This is Our Land

By  John T. Edge |  March 7, 2010

If all goes well, the 2010 Greene County Farmers Market will open on May 16, when ten or more farmers gather behind the chain-link-fenced Eutaw Activity Center in Eutaw, Alabama, to sell peas and greens. Later in the summer, they’ll sell corn and squash and watermelons.

It didn’t go so well last year in the Black Belt of Southern Alabama, a region once defined by the black soil that sustained its major crop,  cotton, and now too often defined by a lack of sustaining industry. The market was to begin in late April. I had planned to visit on opening day, but George Hall, the onetime sheriff of Greene County, who now farms a couple of acres of sugar cane, warned me off. The weather was the matter. Lots of spring rains, he said, in a deadpan tone that hinted of problems both systemic and cultural.  

I tried again in late May. Twenty miles into the drive, Hall reached me on my cellphone. “We just don’t have the crops to sell,” he told me. “We’re bust. Turn around.”

My interest in the Black Belt spiked back in 2008, when I attended a meeting of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a 1960s-era collective, established to address the needs of black farmers and, by extension, the economic ills that have long beset the working class. The Federation, as I understand it, is a last bastion of the Civil Rights Movement, directed by farmers who embraced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s late-career Poor People’s Campaign—and never looked back. 

Other groups have attempted to tackle these issues. In 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer, the political activist who first proved her mettle chopping Mississippi Delta cotton, founded the Freedom Farm, a 680-acre cooperative, near the Sunflower County plantation she sharecropped as a youth. The co-op grew beans, peas, okra, potatoes, and peanuts for the benefit of member families. They raised pigs, too, through a separate operation: a lend-and-breed program that Hamer called the Pig Bank.

But the Pig Bank—and dozens more similarly well-intentioned initiatives—failed, while the Federation seemed to still be thriving. I was curious to learn how such an organization managed to stay relevant in these so-called postracial times.

On a late summer morning, as I rounded a blacktop curve, the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center came into view, a compound of low-slung bunkhouses and meeting halls, set amid hills and overgrown farmland in Sumter County, near the town of Epes. Mud-splattered pickups crowded the grass lot. Under shade trees, sun-creased men in overalls mopped their brows with handkerchiefs. 

Not all that I saw reinforced agrarian stereotypes. Inside the veneer-paneled auditorium, packed with black farmers, a mural depicted three brown hands reaching for the sun, a farmer plowing a verdant field, and another man breaking loose from the chains of oppression. Alongside the entrance, beneath tents, white men in short-sleeve dress shirts dealt periodicals like THE NEW INTERNATIONAL: A MONTHLY ORGAN OF REVOLUTIONARY MARXISM, and books like CHE GUEVARA AND THE IMPERIALIST REALITY. (If the idea of Marx-reading black farmers strikes you as implausible, pick up a copy of HAMMER AND HOE, a clear-eyed history of how, during the Great Depression, the Alabama Communist Party led a radical, antiracist near-revolt.) 

I listened at a plenary session to attorneys explaining the latest developments in the Pigford class-action settlement, in which the USDA admitted to routinely denying black farmers loans, disaster assistance, and other aid frequently awarded to white farmers. I attended workshops on processing and packaging collard greens for retail sale. And, proving that no organization stays on message all the time, I ate a sorry-ass ham and cheddar hoagie, a lunch that, almost certainly, did not contain a single ingredient raised by a member farmer.

As the conference wore on, muffled curses punctuated discussions on black land loss and the intricacies of inheritance litigation. (“Perhaps no Americans better understood the meaning of owning property than those who had been considered a ‘species of property’ themselves,” wrote historian Loren Schweninger.)

I talked local economies with a woman who raised rabbits, which she bartered for pastured pig meat. I heard an insurance agent, who had recently inherited his father’s farm, say, “Let’s cut through all the mess and agree that sustainable is just a fancy way of saying that you want to farm without Monsanto’s hand in your pocket.” 

And, late in the day, when I had grown weary of facing down problems and was in desperate need of solutions, I heard about a Saturday-morning farmers’ market, staged in Eutaw, Alabama. A market where, come July, the tomatoes are so sweet that people make the trek from Montgomery, one hundred fifty miles away, to buy a bushel. This is a market where the vendors are not earnest, aspirational, and white—as seems to be the case in much of the urban and affluent South—but old, soil-weary, and black.

For those of us who live to eat, these are hopeful times. Mindful eating is in vogue. As I write these words, Michael Pollan has two food books on the New York Times bestseller list, and our First Lady is focusing her attention on the linkages between this nation’s food-supply chain and childhood obesity. Perhaps a change is coming in what we eat and how we eat. 

Soon, someone is going to realize that those white kids in their twenties—the ones who swear allegiance to the “good, clean, and fair” dictum that defines the Slow Food movement, the ones who know how to decipher the recycling numbers on the bottoms of plastic bottles and actually buy carbon offsets when they fly—have a few things in common with the grizzled vets who fulminate on behalf of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Both groups are determined. And righteous. 

There are redemptive possibilities in such a conjoining. (So many of the dismal moments in our region’s history were catalyzed when wealthy and selfish power brokers pitted lower-rung whites against lower-rung blacks and stood back to watch them beat the ever-loving shit out of one another.) 

There is hope in hearing Willie Bursey—who, after twenty years in Detroit, moved back home to Greene County because “the food tastes better”—talk with George Hall about what they aim to plant this February. And there is hope, too, in that small farmers’ market, doing business not far from the courthouse square, in the least populous county in Alabama, where, if they can catch a break, Hall and Bursey will be standing tall, selling greens and peas, on May 16.

And, I might as well add, there is hope in the pages of this magazine, populated by a diversity of contributors for whom food is caloric fuel, sure, but also a means of cultural expression, on par with music and literature.