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August 28, 2009   Email to Friend 

Commodity Producers Conference Is Learning Experience
By Darryal Ray

U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright, left, is presented a framed and signed Jack DeLoney painting by Federation President Jerry. A. Newby.
They came to Montgomery from all over Alabama with plenty of questions. But when they left the Alabama Farmers Federation's 37th annual Commodity Producers Conference, almost 700 farmers did so with answers gleaned from the Aug. 6-8 event.

They learned from seminars. They learned from tours. And they learned from lawmakers, such as U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright, who won their applause with his pronouncement that the controversial cap-and-trade legislation now before the Senate is likely dead.

"When you are trying to do work to strengthen your economy, when you are trying to do something to bring your country together, I truly don't believe that we need to pass legislation, significant legislation, that divides our country and pits one region of our country against another," Bright said during the opening night banquet at Montgomery's Renaissance Hotel & Convention Center.

Bright, who was mayor of Montgomery nine years prior to his election to congress last fall, said the current climate control legislation was a "volatile issue" that unfairly penalizes the South because of its reliance on coal to generate electricity.

"That would put an undue and significant financial burden on our utilities to meet the standards that cap-and-trade was going to put into play," said Bright, addressing an audience that included not only farmers but numerous state and other elected officials. "That would not be healthy for the Southeast, and it would not be healthy for Alabama."

Bright also touched on another hot-button issue -- health care, and vowed to take a "common-sense approach" that would provide care for the 15 percent of Americans who don't have it and "leave the other 85 percent alone."

"What we need to do is get control of the costs, and that's what we all need to focus on," said Bright. "We need to leave party labels and party politics out of it. We need to leave liberalism and conservatism out of it. And we all need to work together under the umbrella for a major cause for our country, and that is good, fair affordable health care."

He reiterated his belief that the current farm bill should remain intact before adding that lawmakers now have "many, many issues confronting us in Washington, D.C."

"Sometimes we get up there in the Beltway and we lose focus -- or we can -- lose focus on what you want us to do down here. Let me tell you something: We work for you. ... If you are displeased with your representatives -- even if you're displeased with me and my work ethic out there and my production for you, put us out, turn us away."

The second day of the conference provided another chance to learn as 10 buses ventured out on tours of area farms and other operations in Montgomery and other central Alabama counties.

"It's helpful for me to learn from others. A lot of farming is just about learning different ways of doing things," said cattle and timber producer Carlton Blackwood.

Blackwood said information gained on a tour of the Mary Oliver Thomas Demonstration Forest, Auburn University's Forest Ecology Preserve and the new Auburn University Deer Research Facility would be useful on his own farm in Winston County.

Another tour headed to west Alabama to see how Dickie Odom raises shrimp in saltwater ponds, how Nathan Diller is raising tilapia in a greenhouse and how Butch Wilson is raising more catfish per acre more efficiently in a raceway system.

Jennifer Cruise of Morgan County said one of her favorite stops was Van Smith's Hickory Hill Farm in Autauga County. The farm has a small herd of cows that are bred predominantly by artificial insemination, and it has a successful hay business.

"That farm shows that you don't have to be big to be successful," said Cruise. "We hear so much about the importance of being diversified, and it is important, but in this case, he has created a niche market that works for him and his size farm."

The tour also included stops at Autauga Farming Company, a diversified row crop and cattle operation, and a tour of hayfields in Montgomery County operated by a wastewater treatment facility.

The Red Tour began with a trip to Oakview Farms in Wetumpka where guests saw Joe and Patty Lambrecht's hydroponic lettuce operation, granary and more. The tour also stopped at Southern Homes and Gardens and Plantation Tree Co. The Orange Tour headed to Macon County where it made stops at the E.V. Smith Research Center's field crop, beef, horticulture and dairy units before touring the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing plant near Hope Hull.

Saturday's seminars were filled with farmers who sought answers in how to better manage their risks, cope with Africanized honeybees, manage wildlife and more.

Those attending a marketing/hedging workshop led by Tom Smith of Larned, Kan., were told opportunity lies within the market's volatility. "Evaluate the market factors; evaluate your marketing alternatives; and execute your marketing plan," he advised.

Fully half of those attending a seminar on farm theft and rural crime prevention indicated they had been victims. They also learned that rural property theft is among the hardest crimes to investigate and prosecute due to little evidence and no witnesses. However, they also learned about the value of video surveillance systems that can alert farmers to uninvited guests.

An agritourism seminar generated considerable interest as Tom Chesnutt, a tourism specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, told the attendees, "Tourism is not new. Often we think of it as funny dressed people with more money than sense, but we are beginning to see it really is economic development. Agriculture and tourism are the two largest industries in Alabama. Why not put them together?"

One such place that does it well is The Rock Ranch in Georgia, owned by Chick-fil-a owner Truett Cathy. It began with corporate picnics and trips but now offers Easter egg hunts, skydiving, a pumpkin patch, a Christmas light show, camping in covered wagons and more.

"All of you have something to offer. Don't sell yourselves short," said Steve Tate of Tate's Cotton Pickin' Pumpkin Patch in Madison County. "The commodity conference tours are proof that farmers enjoy visiting farms, and people who don't live on farms enjoy it even more ... Farms are notorious for undervaluing what they offer. We've been price takers so long we almost feel bad about charging for what we offer."

The conference's final seminar was also the most heavily attended as farmer-attorney Mitch Henry offered pointers on estate planning. "Farmers are private folk, but we don't need to be so private about financial matters to the point that it hurts future generations," he told the attendees, encouraging them to use annual gifts to transfer wealth.

Outlining current estate tax laws and what possible changes may occur, Henry advised the attendees to seek legal help from a qualified attorney. "First do something," he said, "and second, do no harm."

At Saturday night's closing banquet, former U.S. Rep. Terry Everett was honored for his service to agriculture during his eight terms representing Alabama's 2nd Congressional District.

The 2010 Commodity Producers Conference will be held in Columbus, Ga.

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