US rural poverty effort: 30 acres, some training, and an Israeli idea

The United States is taking a page from Israel's agricultural textbook -- complete with Israeli advisers -- in an experiment aimed at dealing with rural poverty and the preservation of the family farm.

Modeled after Israel's "moshav" farm cooperatives, the Family Farm Cooperative Program is backed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other federal agencies. It is attempting to train low-income farmers to use advanced agricultural methods, emphasizing labor-intensive crops and livestock that will generate more income than the farmers and their families now enjoy.

Three 1,200-acre tracts will be purchased in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. A major insurance firm is putting up 70 percent of the money to buy the land; 10 percent will be provided by the Ford Foundation, and 20 percent by the federal government.

Following a two-year training period, the farm facilities will be given the chance to buy their 30-acre training farms if they agree to participate in the local cooperatives.

The objective, sources say, is to preserve small, family farms while allowing farmers to realize some economies of scale.

As described by Jacob Avni, Israel's agricultural attache in Washington, the moshav farm is a large cooperative of contiguous farms, each privately owned. The members grow and market their crops through the coop, which also purchases supplies, makes loans to farmers, and provides the 100 or so families involved with municipal and social services -- making the moshav a community as well as an agricultural cooperative.

Observers point out that this is by no means the first time agricultural cooperatives have been set up in the United States. But, they point out, two factors make this project especially interesting:

* First is the unprecedented amount of federal money being made available. "It took 15 to 20 groups years of struggle out west to get the USDA interested in cooperatives for low-income farmers," says Peggy Borgers, associate director of Rural America, a national organization interested in rural affairs.

Federal assistance for the program includes $1.6 million from the Community Services Administration, $10,000 from the US Department of Labor for each of the first 40 trainees to cover part of the classroom and on-the-job training expenses, and $3.6 million from the Economic Development Administration.

And this money applies only to the first two years of the six-year program.

Private financing will account for about 80 percent of the money used for the project.

* The second point, which has raised some eyebrows, is that Israel is supplying technical advisers for the project.

Mike Darnell, a spokesman for the Southern development Foundation, one of the project's sponsors, says, "We're consulting with the Israelis because they have agriculture that is labor intensive and still uses some high technology. They've got some experience in this area. Our agriculture, on the other hand, tends to dislocate people. We're machine oriented and grain oriented. What we're saying is that you've got to look beyond production and employ people."

The question of low incomes in rural areas is a vexing one, perhaps more so than for urban areas, says LeRoy Evans, administrative director of the Small Farm Development Corporation, the nonprofit organization directly overseeing the project and responsible for training.

Tom Carlin of the USDA's Economic, Statistics, and Cooperative Service notes that last year there were an estimated 1.2 million small farms being worked by families who could be classed as low income. The majority of those farms are in the north-central and southern US.

The philosophy behind the moshav project, Mr. Evans says, is that small farms are viable entities and can form the basis for stable rural communities.

"We're also committed to those people who want to live in rural areas and remain inv volved in agriculture," he says.

As envisioned by planners, the project will train the first group of 40 families for two years in raising fruits, vegetables, or livestock.

After the training period, those successfully completing the course will be given the opportunity to buy the land they have been working, with loans from the Farmers Home Administration. They will be required to continue to participate in the local cooperative.

At that point, the second of three two-year training periods begins, assuming those associated with the project are satisfied with the results. The first post-training cooperative could be established by 1982, Mr. Darnell says.

"If we can demonstrate that this is a viable alternative to existing at the poverty level in rural areas, this project could be expanded to other parts of the country," Mr. Evans says.

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