For generations, African American farmers in the Alabama Black Belt have stuck through tough times. Now they see new opportunities, thanks in part to the 121-year-old Tuskegee Farmers Conference.
Even in rural Alabama, children are losing their connection to the outdoors.
Rose Hill is a relative newcomer to the Black Belt, a region across the southern third of Alabama named for its rich black soil. She operates a camp for local children at her husband’s family farm to help children “understand where their food comes from.” Last year one group of students planted collard greens that later wound up in school lunches through the farm-to-school program. Rose and Andrew Hill’s children and grandchildren help on the farm, tending organic vegetables, a herd of goats and a grove of pecan trees.
Rose Hill and her husband arrived in Camden, Ala., 10 years ago from Detroit to take over his father’s farm. As a child, Andrew had often come back from his home in Ohio to visit his grandparents in Alabama. “I saw then that we were rich in Ohio,” he said. “These folks in Alabama had nothing — nothing — not even an indoor toilet. No TV. No nothing.” Still their attachment to the land and to each other brought the Hills back every year, and now Andrew’s wife Rose has injected new life into this old place.
She has revamped the whole operation, experimenting with advertising on the local radio as well as organic growing practices. She and Andrew credit the annual Farmers Conference at Tuskegee University with giving them the know-how and encouragement to succeed. “We have learned so much,” she said. “We wouldn’t have made it without Tuskegee and the Farmers Conference.”
For more than 120 years farmers have been gathering at Tuskegee’s Farmers Conference to learn from one another and celebrate their community. The conference, started by Booker T. Washington, has sustained farmers in South Alabama through decades of disappointment in the Black Belt.
While family members left for better lives in northern cities, other small farmers hung onto their fields and their way of life, often at great cost. Their stubborn determination may at last be bearing fruit. Their efforts are opening new market opportunities and encouraging a new generation, like the Hill family, to join them in tending the land.
Willi Brown, age 79, a veteran farmer, has been coming to the conference for 70 years, first as a 9 year old with his father, Neal Brown, and now with his daughter, Audrey Ziegler, a farm specialist at Tuskegee. Brown remembers when nearly a thousand farmers and their families came together. The conference now draws between 200 and 300. He explains that the farmers who remain all have “farming in their blood.”
Improving Farms and Lives
The ancestors of many people at this year’s conference were the farmers Booker T. Washington met when he first arrived at Tuskegee in 1881. Then four-fifths of African-Americans in the Black Belt lived on rented land in one-room dirt-floored cabins trapped by a sharecropping system that forced them to mortgage their cotton crop for food to live on.
While Washington was struck by the tremendous needs of the black farmers, he was also impressed by their determination to improve their land and their lives. To meet their eager desire for knowledge, he instituted the annual conference in 1892. He also hired George Washington Carver, who developed a mobile agricultural school, the Jesup wagon, to assist farmers in remote areas.
Last year’s program director, Dr. Tasha Hargrove, explained how the conference continues to be designed “by the farmers and for the farmers.” This year’s conference included water and soil testing, value-added marketing, business management, alternative energy, food safety and affordable health care. One of the most popular sessions was a meeting on Women in Agriculture.
A Tradition of Self Reliance
Not everyone has lent a hand to the African-American farmers in the Black Belt. Along with the perennial struggles with weather, soils and markets, they have faced opposition from the very agency commissioned to help them—the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For decades neighboring white farmers received grants, loans and crop subsidies to assist them. African-American farmers, shut out of the system, had to rely on themselves and their limited resources, sharing equipment and know-how. Those who survived did so because they worked together and “made do” as they always had.
As one farmer put it, for years “we were organic without knowing it. We simply couldn’t afford fertilizer or pesticides.”
While most agricultural income in the Black Belt comes from large subsidized soybean or cotton operations, African-American farms tend to range from a couple of dozen acres to several hundred. Most grow a variety of Southern vegetables, including sweet potatoes, purple-hull peas and collards, with occasional herds of livestock or stands of timber.
The farms may be small, but their roots run deep. Farmers tend the land with a devotion born of generations of ties to place and family. As Billy Gibbons, a veteran farmer put it, “farming has to come from the heart.” Billy comes to the conference every year to learn all he can about better farming practices. He says you “need your head to tell you how to do it right,” but it’s “what’s in here” he says tapping his chest, “that will pull you through.”
These days, William Hodge, this year’s conference director, sees hope in the increasing number of new farmers, many “who have left their jobs or whose jobs left them.” These newcomers are looking for a return to their roots as well as more satisfying work.
The Selma Marketing Center being built on Highway 80 gives evidence to the shifting climate of cooperation between the farmers, local agriculture schools and government agencies, including the USDA. Set to open this summer, the facility will provide 15,000 square feet for processing and shipping Southern vegetables to larger markets.
For the crops of these small farmers crops to reach a large market, they must meet food safety standards. Retail chains like Wal-Mart, Sodexo and Whole Foods have been conducting a pilot project to purchase and market watermelons, peas and other produce from farmers to demonstrate the potential of the Selma Center.
For many local farmers, this has meant going from selling sweet potatoes off their front porch one year to loading 18-wheelers for Wal-Mart the next. Farmers joke that when told the buyers wanted to purchase three truckloads of watermelons, they thought in terms of “pickup trucks not semis.”
Farmers are stepping up to the challenge by working together to meet market demand. Producers must be GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified by the USDA in order to use the new Selma facility. Once farmers are certified, the markets open to them increases exponentially. As veteran farmer Al Hooks says, it is not “what we are used to doing, but it’s what we have to do. If we are not up to snuff, we don’t ship.”
Hooks and his son Demetrius sell to a range of distributors, including local farmers’ markets, restaurants and larger businesses such as Whole Foods and Wal-Mart. The increase in demand has meant that Demetrius, who also works as a graphic designer, has been spending more time with the family farm business. Other farmers are taking note as the ability to attract the younger generation to agriculture is crucial to family farm survival.
The black farmers who have remained in this region of the country consider themselves blessed. They love the land and they do their best to care for it.
Each year the Farmers Conference recognizes an Alabama farm family for this caring and commitment to community as well as farming. John Brown Jr., this year’s Merit Farm Family recipient, has been farming since he was 5 years old and is determined to preserve his family’s connection to the land. Both his great-grandfather and grandfather farmed as share-croppers. Brown’s father purchased the land his family now farms while serving two tours of duty in World War II.
“Any farmer that wants to remain in this business, just like any other business, you have to make changes,” Brown said. “You have to continue to educate yourself.” At the same time, he says what every other Black Belt farmer echoes: “It’s something that really has got to be in your heart to be a farmer. It’s got to be a part of you.”
Jamie S. Ross is a filmmaker and writer who documents the people, landscape and culture of the American South.