- Associated Press - Saturday, January 18, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Farming and forestry are big business in Alabama. Combined, they account for nearly 12 percent of all of the state’s economic activity.

But after generations of change, the state’s bell cow industries may need some nurturing.

Over the past half century, the number of Alabama farms has dwindled from about 250,000 to around 60,000. Large farming operations have thrived but many medium-sized, family farms died away, said Alabama Cooperative Extension System Director Gary Lemme.

“We’ve lost the middle,” he said.

Still, Lemme’s optimistic about what’s ahead, pointing to the state’s strong agricultural assets and the more than 100,000 young people in 4H programs here.

“People want to be able to have that opportunity to live in their communities, to enjoy the lifestyle but at the same time to be able to have a full career,” he said. “Agriculture has a strong future here in Alabama.”

One of the biggest barriers to that future has been the rocky, often complicated path to owning and running a productive farm. ACES and others want to make sure the next generation has the tools and knowledge to take over, particularly in a state where the average age of a farmer is 50.

“It’s like when you lose institutional knowledge,” ACES Communications Specialist Jim Langcuster said. “Kids come in fresh to this. There’s so much data involved, it makes it more daunting.”

The number of farms has grown slightly over the past few years. Lemme said that’s because awareness of agriculture and local food systems has spread beyond rural areas and more people are maintaining a small farm - sometimes just a few acres - while working a job in a city.

While that means a much wider diversity in the types of farms and crops, it also means they need a wide range of knowledge.

“There is no average anymore,” Lemme said.

In November, Pike Road launched a series of free seminars meant to teach people about the basics of farming and agribusiness. More than 50 people attended, including Wes Gaston who’s considering taking over a farm that’s been in his family for generations.

His wife, Mary Catherine Gaston, said the crowd ran the gamut from someone who had five acres of land and wants to grow strawberries, to a man who was retiring and wanted to know how to manage his timber land. The town will continue the seminars this year, working with ACES and the National Young Farmers Educational Association.

“We have lots of folks out here who inherited land,” she said. “It may not be a lot of land, but they’re interested in a wide range of pursuits. If you’re new to this, there’s a lot to figure out. The seminars can show people where to start and who to go to.”

Meanwhile, ACES is holding a series of statewide workshops to help families plan to hand over their farms from one generation to the next. It’s a process that’s often thorny, and not always for technical reasons. Experts said the biggest challenge is often open communication between family members.

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