In 1987, during the depths of a crisis that threatened the traditional family farm, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) developed a project called the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, or ATTRA. The idea behind the service was to make it easier for farmers and ranchers to manage their land for the long term in order to keep it healthy and productive.
ATTRA touted the benefits and savings available to the farmer or rancher who was willing to try techniques that were new or had been abandoned in favor of chemistry and technology. No-till farming, cover crops, organic systems and numerous other practices considered basic to many operations today were considered contrary to ordinary in the 80s. As sustainable agriculture has made its way into the mainstream, ATTRA, headquartered in Butte, Mont., has expanded to include five regional offices, including one in San Antonio.
Services include answering specific one-on-one questions about sustainable agriculture through a toll free hotline and a website that offers hundreds of publications, most of them free of charge, along with databases and other sources of information. ATTRA works with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), Holistic Management International (HMI), Texas Pecan Growers, Edinburg Citrus Association and many other organizations to provide information and present workshops and seminars.
Mike Morris, head of ATTRA’s regional office in San Antonio, said the Texas office opened because of a high demand for information and assistance on sustainable practices from farmers and ranchers in the state.
“This gives us a chance to get closer to the ground to see what’s going on and what people are interested in,” he said. “A lot of the practices we’re involved with have become a lot more common with the growth of farmers markets, [Community Supported Agriculture] and the interest in local food. We’ve always been there to sort of fill in the gaps for people who wanted to know more about it.”
Morris said the biggest areas of inquiry include small acreage production, water management, especially in times of drought, rotational grazing and organic systems. He said ATTRA is designed primarily to help the grower who either makes his or her living from agriculture or uses it to produce a second income.
“There’s a lot of interest in urban farming on a small piece of land or growing a garden and making a second income from that,” he said. “We’ve really done a lot of work on irrigation efficiency and ways to increase the water holding capacity of a ranch. There’s been some impressive work done using no-till practices and cover crops to improve the soil’s water holding capacity.”
ATTRA is funded through USDA Rural Development, which means the services it provides are free. Funding for NCAT and the ATTRA project was cut in 2011 but restored last year after widespread protests. In 2012, ATTRA had 84,570 client contacts in Texas; nationwide, the number was more than 2.1 million, according to USDA figures.
ATTRA is an acronym for Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas, but it’s hardly ever called that. Morris said the name harkens back more to the terminology of the 80s when the feeling was that mid-sized conventional farms weren’t making it and there was an emphasis on alternatives of all kinds. Today, the project operates under the banner of sustainable agriculture, including but not limited to organic operations.
“We absolutely support and work with people who are interested in organic farming,” he said. “But so much of our work relates to direct marketing, value-added enterprises, niche markets, business planning, small-acreage, local food and other topics that really have to do with business viability.”
Morris has been with NCAT for 15 years and had worked with clients across the country on water and energy conservation, irrigation efficiency, renewable energy and beginning farmer training. He is joined in the San Antonio office by Robert Maggiani, who works as a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist. Maggiani comes to the position with experience as a vegetable farmer in South Texas and Mexico and 26 years working for the Texas Department of Agriculture. He was also a founding member of the Wheatsville Co-op in Austin and helped found the San Antonio Food Policy Council.
In addition to workshops, ATTRA is starting a Farm to Work program in San Antonio aimed at growing and creating significant marketing opportunities for area farms. “We see a lot of potential for aggregation facilities that would enable small farmers to join together and reach a size and volume where they can serve institutional markets like businesses, school and hospitals. This is beginning to happen in cities around Texas and we’d like to push it along and see it happen faster.”
The Texas Organic Initiative is aimed at eliminating barriers to the development of organic operations. Morris said that Texas ranks 20th in the nation in the number of certified organic operations, meaning that farmers here are missing out on some lucrative opportunities.
“By a conservative estimate, sales of organic produce within the state of Texas alone are approximately $250 million per year. Right now only a tiny percentage of this produce is Texas grown.”
To get in touch with ATTRA, visit the website at attra.ncat.org. The site includes more than 3000 publications on all aspects of sustainable agriculture. Most are free, or available for a nominal cost. The toll free hotline is 800-346-9140. The Spanish language hotline is 800-411-3222.