Pittsboro isn’t the first place you’d look to find an organization with international clout, but then the whole point of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, as executive director Betty Bailey says, “is that we work from the local to the global level” for sustainable agriculture and the preservation of family farms.

RAFI-USA staffers get their boots dirty in the fields of the Piedmont and Eastern North Carolina. But they clean up real well, too, for their meetings with officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington or with United Nations agencies like the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which met last year in Montreal and Bratislava, Slovakia.

“The organization, as small as it is, I think is really tremendous,” says Dan Pollitt, professor emeritus at UNC School of Law and a RAFI board member. “We start things, we make gains, and then other people take over. That’s what we do.” Pollitt says Churchill’s quote applies: “Never have so few done so much with so little.”

RAFI’s roots go back more than half a century to dust-bowl days and the creation of the National Sharecroppers Fund, which fought for the rights of tenant farmers against the big landowners who exploited them. Among the early movers in the NSF were liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Porter Graham, then president of the University of North Carolina. Created as an arm of the parent group, RAFI was spun off 11 years ago as a nonprofit with an updated mission: to advocate for rural communities against the forces of global trade and multinational agribusinesses that threaten their existence. Currently, RAFI operates with a budget of about $1.3 million a year, mainly from foundation and church grants and contributions from 4,500 individuals all over the country. It has a staff of 12.

That RAFI’s advocacy spans the global and local was clear on a recent visit to its new headquarters in Pittsboro.

One staffer, Michael Sligh, a Tennessee farmer turned food safety specialist, was on his way to South Africa for a conference of the International Federation of Consumers Unions. The issue there was food labeling–specifically, what standards should be met before a product can be sold as “organic.” This is enormously important to family farms when they sell in local and regional markets. Their organic methods don’t include genetically-modified seeds, irradiation technologies or sewage sludge, for example. So they don’t want to be lumped in with fake-organic corporations that do use all of this stuff and more. The USDA is expected to issue rules favorable to family farmers shortly, RAFI thinks, but in an age of global free trade, that isn’t enough. CODEX, the food-labeling arm of the World Trade Organization, could issue conflicting rules–which is why RAFI got itself a seat on CODEX.

A second staffer, Mary Clouse, was just back from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Minnesota, where wheat farmers are organizing to fight the issues headed their way because of “contract farming.” That’s a subject Clouse knows all too well: She and her husband were contract poultry growers in Chatham County until 12 years ago, when they were among the first to speak up against the abuses of corporations like Tyson Foods and Perdue–and the first to have their contracts cancelled.

“Of course, with chickens, nobody has a contract for more than about six weeks,” Clouse says. That’s how long it takes from the time the corporation delivers a flock of 25,000 chicks to when the farmer turns over the fully grown chickens to the corporation. Paying off the equipment needed to get into the business, however, takes a decade or more, putting the grower at the mercy of the corporate supplier.

Without some protections, Clouse says, contract farming “can make you a serf on your own farm.” That’s why RAFI’s helping farmers form co-ops, so they can negotiate with corporations as a group and lobby for laws to protect farmers’ rights. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has just offered a federal farmers-rights bill in Congress; led by Iowa’s attorney general, 16 states are also working on model legislation, and RAFI is hopeful that N.C. Agriculture Secretary-elect Meg Scott Phipps will push it in the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, a third staffer, Scott Marlow, was working with peanut farmers in Eastern North Carolina on a research project to see if yields can be increased even as pesticide use is cut. The project is in its fifth year. So far, participating farmers have used a total of 225,000 pounds less of active pesticide ingredients; 75 percent of them have increased their profits, and another 15 percent are running even, Marlow says.

The research is important by itself, Marlow believes, and also illustrates a larger point: “The new technologies in agriculture are all information-based,” he says. “So farmers need the ability to ‘produce’ information, rather than having to buy it, so they can produce their crops more efficiently.” Farmers make observations every day about what works in their fields and what doesn’t. The difference between their anecdotal information and the statistically-valid information sold to them is only that their observations haven’t been shared and recorded–and that’s what Marlow’s On-Farm Research Project is all about.

Another RAFI research project starting to bear fruit is its Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. It has helped 17 tobacco farmers experiment with different ways of making up the money they lost when their quotas were cut. One farmer, for example, fenced in 50 acres and started a “full-service horse farm,” complete with riding trails and stables. Another created a “pick-your-own grape farm.”

With funds from the national tobacco settlement about to start flowing to the state-created Golden Leaf Foundation, Marlow says, “We think we have a very successful model that can be picked up” to help tobacco-dependent communities. “A lot of the discussion is about how to bring in industry, which is fine, but that doesn’t directly respond to the needs of farmers who are in transition. There’s a disconnect there.”

RAFI’s new headquarters is testimony to the local side of its mission and epitomizes sustainability. The building is on the site of an old rectory just south of Pittsboro’s town center. Rather than just tear the rectory down, RAFI painstakingly “deconstructed” it, re-using the wood and stone in the new facility and recycling the fixtures through Habitat for Humanity and various scrap dealers.

The “green building,” as it’s called, uses passive solar energy and lighting to save on utility costs. It includes extra office space for rent to compatible nonprofit groups and a meeting room available to community groups. RAFI has just broken ground on a second building that it will use and make available to the community for day-long meetings of up to 50 people. It will be named for Pollitt, who joined the NSF board in 1960. (“The Dan-Dome,” Pollitt laughs.)

“We’ve always had the role of being a convener,” says Bailey, RAFI’s executive director, “and of bringing together unlikely pairs–tobacco growers and public-health groups, for example.” RAFI sees itself as an advocate for farmers first and foremost, she says. But it also recognizes that farmers are a shrinking minority, so the organization tries to be a bridge-builder, forging alliances among farm, environmental, consumer and community- development organizations.

“Re-weaving” the ties that bound farm to their communities, and resisting the global and corporate forces that tend to pull them apart, is RAFI’s goal, Bailey says. Corporations want to impose an industrial model on farmers, making everyone in a single community grow the same crop in the same way, and achieving biodiversity only on a global scale, she argues. But that kind of “efficiency” imposes tremendous risk on any single community, because one crop failure, one disease, or a glut that leads to a price bust, can be disastrous.

North Carolinians know that now, Bailey says, because prices for hogs, chickens and tobacco are all under siege. The answer, she thinks, is to return a measure of control to the farmer.

“We work hard to put forward, in a concrete way, positive solutions. We don’t just criticize,” says Bailey. “And we are not just saying we need more sustainable agriculture. We’re in there on the ground with farmers helping them to make it happen.” EndBlock