Book Review: Freedom Farmers, by Monica M White

Freedom Farmers Cover image

Book Review: Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, by Monica M White, UNC Press, 2020. 208 pages, with 11 b&w photos, hardback, $27.95, paperback $19.95.

This book will fill the gaps in your knowledge of Black US agricultural history, with a mix of narrative and evaluation. Here you can read about people such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who set up the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), offering a way for Black people of limited means to pursue self-reliance, health and a supportive community. Cooperatives offered an alternative to another wave of northern migration for African Americans – a way to stay in the South and help each other build a sustainable lifestyle.

It’s good to celebrate paths of hope, while also acknowledging the things that need to change. Freedom Farmers provides an uplifting perspective, showing agriculture was not only a site of oppression and exploitation of Black people, but also one of proactive political resistance and cooperative effort. Land access gives people the power to heal themselves, much more directly than food pantries and cooking lessons do.

Dr Monica White is assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin. This is an academic book, so you’ll need to navigate some sociological terms, and I recommend you persevere even if this is challenging, in order to learn more of the important history of agriculture in the South. The book divides into two parts, starting with the intellectual traditions in Black agriculture, specifically Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver (my sweet potato hero) and WEB Du Bois. Part 2, Collective Agency and Community Resilience in Action, covers four specific cooperatives, the Freedom Farm Cooperative, North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

Dr Monica White speaking. Photo http://monicamariewhite.com

As a member of a cooperative community (Twin Oaks) myself, I always appreciate reading the stories of others who have chosen a collective path. As a food grower, I enjoy hearing other producers’ stories. No, I don’t enjoy stories of slavery, share-cropping, land loss, although I do need to know about them. I do enjoy hearing stories of those who found a way to earn a living on the land and lift others up while doing so.

Dr White’s framework of Collective Agency and Community Resilience (CACR) covers proactive approaches that build knowledge, skills, community and economic well-being. Collective agency is an intrinsic part of social activism. Community resilience refers to adaptation to adversity: social organization to adjust, withstand and absorb disturbance, and reorganize for best results.

Martin Luther King Jr pointed out that the broken promise of the US government to provide 40 acres and a mule to freed people happened at the same time that millions of acres of land (stolen from Indigenous people) were given to white people in the West and Midwest.

The Black Panther Party recognized the importance of land ownership in getting access to food. The free breakfast for children program fed 20,000 children at its height, as well as providing clinics, childcare centers, clothing programs and political education. The Nation of Islam also provided access to healthy food in cities. In the late 1960s, NOI owned 13,000 acres in the South, collectively known as Salaam Agricultural Systems. In 1994, Muhammad Farms was formed on 1,556 acres in south Georgia.

These movements built on Booker T Washington’s model for building community-based institutions, George Washington Carver’s scholarship as an agricultural scientist improving farming methods, and the work of WEB Du Bois in documenting the experience of southern Black farmers, particularly in Alabama.

In 1875, African Americans owned 3 million acres of land. Five years later, 8 million. By 1900, 12 million. The Tuskegee Institute welcomed its first class in 1881. Students worked on the two farms as part of paying tuition. In 1902, the USDA established the Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service, which offered information on modern farming methods. The Negro Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service sent farm and home demonstration agents into the field. The value of Black-owned land in the South increased more than sevenfold by 1920.

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute

George Washington Carver was a brilliant man with advanced botany degrees. He was committed to land conservation, plant breeding, scientific approaches to pests and disease. He left his plantation childhood at age 11, and made his way from Missouri to Iowa, where he enrolled in Simpson College, and later the college that became Iowa State University. There he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany, and became their first Black faculty member.

Carver accepted Booker T Washington’s 1896 offer of a job on the Tuskegee faculty although it entailed a loss of income. He said “The primary idea in all my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s dinner pail . . . My idea is to help the “man furthest down”.

WEB Du Bois studied race, inequality, Black political participation and social movements including agrarian production. He was convinced that cooperatives were the key to freedom. Du Bois’s theory of the power of cooperatives was that the key is distribution, rather than production.

Du Bois established the Negro Cooperative Guild to promote cooperation among African Americans, beginning with basic needs (food, clothing, jobs) and moving on to economic power.

He insisted the cooperatives adopt the Rochdale Principles of Cooperation, which I am familiar with from the Co-op movement and intentional communities in the UK. These Principles were set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England and are used by co-operatives around the world.

Colored Farmers’ Alliance Members.
Photo: Resources | Monica Marie White, Ph.D. monicamariewhite.com

Part Two tells of four specific organizations, one a single farm cooperative, one a county-wide program, one a regional federation of cooperatives and the last one an inner-city food security network.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and domestic worker, founded Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in Sunflower County, MS in 1967, to fight poverty among displaced farm workers. Hamer wanted an opportunity for Black farmers to live off the land, as an alternative to a second wave of northern migration. “Someone with a pig and a garden need not starve to death.”

Between 1950 and 1960, the county population decreased by 20% as African Americans moved to northern cities to find work. Between 1960 and 1970, another 20% left.

Hamer’s boss fired and evicted her when she refused to withdraw her voter registration. She articulated the link between voter suppression by farm employers and starvation and homelessness. Her way to fight back was to set up a cooperative farm, providing workers with food, housing and the freedom to vote. Freedom Farm was a Black-led organization, with a triple focus on affordable, safe housing; a business incubator providing training; and an agricultural cooperative meeting the food needs of the most vulnerable people in the county. Thirteen of the first 40 acres were used to collectively grow subsistence vegetables. Freedom Farm was also a social and political organizing center, supporting activists.

In 1969, 50 pigs were donated to the farm as the “starter funds” for the “Bank of Pigs”. Families kept the sows and took them to the facility that kept the boars. From each litter, the family paid two piglets back into the pig bank. Heifer International (in its first US-based project) provided training and help. By 1973, more than 865 families were beneficiaries of the pig bank, which provided them with meat and income.

In 1971, Freedom Farm put down a deposit on 640 acres of additional land to build more housing, and the next year, the US Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) gave funding for 80 self-build houses, to include electricity and indoor plumbing. By 1972, their crops were feeding 1600 families. 540 acres were used for grazing cattle and a catfish cooperative. Two years later, they added 600 acres of cash crops of cotton, soybeans, wheat and cucumber. The income paid the mortgage on the land.

In 1973, FFC had 600 acres in crops, 300 families receiving livestock from the pig bank, 70 families living in affordable housing, and several people benefiting from college and business funds. Freedom Farm was a major employer in Sunflower County. As well as farm and office jobs, FFC started two sewing cooperatives. FFC paid all employees $10/day, often with housing, food and services in addition.

After four years of growing success, Freedom Farm Cooperative started to unravel in 1971. There were several tornadoes, leading to next year’s seed money being used for disaster relief. Donor funds started to dry up. The social service programs were wound up in order to focus on making the farming financially viable. A disastrous sequence of droughts and floods added to the troubles, and the seasonal employees could not be paid. The pig bank was closed as it was not paying its way. In 1974, FFC’s business manager died suddenly and Hamer became ill. In 1976 FFC had to sell its land to pay overdue taxes. The enterprise could not continue but many people had had their lives changed for the better. As Monica White says “FFC created an oasis of self-reliance and self-determination in a landscape of oppression maintained in part by deprivation.” We should not undervalue their successes.

Compared to the very local efforts of FFC, the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative (NBCFC) was a county-wide enterprise. The decline in need for farmworkers had left farmers unemployed, malnourished, ailing and in poor housing. Unfortunately, the area was a sea of racism. Black farmer-activists were glad of the support from Mound Bayou, an all-Black town founded right after the Civil War. The town included a health insurance cooperative, a hospital and a cottonseed oil mill worth $100,000, built and owned by African Americans.

In December 1967, sixty-four residents of Bolivar County, Mississippi started the NBCFC. They were mostly sharecroppers, tenant farmers, day laborers or domestic workers. Two Black landowners allowed the cooperative to use their land and another loaned his tools. For the first year, no one received pay, so members worked other jobs simultaneously. At the end of the first year, 953 families had joined and 120 acres were prepared for planting. Over one million pounds of produce was raised and distributed. The area was divided into 12 sections, each with two representatives on the board of directors.

Cooperative members who worked in the fields typically earned $4 cash per day plus $6 in produce. NBCFC created a Food and Nutrition Cooperative Project. They prioritized protein vegetables, then greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra and cucumbers. Starchy vegetables were at the bottom of the list, just above melons. They began processing their own vegetables because it was obvious to them that they lost value by selling their produce to distributors and then buying vegetables at market.

The third example in this book is on a regional scale: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC). Cooperatives had sprung up throughout the South, from Texas to Virginia, organized by the disadvantaged: Blacks, Latinx and some whites, working together in mutual aid. Some were farming, others manufacturing, sewing or consumer cooperatives. The FSC began in 1967 with twenty-two representatives of southern rural cooperatives as an umbrella cooperative for the Southeast with the goals of raising funds, providing technical assistance and developing resources.

By 1974, 134 cooperatives had joined FSC from 14 southern states. Through the Small Farmers School Program, FSC staff provided training in agricultural technology, hoophouses, irrigation systems, new crops, farm management, energy consumption and business decisions. They gave help to illiterate farmers with application forms, and made loans to members through an interest-free Revolving Loan Fund.

By combining orders and maximizing savings, FSC broke the stranglehold that distributors of seeds and fertilizers had on farmers (charging high prices because there was no competition). Farmers also cooperated to plan their crops so that different farmers brought in cucumbers, say, in different weeks of the season.

FSC included cooperatives for aquaponics, shrimping, and catfish farming, as well as flowers, transplants and shrubs. In 1979 FSC expanded by collaborating with two other organizations, the Emergency Land Fund (addressing the issue of Black land loss) and the Southern Cooperative Development Fund (providing emergency loans to struggling co-ops).

FSC also trained agricultural workers to plan and build housing for displaced farmers. They operated the Black Belt Family Health Care Center in Epes, Alabama, an ambulatory preventative health care cooperative providing services on a sliding scale. FSC also ran the Right to Read Program, including in-home literacy classes for 500 members and small group classes. Incarcerated people got literacy training. There were also mini-libraries, GED training and vocational training. They developed credit unions, protected and expanded Black landholdings, and provided book-keeping and financial services. They advocated on policy issues for low-income cooperators.

There was white backlash. Some white business owners and white political officials had no moral qualms about destroying Black cooperatives. A group of Black farmers in 1965 formed the Grand Marie Vegetable Cooperative of Sunset, Louisiana. The low price they were getting for their sweet potatoes was about to force them off the land. They banded together and shipped $102,000 worth of sweet potatoes to market in 1971. In 1972 a group of white growers asked the bank to stop the line of credit to Grand Marie. Their checks bounced, leaving them in a precarious financial situation.

In 1979, a federal grand jury in northern Alabama ordered FSC to provide all documents relating to federal funding for the past four years. The 18-month investigation did not lead to any charges, as they found no wrongdoing. It was an exercise in grinding down FSC. Defending itself cost FSC $20,000 in legal fees, and lots of wasted time. There are other examples of such harassment. Alabama state troopers stopped a fleet of refrigerated cooperative trucks, keeping them at the side of the road until they ran out of fuel, causing the produce to rot after several hours in the Alabama heat.

Fifty-three years later, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is still organizing Black cooperatives in the southern states, running a land assistance fund, a food box program, rural training, networking opportunities, technical assistance, and more. They accept donations on their website.

The next chapter, about the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), tells the stories of some of the descendants of those who migrated north, specifically to Detroit, for work. Sadly economic decline arrived there too, starting with the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, resulting in white flight and car manufacture moving elsewhere. Black flight followed in the early 2000s. Knowing that returning to growing food was an effective strategy of survival and resistance, the remaining Black community resisted pressure to leave and formed agricultural communities.

Following the 2008-2010 foreclosure crisis, the population shrank further and public services were cut again. DBCFSN mobilized the Black community with conversations about food sovereignty and food security, mutual aid, collective wealth-building and general political education. Today, Detroit is a major center for urban farming and community food systems.

In 2008, D-Town Farm grew out of the school garden at the Nsoroma Institute, when the city of Detroit asked DBCFSN to consider a 2-acre space in Meyers Tree Nursery, Rouge Park. Five more acres were added in 2011. By 2016, D-Town Farm was producing over 30 different vegetables, as well as mushrooms and honey. Hoophouses and a large composting operation are included. They have an annual internship program and a volunteer program, as well as a paid manager and staff. Their produce is sold mainly at city farmers markets.

The farm participates in Keep Growing Detroit, which promotes Detroit as “a food sovereign city where the majority of fruit and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city limits.” Food is a gateway to foster a sense of self-determination and self-reliance. The major grocery chain in Detroit closed, and growing food became a necessity. Cooperatives help resources stay in the neighborhood and build it up, rather than get siphoned off to shareholders elsewhere.

The African American urban farming movement encourages us to “dig deeper,” further than the traumas of enslavement, sharecropping and exploitative tenant farming, back to roots as people of the land. This counter-narrative shows how food production is an aspect of self-reliance, collective resilience and resistance.  Aside from food resources, cooperatives offer information, community support, physical exercise, and solutions to problems in politics, education, housing and policing. Three strategies: sharing (resources, ideas, labor and solutions), participation in decision-making (politics) and economic autonomy, are the building blocks of community resiliency.

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