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Retired professor writes of Alabama's agricultural shortcomings

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  • It’s always difficult to turn a critical eye towards something we love, but Wayne Shell has done just that in a revealing new book, “Evolution of the Alabama Agroecosystem: Always Keeping Up, Never Catching Up.”

Having demonstrated to his satisfaction that Alabama agriculture was poorly competitive, Shell turned to an even more disturbing possibility: that the state’s poorly competitive agriculture had contributed to the evolution of a poorly competitive general economy. Data published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that on a per-capita basis, the state’s gross state product  (GSP) was among the lowest in the nation and had been from the time such data was first collected.

Shell attributes this poor economic performance to limited capital accumulation that had occurred with the early stages of Alabama agriculture. “It seemed to me that Alabama farmers had spent too long in the human and animal power stage of agriculture before entering the mechanization stage and ultimately the industrial and post-industrial stages,” he says. 

Shell also points to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, which reveal that at the beginning of the 21st century more than 90 percent of Alabama farm household income came from off-farm sources, a significant amount of which was derived from federal subsidies.

Alabama’s ethnicity has also played a role in this tragic saga, Shell contends. Like so many Alabamians, much of Shell’s heritage traces back to the frigid, craggy hills of the Scottish highlands. “They were cattle people — much of their income came from grazing cattle, which they supplemented by raising oats,” he says. This represented the barest form of subsistence agriculture.

Ten of thousands of these hardscrabble Scottish farmers were driven off their farms by the English after the Battle of Culloden in mid-1700s. Many, if not most, of these displaced farmers eventually found their way into the Southern Back Country, weaving their preference for personal freedom, subsistence farming and resistance to change into the cultural fabric of Southern agriculture, only complicating an already intractable geophysical situation. 

“We have little choice but to play the hand that we were dealt, namely the state’s physiography, climate and soils that have partly placed us at such a disadvantage,” Shell contends.

Shell says there is no prosperous economic future that does not pass through the agricultural stage, the industrial stage and, finally, into the post-industrial stage of socio-cultural evolution.

“This doesn’t mean that there is no place for agriculture,” he stresses.  “But it must mean an agriculture that carries its own weight and that contributes its fair share to the state’s social and economic progress.”

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