7 months ago

Technology that led to recoveries of Aniah Blanchard, Kamille ‘Cupcake’ McKinney could help solve Alabama’s prison crisis

MONTGOMERY — Sources close to the investigations have confirmed to Yellowhammer News that LEO Technologies’ proprietary Verus Analytical System helped lead to the respective recoveries of both the remains of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney and Aniah Blanchard.

Remains believed to be Blanchard’s were recovered on Monday, as reported by Yellowhammer News. McKinney’s remains were recovered last month. Both were the subjects of separate Alabama missing persons cases, which now seem set to be prosecuted as kidnapping and homicide cases. Blanchard, a 19-year-old Homewood resident, had been attending school at Lee County’s Southern Union Community College; McKinney, 3, lived in Birmingham.

Three suspects have now been arrested and charged by the Auburn Police Department in relation to Blanchard’s disappearance: first Ibraheem Yazeed, then Antwain Shamar “Squirmy” Fisher on Friday night and finally David Johnson, Jr. on Monday.

While previous media reporting has advised that Fisher allegedly “disposed of evidence and provided transportation for Yazeed,” how authorities learned of Fisher’s reported involvement has remained a public mystery — until now.

What is LEO Technologies?

Before delving into the two aforementioned cases, it is important to understand just exactly what LEO Technologies does.

Co-founded by Tuscaloosa native James Sexton, LEO Technologies specializes in bringing cutting edge software and hardware, along with world-class subject matter expertise, to law enforcement agencies, intelligence entities, correctional facilities and private sector partners. “OUR SOLUTIONS ARE BUILT FOR COPS BY COPS,” their website highlights.

The company, founded in 2016, was featured in a recent national ABC News story about its revolutionary artificial intelligence (AI) system, Verus, that transcribes participating prisons’ phone calls virtually instantaneously and alerts law enforcement to relevant information.

Using inmate phone calls, which are hosted by other companies on behalf of the prisons, Verus produces near real-time intelligence based on keywords and phrases selected by law enforcement. It automatically downloads, analyzes and transcribes all recorded inmate calls, proactively flagging them for review.

While legally mandated warnings play at the beginning of every inmate phone call stating that each call is being recorded and monitored, inmates — and individuals on the other end of the line — still disclose an incredible amount of information, from incriminating evidence important in criminal investigations to warnings that an inmate is in danger — whether through self-harm or threats from other inmates.

Respective prison phone providers across the country already offer transcription services, however, these are done manually — and normally after a specific, reactive request. No law enforcement agency has the manpower resources to transcribe or monitor every prison phone call. Simply put, this means information is out there across the country that could be used to save lives and reduce crime — yet that goldmine of data is sitting idly by, collecting digital dust as business as usual in the American corrections system nets the same old problems.

Verus, on the other hand, is automated and proactive. And corrections facilities or the relevant associated law enforcement agency do not even have to expend manpower to constantly monitor the results produced. LEO Technologies provides each entity that uses Verus with an expert, retired law enforcement officer, from some of the best agencies in America. This individual becomes embedded in that law enforcement entity, monitoring the Verus results, helping facilitate the most effective keyword and phrase usage and forwarding relevant information to the proper investigator.

More Alabama ties

Jefferson County, under then-Sheriff Mike Hale, was the national beta test subject for Verus. The county’s prison went online with the system first and is still utilizing it to this day.

Retired Los Angeles Police Department detective Joe Ferreira is LEO Technologies’ embed that has been working with Jefferson County. Ferreira has worked every division imaginable for LAPD: homicide, narcotics, gangs, vice, forgery.

Yellowhammer News spoke with David Thompson, the retired Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office unit commander who worked to implement Verus for the sheriff’s office.

He called Verus “a very valuable tool to help with several things.”

Thompson then listed gathering intelligence on criminal activity as one of these things, explaining, “[B]ecause even though inmates are in jail, [many] still either operate criminal enterprises or they try to stay in the loop about what’s going on on the outside.”

Next, he detailed Verus helps provide a wealth of information on contraband already in the facility and planned smuggling operations of contraband into the facility. These operations can be conducted through employees, contractors or visitors.

Third, Thompson outlined that Verus is an important tool in helping with mental health issues in the facility. The system can help identify, through keywords, inmates battling mental illnesses, including those who are risks for self-harm or suicide.

Similarly, Verus can be used to thwart planned assaults, homicides or riots in the jail, Thompson remarked.

Verus typically costs about $500,000 annually for a corrections facility of 1,000 inmates. In addition to the potentially life-saving — thus priceless — benefits he mentioned, Thompson noted how the system pays for itself.

“When you find those calls ahead of time and you prevent an inmate from killing themselves or killing another inmate, it potentially saves millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements,” he added.

‘Success stories’ galore

Thompson explained that Hale’s office initially was very willing to try the system to decrease violent crime.

“The biggest untapped source of intelligence is the jail,” he said, speaking in general terms. Thompson added that trying to use a prison phone company’s monitoring tools is like “trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

He continued to praise LEO Technologies’ software for its unparalleled effectiveness and efficiency.

Citing a litany of “success stories,” Thompson remarked, “The reality is law enforcement is here to help bring justice, and the information [revealed by Verus] allows you to close a lot of cases.”

He said this includes cases that law enforcement officers were not even actively investigating, rather Verus allowed them to “just stumble upon” evidence. Additionally, there are many high profile cases in recent years in Jefferson County that Verus did not receive public credit for helping close but were indeed some of these success stories.

Take this wild story originally reported by Carol Robinson, when LEO Technologies’ involvement went unheralded.

Thompson told ABC News about this example stemming from a Birmingham man who was arrested in 2017 on outstanding felony warrants. His car was towed to a local impound yard, and while he was in the Jefferson County jail, Verus alerted law enforcement officials to search his car for drugs.

“He calls family members and asks them to go to the tow yard, and get a locked camera case from his car,” Thompson said. “And he gives them the three-digit code to unlock the case.”

Law enforcement officers, once notified of the contents of that call, got a search warrant and rushed to the impound yard with a drug-sniffing K9.

“We sent our narcotics people to the tow yard and beat the family there,” Thompson explained. “We didn’t even have to break the case open because we had the code.”

Authorities reportedly recovered three grams of cocaine, two grams of heroin and an undetermined amount of the sedative alprazolam.

Without Verus, it would have been doubtful that law enforcement officials ever found out about the drugs. And, even with a slower, manual prison phone monitoring service, the man’s family members would have been able to beat authorities to the car and move the drugs.

This is just one of many positive results made possible by Verus in Jefferson County alone. Thompson said numerous illegal weapons and a large amount of drugs have been taken off the streets in the Birmingham metro area due to the technology.

Last year, an inmate call in Jefferson County even recorded a live murder outside the jail involving suspected gang members. Using intelligence from the call, local, state and federal authorities were able to launch a large-scale roundup called “Operation Focused Remedy” in and around Bessemer that sought targeted arrests on nine federal and 26 state warrants. Over 20 firearms were recovered from this operation.

Then there was the case of a Jefferson County inmate allegedly running a prostitution ring from inside his jail cell. Verus helped authorities bust the ring and rescue at least one human trafficking victim, Thompson told ABC News.

Another example obtained by Yellowhammer News pertains to ‘Two Gunz Vito,’ a local rapper who was indicted in 2017 for the murder of then Mayor-Elect Randall Woodfin’s nephew. The indictment was made possible because Vito, already an inmate, on a prison phone call provided a synopsis of the homicide that he allegedly committed. He was arrested and detained with an admissible confession in this high-profile case due to Verus, requiring no search warrant, phone tap, interview or law enforcement operation.

Indeed, information obtained by Yellowhammer News concluded that in 2018 alone, Verus helped the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office screen over four million inmate calls. These calls resulted in a total of 118 criminal reports, including 39 homicides.

More jurisdictions starting to benefit

Jefferson County, however, is not an outlier in having success with Verus.

The East Metro Area Crime Center has also subsequently chosen to use the technology, and Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge told ABC News “it made a believer out of me in the first week.”

In an interview with Yellowhammer News, Partridge, currently president of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police, shared personal experiences that mirrored the positive results that Thompson outlined.

Partridge stressed that the “biggest thing” that continues to strike him about Verus is helping prevent inmate suicides.

The police chief outlined that inmates, just as in the outside world, normally reach out to loved ones with a cry for help. Because this happens frequently via prison phone calls, law enforcement authorities are able to be alerted by Verus and act accordingly to potentially save a life.

“That alone is the most fantastic part about it,” Partridge said of preventing suicides.

He added that Verus “pays for itself with [suicide reductions] alone.”

“Now the rest of it is all gravy from there,” he further noted, mentioning lots of gravy at that — the same broad benefits outlined by Thompson.

“I think this technology is probably some of the best technology put out since the taser,” Partridge stressed, noting he has firsthand seen some “serious crimes” solved and multiple potential suicides prevented because of it.

These sentiments were echoed by Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade, who is now utilizing Verus in his county jail.

“We have — almost daily — analysts (from LEO) send us something,” he shared.

Wade detailed one example of an inmate who on a call told someone to go get a gun he had stashed, revealing the location. Authorities were then able to recover this gun before the inmate’s contact could, allowing the inmate to be appropriately prosecuted.

The sheriff said several crimes have been solved in Calhoun County that occurred outside the jail walls but were talked about over the prison phones.

“Having this technology is paramount,” Wade emphasized, outlining that the difference between Verus and traditional prison phone company monitoring is night and day.

He called the traditional, non-Verus method “the least effective way” possible. Wade, like Thompson and Partridge, praised potential suicide preventions as a key result for his jurisdiction.

“Intelligence-led policing is the future,” Wade added.

McKinney, Blanchard cases

While Wade very well might be right, it would seem intelligence-led policing’s time is now, too.

Just take the McKinney and Blanchard cases as prime examples — crimes that occurred outside of jail walls and rocked entire communities, with waves being felt around the United States.

First, before McKinney’s abduction become national news, she was the talk of the Jefferson County jail.

Yellowhammer News has learned that Verus helped identify approximately 20 phone calls about McKinney from the night she went missing alone. The calls identified potential witnesses and suspects alike that were at that point unknown to authorities.

A source with direct knowledge confirmed that authorities were even able to firmly place Patrick Devone Stallworth, one of the now-charged suspects, purchasing candy because Verus alerted to the keyword “candy.” Additionally, authorities were alerted to a call about exactly how McKinney was lured away from the party from a Jefferson County jail phone call, confirming what on-scene witnesses said. The totality of the information from calls into and out of the jail helped lead to the recovery of her remains.

Verus’ involvement with the Blanchard case is perhaps even more striking.

At the time of her disappearance, no entity in Lee County or Montgomery County was utilizing LEO Technologies.

Approximately one week into the search for Blanchard, the Montgomery City Jail requested to begin using Verus. After approximately another week that it took for the respective prison phone company to comply and allow LEO Technologies the proper access, the results started almost immediately.

A source close to the investigation confirmed to Yellowhammer News that on November 10, Montgomery Police Department received a tip in reference to a truck possibly involved in the disappearance. The word truck was then added as a keyword into that jurisdiction’s Verus alert list, and the following day, the system alerted to a phone call with that keyword used several times that seemingly helped solve the case.

In that phone call, it is alleged that Fisher, who had been arrested on unrelated warrants the previous day and was an inmate at the time, was extensively talking to an individual outside the jail about Blanchard’s disappearance. In said phone call, Fisher was personally implicated as having involvement with the aftermath of Blanchard’s disappearance, including having been in her car. Fisher reportedly warned the individual not to call the police, although the individual wanted to. Another suspect was also allegedly implicated in this same phone call.

After Verus alerted to the phone call, LEO obtained a copy through the prison phone company and gave the copy to Auburn Police Department. This was the piece of evidence that led to Fisher, then back out of jail, being picked up by Auburn PD on November 22. Sources close to the investigation confirm that the call also ended up being crucial in locating and recovering Blanchard’s remains.

What else can LEO Technologies help solve?

While the apparent closure of these two high-profile cases are two more examples of crimes committed outside of prison walls being aided by Verus, Alabama especially has an ongoing crisis in its corrections facilities.

This past spring, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — the prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

While public examples of the conditions — from prison violence to overcrowding and inadequate resources — have been reported on for years, Melissa Brown just this month published yet another tear-jerking account of Alabama inmates’ “horrid” experiences.

While some action has been taken on the state level in recent years, there is still clearly much to be done, especially to reduce inmate deaths.

“Alabama Dept. of corrections confirms 3 inmate deaths in 8 days.” That’s a headline from last month.

“2 inmates found dead in Alabama prisons.” That happened on Monday of this week.

These examples are the norm, not the exception.

However, while there is an acceptance by legislators and state officials that something must be done, there is still seemingly no consensus on what solution(s) should be implemented.

The governor has convened a study group to gather all of the relevant data and propose solutions. That group is set to hold its final meeting on January 12 ahead of the February 4 start of the 2020 regular session of the Alabama legislature.

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), viewed as the leading legislator on corrections and criminal justice reform, has explained that the prison problem is no “one bill, one solution” issue. He has emphasized the complexity of the crisis, as well as the necessarily multifaceted nature of any potential package of solutions.

Yet, lines are already being drawn by some. State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne), a career prosecutor before his election in 2018, on Friday argued against sentencing reform as a potential part-solution.

Governor Kay Ivey, for her part, will drive much of this conversation in 2020, just as she did on major bipartisan issues like the Rebuild Alabama Act last time around.

In an op-ed earlier this, she detailed the problems, some things done in recent years to start improving conditions and what more needs to be accomplished. As she wrote, Ivey wants “an Alabama solution” for what is surely an Alabama problem.

While potential proposals such as sentencing reform and new prison construction are sure to be political wedges, there may be one bipartisan, commonsense change to be made. As Jefferson County, the Metro Area Crime Center, Calhoun County and now Montgomery City Jail have witnessed firsthand (Talladega is also in the process of going online), LEO Technologies’ Verus system is making tangible positive impacts on the very worst issues that Alabama is facing in its prisons: suicide, violent inmate-on-inmate crime and contraband-related problems.

Alabama solutions for Alabama problems

Yellowhammer News spoke with LEO’s Sexton, who said the company has had conversations with the Alabama Department of Corrections and senior members of the governor’s staff, including chief of staff and former Congressman Jo Bonner. Conversations are ongoing between ADOC and LEO. The state has recognized and embraced the need first to address staffing shortages, and the company invites corrections to try out its technology as a complement to those efforts.

Sexton said, “Governor Kay Ivey has asked for Alabama solutions … for Alabama problems. I believe we have one, and I’m working through the proper channels to get it in front of her for consideration.”

“I’m an Alabama boy that was adopted by Alabama officials to solve Alabama problems (in Jefferson County and the subsequent partners),” he continued. “I love my state, and this is a hometown problem for me. I want Alabama to win every time.”

Sexton advised Yellowhammer News that LEO is offering 90-day trials for any Alabama law enforcement agency or corrections facility (or “bundle” of agencies/facilities like the Metro Area Crime Center) 700 beds or over that want to see the product work for themselves before making a long term commitment.

“We have past performance of dealing with every issue the state of Alabama has had,” he added.

He also stressed that this is a bipartisan measure. While Hale, a Republican, as sheriff in Jefferson County first brought LEO in mainly because of violent crime, now-Sheriff Mark Pettway, a Democrat, has been able to focus on different benefits through improving inmate welfare.

Sexton also addressed head-on one potential talking point of naysayers: privacy concerns with the system automatically monitoring inmate phone calls.

“An inmate phone call is a consensual phone call, and it has been upheld for the last 30 years that … anything you say on those calls is evidence,” he said. “That’s the beautiful part about our tool. Anything discussed on the inmate phone call is for the benefit of society. Well upheld.”

In fact, LEO has a major civil rights organization in its corner.

Don Baylor with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., praised LEO Technologies and Verus in an interview with Yellowhammer News. He said he was “so impressed with the technology they offer.”

“They’re so effective at saving lives,” Baylor extolled.

He noted the SCLC was heavily involved with prison reform efforts as well.

Baylor continued to explain that LEO has been a big help with what they are doing in that regard. He underlined that Sexton is a big believer in giving deserving inmates second chances and actively aids in inmate education and rehabilitation initiatives.

‘I think they’re losing out’

To all of the corrections facilities and law enforcement agencies not using Verus in Alabama right now, Baylor urged them to get on board.

“Once this technology is understood, all of the things that it can do, I think it could revolutionize some of the issues that we have,” Baylor said.

He was joined by all of the law enforcement officials Yellowhammer News spoke to in making this call-to-action.

Thompson said Verus is worth it “if you can prevent (just) one jail suicide.”

Partridge added of facilities and agencies not using Verus, “I think they’re losing out by not taking advantage of the technology — not only the crimes they could be solving with it but also preventing those inmate deaths.”

“We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe inside jail — and then get them out of jail,” Sexton summarized. “And isolate the bad actors.”

If all of the above testimonials are not enough, Ferreira, the veteran detective and California transplant now working as LEO’s embed in the Heart of Dixie, told Yellowhammer News that he would not be in Alabama spearheading Verus’ usage if it did not work.

“I equate the technology we have to fishing with a fish finder,” he said. “I believe in the product. I was offered several other jobs prior to choosing to come here after I retired. But I was so impressed with the product and how effective it is that I wanted to be a part of it. Because I’m still doing police work but doing it in a different form. If I didn’t believe in the product, I wouldn’t be here.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 mins ago

VIDEO: Face mask ordinances seem inevitable, Alabama schools will be back this year, Trump will not campaign in state for Tuberville and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Alabama Democratic Executive Committee member Lisa Handback take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Will Governor Kay Ivey put forth a statewide mandatory mask ordinance, or will we be looking at a large number of cities and counties implementing them?

— How many Alabamians will send their kids to schools, and how many will be keeping them home in the fall of 2020?

— Why isn’t President Donald Trump coming to campaign for former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, and what does it mean for the July 14 runoff?

Jackson and Handback are joined State Representative Neil Rafferty to discuss the rising coronavirus pandemic, Confederate Memorial Park compromises and a potential special session of the Alabama legislature.

66

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” at people who refuse to wear masks, even though President Donald Trump has made it clear that there are times when it is appropriate for everyone to wear them.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

3 hours ago

Walmart announces 8,000 veterans hired in Alabama through Welcome Home Commitment

Walmart announced this week that it had hired 266,260 veterans since 2013, including more than 8,000 in Alabama.

First announced on Memorial Day 2013, the Veterans Welcome Home Commitment (VWHC) guaranteed a job offer to any eligible, honorably discharged U.S. veteran. The initial goal was to hire 100,000 veterans by the end of 2018. Two years later, the company expanded that goal to 250,000 by the end of 2020.

“We’re forever grateful to our veterans for their service, and it’s an honor to offer them opportunities at Walmart,” said Doug McMillon, president and CEO. “To reach this goal so quickly says a lot about our company as a great place to work and build a career. I’m proud of the commitment we’ve made to veterans and their families, and I’m thrilled that so many have decided to join us. They are critical to helping us achieve a more diverse and inclusive future.”

195

Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have a long history of supporting veterans, service members and their families by investing more than $40 million in programs that support job training, education and innovative public/private community-based initiatives.

The Military Spouses Career Connection program, started in 2018, has opened additional opportunities and support for military families. To date, the company has hired 19,045 associates and continues offering any military spouse hiring preference when applying for a job.

“We’re proud of our achievements and the opportunities presented to the talented service members who’ve honorably served our country,” said Brynt Parmeter, senior director for Walmart Military Programs. “Now, it’s our responsibility to continue preparing these men and women for meaningful futures with the Walmart community.”

Parmeter is now looking to the next chapter in Walmart’s commitment to veterans and the communities they serve. He says his team is taking an interest in employment, entrepreneurship, learning, health and wellness initiatives when looking to the future of Walmart Military Programs.

“This is such an important time for us,” he said. “Our company is committed to finding new ways that we can build relationships and engage with members of this community to advance and improve both economic opportunity and overall well-being.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 hours ago

University of Alabama Theatre and Dance releases online performances, lessons

While live performances and instruction on the University of Alabama campus are paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UA Department of Theatre and Dance is releasing weekly performances and lessons through two new video series.

“In an effort to remain connected to our audiences, the chair and associate chairs of the department began brainstorming ways we could stay connected to our community throughout the summer while also contemplating ways to continue supporting the department’s social mission of making the arts accessible to everyone,” said Lawrence Jackson, associate chair of dance. “Presenting art virtually has become a crucial strategy for arts organizations and programs to keep audiences engaged during this time.”

The Virtual Black Box video series showcases theater performances on the department’s YouTube channel. New performances are planned for each Monday and Friday at noon.

183

Jackson said the heads of dance, theater and musical theater selected works that represent the quality of work produced throughout the department.

The Movement Series will feature mini-masterclasses taught by the department’s world-renowned faculty. Lessons will be each Wednesday via Zoom. All sessions are free, but registration is required.

“At a time when in-person gatherings are no longer possible, we feel it’s more important than ever to encourage our audiences to stay engaged culturally and artistically while we weather important social distancing guidelines,” Jackson said. “Virtual arts presentations help lift our spirits during difficult times and keep us connected to our family, friends and colleagues from afar through collective concerts, online classes, workshops and seminars.

“We would like for audiences to understand that the benefit of having art in your life doesn’t have to disappear despite the current challenges we face. This season’s arts and cultural experiences aren’t going away. They just might be presented differently.”

For a list of upcoming Virtual Black Box videos and Movement Series lessons and registration information, visit theatre.ua.edu/virtual-series.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 hours ago

Macon County organic farmer cultivates ambitions with ag startup

TUSKEGEE, Alabama – A startup, minority-owned organic farm in Macon County is expanding its crops and customer base, fueled by an ambitious vision to carry on the region’s rich history of agricultural innovation.

Lifetime Natural Organic Farm, which includes about 25 acres of raised-bed bio-intensive organic vegetables, this year invested an additional $500,000 to increase plantings and seek new business.

The move, which brought the farm’s total capital investment to $1 million, is paying off in a big way. Lifetime, already a supplier to Whole Foods stores in Alabama, recently began selling to the grocery chain’s Braselton, Georgia, distribution center that serves 400 locations.

1008

The farm also is now selling to Albert’s Organics, one of the largest organic produce wholesale distributors in the U.S. It also supplies Publix stores and has begun supplying Alabama schools, with orders for nearly 30,000 heads of organic lettuce for Elmore County Schools’ summer feeding program over the next two weeks.

Lifetime is believed to be the largest USDA-certified organic farm in Alabama, and owner Nelson Wells wants to grow it even more, to the largest in the Southeast.

At the same time, he wants to deepen its roots in Tuskegee and Macon County. Wells was drawn to the area after one of his advisors invited him to Tuskegee University to watch a video about the institution’s history, its founder Booker T. Washington and the work of George Washington Carver.

Learning more about the famous African American scientist and inventor Carver – who developed hundreds of uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans and transformed U.S. farming practices during his tenure at Tuskegee – struck a chord with Wells and his own biracial heritage.

“That changed my heart,” he said. “It made me want to be a part of the rich history of Macon County and Tuskegee, Alabama. I’m half black and half white, and I saw how important it was to continue the legacy of what George Washington Carver was to the world. He was at the forefront of modern agriculture.”

GROWING RELATIONSHIPS

Wells isn’t your typical Alabama farmer. The 6-foot-6-inch California native is a vegetarian and former surfer who played football for the University of Southern California before he moved to Alabama to be closer to his family.

Promoting healthy living through clean eating has been a lifelong passion for Wells. He and his family have been involved in running another organic farm in Verbena, and he and his partners courted Tuskegee for several years with their plans for a commercial organic farm.

Carver’s imprint on the region was a big draw, as was the opportunity to collaborate with agricultural researchers at Tuskegee University. Wells has begun building relationships with professors and students.

Lifetime started last year as a joint venture with the Macon County Economic Development Authority. The MCEDA provided the land, a former hayfield purchased and owned by MCEDA as a potential industrial site, as a “proof of concept” farm.

That growing season went well, and this year, Lifetime expanded its farming area from 10 to 25 acres and tweaked its crop mix to match the demand of its existing and targeted customers. Products include all types of bell peppers, sweet peppers, watermelon, tomatoes and leafy greens.

GAINING ACCESS

Across Alabama, there are 20 to 25 certified organic farms and possibly another 100 or so that follow organic practices but are not certified organic, said Don Wambles, director of Agriculture Promotion for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

To his knowledge, Lifetime is the largest USDA-certified organic farm in the state, he said.

Wambles and his office assisted Lifetime with gaining access to markets and also provided direction on applicable USDA programs.

The state offers many advantages for all types of farmers, he said.

“Alabama has a great climate and abundant water resources to allow agriculture to be bountiful. We are a very diverse state, which allows producers to choose whether they want to grow organically or conventionally. We have an abundance of customers for either production system the farmer chooses and we support all farmers.

“With Lifetime’s commitment to grow even larger, they will be able to meet the demand for locally grown organic produce while creating jobs and assisting the economic health of their community and surrounding communities,” he said.

NEW GROWTH SECTOR

An organic farm isn’t a typical economic development project, but it’s one that is well-suited for rural areas, said Joe Turnham, director of the MCEDA.

“As economic developers, we’re all so programmed to go out and get industrial sites, and we should, but very rarely do we think about going out and getting a tract for an ag startup,” he said.

Lifetime has provided new jobs for 20 to 30 people in the community, and it represents new business for utilities and other local services, Turnham said.

Another notable benefit is that the type of products and processes involved in organic farming are not common in the South, so Lifetime is helping to forge a new growth sector.

“Our strategic plan has always called for an agricultural component of economic development in Macon County,” Turnham said.  “We’re the home of George Washington Carver, and we really wanted to have a purposeful, high-value project for that agricultural vision. This fits perfectly.”

In addition to the farm’s land, MCEDA has provided in-kind services and also helped the farm’s operators make valuable connections, such as those with state agriculture officials and others at Tuskegee University.

“Last year, they hit every milestone and had beautiful crops. It wasn’t quite what buyers wanted, but they proved they could do it. This year, they are growing to meet the demand profiles of Whole Foods and Publix,” he said.

Turnham said he is excited about the farm’s growth potential.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement that once they’re really profitable, maybe there will be a small rent or royalty that comes back to MCEDA that we can put toward helping the next company.”

BUILDING ON A LEGACY

Along with expanding its existing customer base, Lifetime aims to do more in promoting organic farming from its home base in Macon County.

The farm is participating in Sweet Grown Alabama, a new marketing effort by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries to promote farmers and products across the state.

“Our goal is to have a vegetarian restaurant here in Tuskegee, and we would also like to do farming and cooking demos here,” Wells said. “We want to increase the understanding of the importance of healthy eating and its effects on the body and mind.”

Beyond that, Wells wants to continue growing ties with Tuskegee University and collaborate on research involving organic farming.

“My dream is to continue the legacy of George Washington Carver and Tuskegee University that was the forefront of modern agriculture at one time,” he said.

“This could change the world in organics.”

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

8 hours ago

Herds and the policy response to COVID-19

Governments implemented strict policies to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The widespread response suggests that governors and presidents saw COVID-19 as an unprecedented public health threat. Or did it? The economics of herding suggests possibly not.

The “Wisdom of Crowds,” also the title of James Suroweicki’s excellent book on this subject, implies this interpretation. Experts in each state reviewed knowledge on the virus, its potential lethality, and vulnerabilities of their state. Each lockdown decision provides evidence of a perceived threat.

Independent, informed evaluations represent our best way to approach the truth. The argument is not that voting establishes truth; experts can be wrong even if they all agree. The consensus of experts is more likely to be correct.

565

The policy response could reflect other factors. We should remember that safety is a luxury good; as people and nations become wealthier, we spend more on safety. The potential for say 100,000 deaths from a pandemic will be far less acceptable today than 50 years ago. Yet crowds are not always wise; the “Madness of Crowds” is another possibility. The independence of expert judgments affects whether we gain wisdom or create a herd.

Training in public health affects experts’ independence. Experts in any field receive years of specialized, intensive training, in law school, graduate school, or medical school. Academic disciplines have a dominant paradigm or way of making sense of the world. Different public health experts may share the same way of thinking and make the same mistake on COVID-19.

“Information cascades” pose another problem, often seen in business. A group of managers assembles to discuss opening a new retail store. After independently assessing the merits and demerits, most of the managers see the new store as a mistake. Yet the first manager argues that the new store will be wildly successful, and the others agree. After the store fails, the managers all recall their initial misgivings.

What happened? Each manager knows her personal assessment of the venture could be wrong and revises her assessment based on others’ opinions. Managers do not want to appear incompetent – the only one unable to see the new store’s great value.

The visibility of errors also matters. There’s (allegedly) a saying among investment advisors that “no one ever got fired for recommending IBM.” Suppose an advisor recommends a stock no one else likes. If correct, the advisor’s clients make lots of money. If wrong, the advisor will need to find a new job. By making the same common recommendation, no advisor signals below average investment acumen.

An economy or business needs to encourage occasional deviations from the herd. We need contrarian investors and thinkers. In markets, profit rewards correct contrarians. And some people are naturally contrarian. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears the beat of a different drummer.”

Does the policy response to COVID-19 reveal herding? The policies involved – business and school closings, stay-at-home orders – are called nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPI). NPI have their critics; a 2019 World Health Organization review found the evidence for the effectiveness most “limited.”

A divergence of opinion suggests herding was unlikely. If proponents of NPI won out in debate, this suggests that governors and presidents found them more promising. Vigorous debate usually improves decisions.

Our elected executives, I think, face a bias to action, worsened by the 24-hour news cycle and running tallies of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Yet the nearly 50 million jobs lost since March are also highly visible. Our inability to observe deaths without a lockdown ironically makes the benefits appear larger; perhaps millions have been saved.

Eight states never issued stay-at-home orders and nations like Sweden eschewed lockdown policies, so we have not witnessed complete herding. More likely the bias to take action resulted in excessive policies, and lockdowns imposed too early in some states.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.