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August 06, 2002   Email to Friend 

Debra Davis
(334) 613-4686
August 06, 2002

Is Alabama one of the leading farm states in the nation? Do lawn fertilizers pollute the environment? Are Alabama's rural communities in decline?

Questions such as these were recently posed to Alabama citizens via an Auburn University survey designed to gauge public knowledge about agriculture, the environment and rural life. Results suggest that misconceptions abound, but so do opportunities for enlightenment and frank discussion.

The survey, which was conducted by the AU Center for Governmental Services, was commissioned by the AU Butler/Cunningham Endowment in Agriculture and the Environment. Its purpose was to determine just how much Alabamians know about agriculture and related subjects.

"The survey revealed that although Alabamians were not well informed about agriculture in their state, they did have concerns over environmental issues and the future of rural Alabama," says Claude Boyd, Butler/Cunningham Professor at Auburn University.

"The survey also is a catalyst for opening discussions into the future of agriculture in Alabama," says Boyd. "I'm hopeful that dialogue will include the public, policy makers, regulatory and governmental agencies, agriculturalists, environmentalists, industry representatives and many others."

In fact, survey results will be an integral part of the first Butler/Cunningham Conference on Agriculture and the Environment to be held Nov. 13 and 14 at the Birmingham Marriott Hotel. The conference will feature a discussion of the status of agriculture in Alabama and will lay the groundwork for future Butler/Cunningham conferences that will focus more directly on specific issues relating to rural issues in Alabama.

For the survey, 988 adult Alabamians were asked about 40 questions relating to agricultural, rural and environmental subjects. Their responses show that, overall, Alabamians are empathetic toward agricultural and rural concerns but have a relatively weak understanding of the issues and facts.

For example, respondents expressed a high regard for agriculture and were supportive of government subsidies, higher food prices and import restrictions to protect agriculture and the environment. The majority also viewed agriculture as an asset for the state and did not consider it a major threat to the state's environment.

Boyd says, however, many Alabamians surveyed were not aware of the actual status of agriculture and rural communities in the state. More than half of the respondents (56 percent) believed Alabama to be one of the nation's major agricultural producers. It actually ranks 23 out of the 50 states. Three-fourths thought Alabama was blessed with excellent climate, soil and growing conditions for agricultural crops. In truth, its disparate and often poor quality soils and its hot, humid climate are poorly suited for many crops and farm enterprises.

Respondents recognized that the number of farms and farmers has dwindled in the state but did not know just how few existed. More than half those surveyed thought that some 5 percent of the population was involved in farming. In reality, less than 2 percent of the state's population farms.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents agreed that food prices in the nation are low and said they would support higher prices to sustain farming or protect the environment. Nearly three out of five were willing to pay more for food to protect U.S. agriculture. Three-fourths also strongly supported limiting the importation of food products.

Perceptions about agriculture's influence on the state's environmental quality also were generally positive, though not necessarily realistic. Some 46 percent of respondents believed that fertilizers were a major environmental hazard. About half thought poultry litter was a major pollutant, while 43 percent thought that beef and swine operations posed major hazards. However, most of the respondents ranked agriculture far below industry as a major polluter in the state.

The respondents did not see agriculture as a major environmental or aesthetic hazard to urban areas, and 42 percent thought that farms actually enhanced the quality of life in residential areas. They also recognized that home pesticides posed a threat to the environment but did not see home fertilizer use as a problem.

Complete results of the survey can be found at www.ag.auburn.edu/BC. From this page, go to 2002 Conference and then to 2002 Poll Results. The program and registration information for the Butler/Cunningham Conference also can be found on the Web site. The conference is open to all interested Alabamians. Boyd encourages the public to register and attend.

For more information on the conference, contact June Burns at (334) 844-4076 or jburns@acesag.auburn.edu or Boyd at (334) 844-4075

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