producer from nearby Headland. “I know what happens to timber-dependent communities, and I hope that doesn't happen here.”
Conner Bailey, professor of rural sociology at Auburn University, knows that Johnson's concern over timber-dependent cities is well-founded. “Our research has found distinguishing patterns in timber-dependent places,” Bailey says. “Populations have steadily declined over the last 50 years, causing multiple problems for those societies.”
One of the most obvious problems is reduced opportunities for retail trade, Bailey says. “Grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters and others go out of business because they have fewer customers.”
The most serious problem with timber-dependent towns is the decline in tax revenues, according to Bailey. “Without the necessary funding, counties struggle to provide services like education and public health.”
Bailey says the reasons for the population decline are not entirely clear, but he believes the amount of labor involved with timber production plays a vital role. “As you shift out of row crops and into trees, the amount of labor required on a per acre basis declines. Trees require relatively little maintenance.”
Bailey says the migrant workers who are used to plant trees generate no local employment, and trees require no irrigation or fertilization labor. He also says logging crews create fewer jobs than row-crop agriculture. “It takes maybe five people running the crew for a big operation, and some logging crews move into a scale of operations not tied to the immediate economy.”
Absentee landowners also deprive local economies of the benefits of local land ownership. “Owners don't feel the need to be on the land, and that affects voting for things like local schools,” Bailey says.
While Bailey is quick to say that trees do not cause poverty, he admits that poverty rates are relatively high in timber-dependent communities. He says forestry also creates economic stress that causes crime rates to increase.
Farmers in Henry County believe it's not too late for communities like Newville to avoid the timber-dependent curse. “Farmers have to adjust to the change from the quota system,” says Joe Hall, peanut producer from nearby Haleburg. “Poor rotation has put a lot of farmers out of business, but it doesn't have to be that way.”
For farmers like Johnson with a solid rotation plan, the change has been good. “I have been pretty successful using a three-year rotation of cotton, corn and peanuts,” Johnson says. “High yields are tied directly to rotation.”
For now, young farmers like 25-year-old Scott Shelley of nearby Tumbleton realize they are responsible for saving cities with small, peanut-based economies from the ill fate of timber-dependent communities. “I'd much rather see land farmed than have pine trees on it,” Shelley says. “If we keep learning new ways to improve our crop, there's no reason why we can't keep growing.”
Rebecca Bearden is a senior at Auburn University majoring in agricultural communications. She is completing her internship requirement with Southeast Farm Press.