|Shipmans Win NRCS Small Farmer Award|
Roy and Barbara Shipman found their niche in their local community in rural Southeast Alabama. Much of their time is focused on helping feed the community by growing produce and selling it at local farmer’s markets, offering area youth the opportunity to experience working with livestock through the local 4-H, and giving youngsters and senior citizens a place to go and things to do at a place called the Cottage House.
Because of this commitment, the Shipmans were nominated as the Alabama Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Small Farmers of the Year and placed second in the national competition at the National Organization of Professional NRCS Employees meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Shipmans returned a few years ago to become fifth generation farmers on land in Barbour County that has been in Roy’s family since 1862. The extended Shipman family owns about 690 acres, but Roy and Barbara are currently improving about 40 acres around their homestead. The land had grown up over the years, but they are working hard to get it productive again. They have a small herd of meat goats and grow seasonal produce.
They realized early they needed a better water source. Their goat herd had grown to about 40, but they had to sell some during the drought because they did not have enough water. They were also unsuccessful in their first attempts at growing vegetables because of the water problems.
The Shipmans contacted the local NRCS office for help. The Barbour County NRCS staff visited the farm.
Soil Conservation Technician Jimmy Hatcher said, "NRCS has been working with the Shipmans for about three years and we created a conservation farm plan for them. They had a lot of trouble during the droughts of 2006 and 2007 and had lost some goats because of both insufficient water and poor water quality. They needed a dependable water source, not only for the goats, but their collection of smaller animals like quail, ducks and rabbits they raise on the farm. We discussed different ways to secure the water. We decided the best way to go was to install a well, especially since it could also be used for a micro-irrigation and plasticulture system for their specialty crops."
Following the conservation plan, and using practice payments from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), they installed a well in May 2008. The well provides water for their animals, a flower and vegetable garden, and a micro-irrigation system. In 2009, they were approved to fence about 7.6 acres into five rotational grazing pastures with watering troughs for the goats through the EQIP program.
The Shipmans contacted the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and were approved for a special micro-irrigation and plasticulture project.
Barbara said, "The leader of the project, Harold McLamore, brought the equipment to the farm and helped us set up the system."
Before installing the system, the Shipmans said they lost more crops than they harvested because they did not have enough water.
Barbara commented, "Drip irrigation works much better because we can water our crops less frequently, use less water and grow better vegetables."
Micro-irrigation with plasticulture works by using special equipment to lay down plastic in rows over a drip irrigation system fed by a well or stable water source. Holes are punched through the plastic and the seed is planted about two inches into the soil. The plastic cover helps maintain soil moisture, prevent soil erosion and control weeds.
The Shipmans recently planted a crop of collard greens, broccoli, carrots and mixed salad greens.
Barbara said, "I sort of took a survey of what people like to eat in this area. I’ve found it’s better to plant what people like to eat rather than what I like. At one time I grew some round eggplant, a new version about the size of a softball and a lot of people would not even try one. Then I grew some white eggplant and no one enjoyed those but me. Now, I just plant what I know people will enjoy eating."
Roy said, "We are learning as we go about how to plant using plastic and micro-irrigation. We do not plant back-to-back, but rotate plantings every few weeks so we can keep our garden growing all season long."
Barbara said, "Our most consistent crop is winter greens. We know we will have them through May. Everything else is trial-and-error because of the inconsistencies in Southern Alabama weather and the soil we have. We have to plant things the soil will enjoy, and what we know will grow well."
With their bountiful vegetable crops, Barbara realized they needed a market place to sell the produce. She sought approval from the Alabama Farmer’s Market Authority to re-open the community farmer’s market in nearby Clio. Each farmer approved to sell produce at a farmer’s market receives a vendor numbered stamp.
Two Alabama Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (FMNPs) — the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Senior — provide seniors and nutritionally at-risk women and children the opportunity to buy fresh, local produce directly from farmers at local farmer’s markets and roadside stands. Before vouchers can be exchanged for cash, they must have the vendor’s number stamped on it.
Charlie Mason of the Bullock County Cooperative Extension System said, "The farmer’s market is a great asset to the community. The Shipmans’ dedication in re-opening the local market gives the voucher recipients a place to get fresh vegetables which results in a value to them, the other residents of the community and the farmers who sell here. Voucher recipients appreciate the variety of fresh produce to choose from and enjoy the experience of meeting local growers."
Barbara said, "We keep the market open as long as we, or other farmers in the surrounding area, have fresh produce."
The Shipmans also have a passion for working with the area youth. Barbara works with a local 4-H group of about 11 students ranging from ages 7-15. She takes every opportunity to incorporate character building elements, as well as practical life lessons, when working with them.
The 4-H youth learn about agriculture by helping plant and harvest the vegetables on the Shipman farm. They develop marketing skills by making jams and jellies to sell at the market and by working at the farmer’s market. The students receive income for their services, but are required to invest their earnings in U.S. Savings Bonds. Barbara said this is a great way of keeping them busy, helping them learn life-skills and keeping them out of trouble.
The youth also help the Shipmans with their goat operation.
Roy said, "When our veterinarian visits to worm the goats, give shots or trim the hoofs, we invite the 4-H group to observe and help. We loan out our baby goats for 4-H projects."
When the baby goats are born, the Shipmans loan them to students who want one to show for 4-H. The youth have to bond with the animals and to train with them at least 30 minutes every day to be able to handle them properly in a 4-H show.
Barbara said, "Hopefully we can get more young people interested in raising goats. We heard they are going to open a new goat processing plant near us, and are going to need more goats. I tell parents, ‘Here is something your kids can do. We live in a rural area and we have to be creative. You have to take what you already have and make something more of it.’"
The Shipmans also have a genuine concern for the welfare of the residents of the county.
Barbara explained, "We’ve lost all of our business structure in the county when about four companies closed their doors. We struggle to keep the youth and adult residents of the area motivated. That is what got us thinking about renovating the Cottage House for a community resource center."
The Cottage House is a home Roy inherited.
Barbara said, "When the house was left to Roy by his grandmother, we really did not know what to do with it. After some thought, we decided to remodel it to meet the needs of the community."
They opened the Cottage House in December 2007 for individuals who wanted to study for the GED exam. They currently offer a variety of programs to local residents. A new conference room that holds about 75 people has been added for seminars and meetings, and individual rooms are fully equipped and supplied for projects like crafts, sewing, flower arranging and cooking. Current organized Cottage House programs include GED classes; tutoring in math, English and reading using donated programs; computer classes; cooking and marketing like canning, making syrup and jellies, and producing homemade breads and rolls; and "Teach a Trade" classes in auto mechanics and small engine repair.
They also organize special programs at the Cottage House. A youth entrepreneur workshop was held in February 2007. The event, sponsored by Alabama A&M, attracted over 135 adults and youth.
Barbara stated, "If they come to the Cottage House to learn, we are going to teach them whatever they need. That is basically what the Cottage House is all about. We are looking forward to doing more things as we get our plans more structured. We have just started and we still have a lot of work to do."
Barbara is involved with community-based organizations in the area. She is the President of the Barbour/Bullock Small Farmer Association that works through a Cooperative Agreement between Alabama NRCS and Ala-Tom Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D). The purpose of the agreement is to increase an awareness of NRCS conservation programs and provide assistance and implementation guidance to limited resource/small scale farmers and the State Indian Tribes of Alabama through workshops, hands-on assistance and media publications.
Barbara works with the Southern Rural Black Women Initiative (SRBWI) and "Women in Ag" to sponsor agri-tours to encourage community sustainability and productivity. She is working with Tuskegee University to develop a program to design and market products the community seamstresses produce at the Cottage House. She has worked with other community gardens like the Wiregrass Farmer’s Cooperative in Geneva County where youth operate and sell produce from a 40-acre operation and "People Helping People" project in Bessemer where local youth helped establish a school garden and a community garden.
NRCS State Conservationist Gary Kobylski commented, "We were proud to offer the assistance Roy and Barbara Shipman needed to help make their small farm a success. They have worked hard and are deserving of the small farmer award. Through our EQIP program, NRCS in Alabama has special emphasis programs targeting beginning, limited resource, small scale or socially disadvantaged farmers." (For more information about NRCS conservation programs visit online at http://www.al.nrcs.usda.gov or the local USDA Service Center.)
Through their cumulative efforts of farming and community involvement, Barbara and Roy Shipman are reaping huge benefits.
Barbara remarked, "We enjoy what we do. Not only do we farm, work with young people and help the community through activities at the Cottage House, hopefully, we are making a difference."