Almost from the first day he arrived in Alabama, Gary Lemme has considered it one of his top priorities to remind Alabamians of the economic engine in their midst.
He isn’t referring to high-tech industries such as ThyssenKrupp Steel in Mobile or Hyundai in Montgomery, but to the economic sector that has been the driving force of Alabama’s economy throughout almost 200 years of statehood: agriculture, forestry and related industries.
One of the initial impressions this Minnesota-born agronomist gained from traveling throughout the state was the understated presence of agriculture and forestry — a radical change from the upper Midwest, where he has spent most of his adult life working as an agronomy professor and agriculture college dean.
“Traveling through Alabama, you don’t always notice the huge presence of agriculture,” says Lemme, who now serves as the director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
“We don’t have miles upon miles of open fields as they do in much of the Midwest, and those clean modern buildings associated with poultry production tend to be located away from major highways,” he says.
Having studied up on Alabama’s economy and history after his arrival, Lemme knew that agriculture’s and forestry’s reach was immense, just understated and, consequently, misunderstood.
Lemme was determined not only to demonstrate agriculture and forestry’s enormous but understated presence but also its enduring influence and, most important of all, its immense potential.
He enlisted the help of Auburn University’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology to undertake a study of the size and reach of Alabama’s forestry and agriculture sector.
What these researchers learned from an extensive study of more than 90 industries associated with this sector is compiled in a report titled “Economic Impacts of Alabama’s Agricultural, Forestry and Related Industries.”
“Many Alabamians don’t know the impact of this industry — how many dollars are actually generated by this sector of the economy,” says Deacue Fields, an Extension economist and Auburn University associate professor of agricultural economics who assisted with the study.
Big dollar impact on economy
“We not only wanted to account for the reach of this sector beyond the farm gate, but also to demonstrate how the dollars generated by this sector are multiplied throughout the state’s economy.”
The study revealed that in addition to remaining Alabama’s largest economic engine — generating about $70.4 billion annually — agriculture and forestry also comprise the state’s second largest employer, providing about 580,295 jobs. One of out every 4.6 jobs in this increasingly urbanized state is still claimed by agriculture and forestry.
Putting it another way, that represents 40 percent of the state’s GDP.
Among other findings, the study reveals that agriculture generates $10,770 in economic activity for every person in the state. Moreover, every $1 million in direct sales of agricultural and timber products generates 10 jobs.
“The data compiled in the report not only underscore how innovative but also how diverse this sector has become within the last few decades,” Lemme says.
“We produce and process a wide diversity of products that not only are consumed here in Alabama but that are exported to every corner of the world, and these are being generated by local agricultural economies that are as multifaceted and innovative as those that you will find in many high-tech industrial parks throughout the state,” he says.
The next step, he contends, should involve developing a comprehensive strategy for building on these strengths.
“There is huge potential in these local agricultural economies waiting to be unlocked,” he says. “This is best achieved through a combination of public policy initiatives, investments in research and Extension and incentives for encouraging young agriculture and forestry producers.”
In addition to securing a baseline of data for future debate and discussion, Fields says the report and others that will follow will provide a clearer picture for how to invest in agriculture and forestry.
“What we hope to do over time is to refine this picture through additional study so that we are better able to predict what will follow when we invest money in a particular facet of this economic sector or if we make improvements in the infrastructure,” Fields says. “For example, if we introduce a new peanut variety for production in the Wiregrass, what effect will this have within the local economy?”
Funding for the report was provided by several public and private entities, including the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Alabama Agribusiness Council and Auburn University’s College of Agriculture and School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
“This effort reflects a longstanding practice among these groups to work together for the benefit of this critical economic sector,” Lemme says.
“I hope that what’s revealed in this report will provide state and local leaders alike with a strong incentive to foster policies and incentives that will help us fully capitalize on the immense potential of this powerful economic engine.”