This was day 7 of my Agroecology Tour of Cuba with the Organic Growers School (Monday January 13, 2020)
Dinner at the Garden of Miracles (Jardin de los Milagros Paladar) farm-to-table restaurant, with guest speaker, Rafael Betancourt
Overview of the Cuban Economy, Cooperatives and Politics
We rearranged the tables in a square, to better hear the speaker, Rafael Betancourt, talking about the Cuban economy, cooperatives and politics. First I’ll write about the talk, then about the restaurant.
The Cuban economy has changed from the export of plantation products (using enslaved people) to tertiary tourism, remittances from ex-pats in the US and training (medical and other). Sand and Sun tourism is waning, Agritourism could be increased. Farmers can earn more money by catering for tourists than from selling crops. “Cuba doesn’t export any food except apples.”
Rafael Betancourt believes it is geographically inevitable that the US and Cuba will come together. Right now we’re at a juncture. Obama’s executive orders were been rolled back by Trump. Cubans prefer the word “blockade” to “embargo” (which implies bilateral actions.) The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 included that US dollars cannot be banked in Cuba. It’s costly for them to keep moving suitcases of US dollars around.
The US and Cuban economies are entangled but limited. Food imports from the US are allowed but have to be paid in cash as soon as the product arrives. [This is different from what we were told about US chicken not leaving the US until it had been paid for in Euros and cleared the European Bank.]. Exports to the US are almost always prevented, except that tourists export rum, cigars, honey, etc.
“In this history of Cuba, Louis A. Pérez proposes a new Cuban counterpoint: rice, a staple central to the island’s cuisine, and sugar, which dominated an export economy 150 years in the making. In the dynamic between the two, dependency on food imports—a signal feature of the Cuban economy—was set in place.”
U.S. rice producers resisted Cuban efforts to expand rice production, because they relied on the Cuban market for rice. Cuban sugar growers relied on the U.S. market. U.S. growers prepared to cut the sugar quota to control Cuban rice markets. In the 1950s, when revolutionary tensions in Cuba were strengthening, U.S. rice producers and their allies in Congress clashed with Cuban producers supported by the Batista government. U.S. interests won out, contributing to undermining Batista’s ability to govern. Cuba’s inability to be self-sufficient in rice production continues to this day, but U.S. rice growers have lost the Cuban market. In the face of the U.S. embargo, Cuba buys low quality rice from Vietnam, that does not sell well in Vietnam. They are learning Vietnamese water-conserving rice-growing methods.
Cuba does not need to import eggs, but they do import chicken feed.
Food waste from restaurants may be taken home by the workers, or sent to schools and hospitals, or become pig food. There is no State strategy.
Portion size: there is a scarcity mentality in Cuba, leading to a frugal use of resources.
Cubans going overseas bring back empty Tropicana juice jugs in their luggage.
Recycling varies from place to place. The State purchases cans, metal, plastic and paper. They sell the products back to the manufacturing company.
Climate change and resiliency: In the US, food waste accounts for more than 20% of greenhouse gases. Cuba has a strategy for reducing greenhouse gases. Cuba didn’t make many of the greenhouse gases, but will be strongly impacted by climate change. The coastal resorts are vulnerable to sea level rise, and suffer badly from hurricanes. They have a big Reforestation Project, adding more trees every year. Cuba is committed to 20% renewable energy sourcesby 2020. Cuba became the first country in the world to completely phase out incandescent light bulbs.
The top five Cuban products Rafael Betancourt would like to see exported to the US: Cancer vaccine, other pharmaceuticals, high technology software, beer, services. Currently the label “Remittance” covers business transactions.
Academic Exchanges: A US institution would need to partner with a Cuban academic institution. Cuba could help with rice post-harvest equipment and know-how; Milk production (they have a very cheap method of producing 1 liter/day); Cattle feed; Biofuels using sugar bagasse; They could use help with setting up a certifying board and certifying and exporting organic food; They would like to provide their own organic seeds (many Cuban vegetable seeds are imported, but row crop seeds are grown there).
The story of the CUC: The US embargo was designed to push Cuba towards the USSR. Most imports came from the USSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba experienced an 80% reduction in imports and exports. Remittances from Cubans overseas helped island survival. Tourism grew, and hard currency started coming in, but the banks didn’t touch it. Cubans became allowed to possess hard currency, and a chain of stores opened, selling goods in US$.
The CUC was invented in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to substitute for US$, which people were then not allowed to spend. People converted their dollars into CUCs. Domestic tourism increased, and the CUC stimulated imports and suppressed exports. The exchange rate was about 24 Cuban pesos to 1 CUC. The State promises to honor the value of the peso. The CUC was phased out on January 1, 2021, after that plan being a kind of a secret. The duty-free shop at Havana airport sells goods for US$ or pesos, but not CUCs. We were warned not to take CUCs out of the country, hoping to use them in the future. (US banks and currency exchange bureau don’t deal with Cuban money at all.) The Peso is now officially set at 24 Cuban pesos to 1 US dollar
Garden of Miracles (Jardin de los Milagros Paladar) farm-to-table restaurant
We visited the restaurant roof garden, which supplies the restaurant. There were table-top beds of greens, and beehives. We saw it in the dark, so my photos and impressions are murky! I believe they must buy a lot of their ingredients from elsewhere.
Cuban Agriculture, Tour of a restored historic early 19th century French coffee plantation (Cafetal) Buenavista, worked by 100 enslaved Africans, Las Terrazas Ecovillage, Artemisa.
This is an episode in the tales of my Agroecology Tour of Cubain January 2020 with the Organic Growers School. Click the category Cuban Agriculture to see more posts in the series. In particular, refer to my most recent post on Las Terrazas. The Cafetal Buenavista is on the land of that ecovillage and bioreserve.
Buenavista is Cuba’s oldest coffee plantation, built in 1801 by French refugees from Haiti. The attic of the master’s house (which is now a restaurant) was used to store the beans until they could be carried down to the port of Mariel by mule.
The coffee beans were sun-dried on huge drying beds during the day (top photo), then piled up every night in the center of the drying bed, and covered. If it rained, the beans were bagged up and stored in small low sheds, shown above.
The huge tajona (grindstone) that cracked the coffee beans is well restored and does move!
Ruins of the quarters of some of the enslaved people held there can be seen alongside the drying beds. They were chained up at night in tiny 8-12 person stone cells built onto the walls of the coffee drying beds.
We had a talk about slavery with our Cuban tour guide Josetti. A study of the DNA of 2000 Cubans showed widespread genes from indigenous people, Africans, Chinese, Spanish and other Europeans. It’s impossible to tell ancestry from skin color. General guide: “Our mothers were Africans, our fathers European.” There is still individual racism, but it is not institutionalized as it is in the US, Josetti thinks. Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1865, earlier than in Brazil, for example.
The view from the top of the plantation is breathtaking!
I got a tick bite (was it one of the sterile ones Cuba has introduced to defeat tick-borne diseases? I didn’t get sick, so I don’t know that it wasn’t)
We got back on the bus to return to Havana for our last 3 days. Everyone wanted to stay in beautiful Viñales. We have a farm work project on Monday and a free day Wednesday (we might go to the beach). We returned to Havana, registered at our casas. I went with four others of the group to a small corner café, and spent 3 CUC on pizza and 2 CUC on a beer. The pizza was so big I still had leftovers to take home after I gave one piece away.1 CUC=$1 US.
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.
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 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.
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.
Book Review: Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights
by Pete Daniel, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 352 pages, with 17 photos, $29.95.
Dispossession is a very gripping and valuable book, a combination of detailed history and personal stories, making plain how African American farmers were systematically deprived of their land and livelihood by the white-controlled agri-government during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Yes, the same “civil rights era” when some substantial success was made against racial discrimination. At that same time, agriculture was experiencing big changes leading to increased yields. Mechanization, herbicides and pesticides reduced the number of farmworkers needed. Between 1940 and 1974, the number of African American farmers fell by an astounding 93 percent, compared with a much smaller number of white farmers leaving the land. The magnitude of this decline was personal tragedy to those farmers and it was not coincidental – white people in the USDA manipulated the distribution of information, loans, grants and of positions of power, to favor white farmers. This shameful part of American history only slowly became apparent to me, a white immigrant farmer, as I noticed USDA reparation efforts within phrases like “historically under-served”. Quite the under-statement!
The USDA promoted capital-intensive agriculture and subsidized already wealthy farmers headed in this direction. At the same time, the USDA put barriers in the way of women and minority farmers seeking a fair share of resources, including the important acreage allotments (approval to grow certain acreages of wheat, cotton, corn, tobacco, peanuts, and rice). These production controls had been introduced in the mid-1950s to prevent surplus production. Every couple of years the rules changed, and not all farmers were given the needed information to apply for that year’s permits and price support mechanisms.
The USDA had been run by white men since it was formed in 1862, and, with the exception of the Negro Extension Service, African Americans were excluded from any decision-making positions. Many individuals and organizations worked to get USDA to remove the discrimination, and to help African Americans get a fair distribution of the resources. Pete Daniel’s book focuses on the South in the years before the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class action suit, which won compensation for discrimination occurring after 1981. Previously there was no real check on USDA discrimination. The class action suit opened the way for similar suits by women, Native Americans and Latinx farmers.
The first couple of chapters of the book give the overview and make for information-packed reading. After setting the stage, Pete Daniel shares individual stories of farmers, civil rights volunteers, and black extension agents. The first chapter is called “Intended Consequences”. Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination, the US Commission on Civil Rights (created to monitor the application of the Act) reported in March 1965 of a broad range of discriminatory practices in every office of the USDA. It took 30 years before Timothy Pigford brought the suit that found the USDA guilty of widespread discrimination. The broken promise of “Forty acres and a mule” for every soldier in the Civil War was followed by decades of subverted laws and farming programs that left black farmers unjustly treated. And Pigford did not fix everything! Congress did not make funds available until 2010, by which time many of the mistreated farmers had died or lost their farms. And all the farmers discriminated against before 1981 received no recompense.
At the very time that laws were supposedly protecting Black people from bias, Black farmers were suffering the most crippling discrimination. It was very hard for sharecroppers to become tenant farmers, with control over the sale of their own crops. Their fortunes were eroded by labor laws, bad weather, bankers, landlords and pests. Diets were poor, and so was sanitation and health, as well as childhood schooling. Many tenants and sharecroppers became redundant as machinery took their jobs.
Black farmers who succeeded did so by cultivating white support, as advised by Booker T Washington. The decline of Black farmers after World War II was in strong contrast with their gains in the 50 years after Emancipation from slavery. Over-production led to lower prices, which led to desperate farmers.
The USDA was founded during the Civil War to encourage better farming methods throughout the country. In 1862, Congress funded land-grant universities in each state. Since Southern white schools would not admit Black students, Congress funded the African American land grant colleges in 1890 (with fewer resources than went to the white colleges).
The 1887 Hatch Act established agricultural research stations, and Congress established the segregated and unequal Federal Extension Service in 1914, operating out of the land-grant universities, providing some farmers with advice and information. The organization of the Extension Service was convoluted, territorial and discriminatory, and extension agents wielded enormous power. The confused structure lead to claims that some agents were employed by the county and some were federal employees. (All, in fact, were part of the federal civil service retirement system and held civil service appointments.)
White agents oversaw the Negro Extension Service, which was hosted by the 1890 land-grant colleges. Black agents got lower pay and poorer equipment, but the jobs offered respectability and the opportunity to serve rural people. Women working for the Home Demonstration service got a lot of satisfaction from the work. African American Extension agents had to tread a fine line when addressing the needs of Black famers and preserving goodwill with whites. Many whites only tolerated black agents who did not challenge their authority or disrupt farm labor.
A white agent with 6 years’ work experience with the extension service was paid $375 a month, while a black agent with 14 years’ experience was paid only $212. The Black agent received considerably less information from the office, and was kept out of the decision-making loop. In some places, the furniture for the Black agent’s office was much poorer quality than that in the white agent’s office; Black agents received no vehicles, and little demonstration materials and had to do their own typing. Black agents were usually isolated from decision-making and rarely interacted with their white counterparts. Because the USDA functioned in isolation, the white leadership in USDA had not been challenged about their discriminatory practices.
Loans often went to wealthier farmers rather than the poor farmers for whom the program was intended. Black farmers assumed many of the programs were for whites only, and did not apply. Or they decided that the costs of upsetting the applecart were higher than the costs of managing without those resources. As pressure mounted on the agricultural organizations to appoint or elect African Americans, whites turned to intimidation, tokenism and duplicity, such as getting permission to include the name of an African American on a committee, but then not telling the person which committee or when they met. His name was sought to satisfy requirements, but his participation was not wanted.
During early 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was preparing for the Freedom Summer, and the US Commission on Civil Rights turned its attention to the USDA. This 6-person commission made investigations and reports but had no enforcement power. The National Sharecroppers Fund had filed nine discrimination cases with the Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, but Freeman had reported that all Mississippi USDA agencies had denied discrimination, as if that was a fact. The commission interviewers questioned USDA agents throughout the South, and observed unchallenged malpractice in powerful southern USDA county offices. Black farmers had not received information about new trends or programs or loans. Black farmers often received no notices of conservation service or other committee elections, or even of their right to vote.
Successful Black farmers made their own way, finding sources of loans outside pf the government agencies that should have helped them. Many Black farmers had no idea they even had access to USDA. Many USDA committees throughout the South controlled which farmers received information. Acreage allotment increases went to the “committeemen. White land-grant universities paid lip service to the support of civil rights, but distributed the resources as they liked.
Towards the end of the Freedom Summer of 1964, civil rights activists moved into helping African Americans benefit from federal programs. They also hoped to get Black farmers onto committees where they could have influence by force of numbers. Many believed the jobs were for whites only. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were squeezed out when committee work involved calculations they had never been taught to do, or understanding complex farm programs.
This left the field open for white agents to ignore deceitful acreage measurements by white farmers. Surpluses were not destroyed, even in cases where they were hundreds of acres in excess. Some ballot boxes were stuffed, some elections were declared invalid. In order to preserve central control and shore up apparent participation, committee members sometimes convinced farmers of the value of programs that did not help them.
Court jurisdiction in disputes was replaced by powerful committees that were not neutral, and did not rely on established precedent. Farmers were at the mercy of the personal preferences of the committeemen.
SNCC workers saw how sharecroppers did not have access to their accounts, and Willie Mae Robinson in Mississippi, for example, picked 20 bales of cotton in 1962, that should have brought her $1870. But she was only given $3.
In 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, civil rights leaders there urged John Lewis, the SNCC chair, to tone down his criticism of the Kennedy administration for unlawful arrests and failure to promote the civil rights bill. SNCC was seen as outside the main campaign for civil rights. When farmers in Mississippi provided housing for the SNCC workers, they suffered economic reprisals. When they registered to vote, they risked losing their homes and their jobs. Sharecroppers had no bargaining chips. One key for progress was to get Black farmers to stand for seats on the Conservation Service committees.
In 1965, The Conservation Service (ASCS) took steps to make sure all farmers had the chance to vote, and that the elections would be fair. But there was widespread fraud and intimidation, which the Conservation Service chose to ignore. Sometimes Black farmers found their names had been added to the ballot in an effort to dilute Black votes, preventing any African American farmers getting seats on the committee. Or ballots included only Black nominees chosen by white committees for their cooperation with whites rather than their support of Black farmers. “Discouragement” and humiliating treatment of this sort was widespread. Black farm wives in one county had been required to collect their own ballot slips at the office instead of receiving them in the mail like everyone else. Whites exacted a price for Black activism, such as registering to vote. Physical intimidation and violence, firing from jobs, and petty insults, such as using only first names for Black people, were common.
All-black advisory committees were set up to assist white ASCS committees, although this was not the equal participation mandated for federal programs. Unsurprisingly, white committees continued to run the show. SNCC workers offered workshops and stressed how important participation in ASCS elections was. They gave support by putting opaque election rules into plain English, and using stick-figure diagrams to explain elections, so farmers could understand what options they had.
The next year, Horace Godfrey, the head of ASCS, ordered counties to hire non-whites for temporary summer jobs at the same percentage of the population as whites. This was challenging in high-majority Black counties, and with few Black farmers owning cars. Also, the numbers of Black farmers were declining, leaving whites more control. However, overall, Godfrey’s hiring initiative became the best civil rights action taken by any USDA administrator in the 1960s. This did not smoothly lead to the hiring of more Black farmers for permanent jobs, although the ASCS set up a training program for clerical positions, which helped a few individuals each year and cracked the segregation within ASCS.
1965 included an escalation of violence, with the assassination of Malcolm X, the police brutality towards the marchers in Selma, President Johnson’s increase of troops in the Vietnam War, and the introduction of the draft. Press attention turned towards the war and away from civil rights.
In July 1965, Nyle Brady (the soil scientist), as the USDA’s director of science and education, claimed that the Extension Service had contacted 312,000 non-white southern farmers. Census numbers showed that there were less than 200,000 nonwhite farmers in the South.
Many elections were rigged, but Washington refused to take corrective action, or even admit anything was wrong. In July 1966 in Lowndes County, Alabama there was such blatant fraud that Stokely Carmichael reflected “If the government can spend billions of dollars to kill people in Vietnam to assure free elections, then they had better spend some of those dollars to assure free elections in the Lowndes County ASCS.” Stokely Carmichael led SNCC away from civil rights organizations including their white allies and focused more on color rather than class. He introduced the Black Power slogan, which meant different things to different people, perhaps as “Defund the Police” does in our times. His belligerent words alienated John Lewis, Charles Sherrod and Julian Bond, who all resigned from SNCC in 1966.The last of the white allies left in the spring of 1967, a step that was painful to many of them. The representation of Black farmers on ASCS suffered as a result of this pivot of attention in the SNCC.
During 1968, support from civil rights workers for southern Black farmers dwindled as political activists focused on anti-war efforts. Increasingly, the focus of discrimination included women, who were extremely rare within USDA. In a summary of minorities on county committees, there were no women at all. Beginning to employ Black people and white women changed the office culture. Training programs began for minorities (and women?), to qualify them for jobs in ASCS.
Integrating 4H camps proved too challenging for some white extension administrators, who cancelled the whole program rather than integrate. I am reminded of the closing of the white public swimming pool in one county in Virginia, by those in power, who would not integrate. The county remained without a public swimming pool for decades.
In 1981, the USDA had disbanded its Office of Civil Rights and stopped responding to farmers who had filed complaints. The US Commission on Civil Rights reported in 1982 on continued injustice in every program, which resembled too much the discrimination exposed in its 1965 report. By 1982 only 33,000 Black farmers remained in the South. Isidoro Rodriguez headed the Office of Minority Affairs from 1981, and in a bid to support the Republicans, dropped civil rights guidelines that were contrary to the Reagan administration. Investigations dropped from 90 a year to zero. He cut staff by ten and returned $475,000 in unspent funds. He was fired in 1983.
The 1984 House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing included as a witness, Timothy Pigford, who went on to file a class action suit, after eight years of struggling to afford to farm in the teeth of very bad advice and no financial assistance from the USDA. The 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class action suit won compensation for discrimination occurring after 1981 claims of discrimination. (The two-year statute of limitations was extended to cover the longer period.) Theoretically, before that date, the office of Civil Rights had dealt with complaints, although as we have seen, this was a big whitewash.
As a result of Pigford, farmers lacking incomplete documentation of their claim could get a cash payment of $50,000 and forgiveness of debts owed to the USDA. Farmers with documentation had no cap on what they could recover. Judge Friedman commented that the billions of dollars due to farmers for discrimination would show that the USDA was not above the law and remind them of the consequences of discrimination.
The payment of compensation resulting from Pigford claims was delayed in some cases for a decade, until February 2010 when the Obama administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement with African American farmers.
Memory fades and the history of the civil rights movement is mythologized as a string of heroes, achievements and successes. Like the earlier faked compliance reports, the success story has edited out conflicts, obstruction of justice and the many individual and small group efforts to bring justice. The USDA spoke of equal opportunity even as it obscured inequities in lending and provision of information and assistance and discriminated in choosing employees, and as it continued bad policies that drove more African American farmers off the land. Resources went to relatively wealthy white farmers
To compound the problems of Black farmers, many died without making a will, and all the heirs inherited the farm. Any heir could later sell their share outside the family to someone who could force a partition sale. Problems with Heirs’ Property caused a further loss of farming land in the African American community.
In July 1987 only 33 of 2,520 county directors in the nation were Black. Most of the offices by then were staffed by white women. All the Good Old Boys were resisting having a Black man in charge.
After Pigford, the USDA did backslide, and in 2009, Tom Vilsack as the incoming Secretary of Agriculture, inherited 11,000 unprocessed civil rights complaints, several class action suits and 113,000 employee discrimination complaints. In November 1999, Native American farmers had filed a suit that led to a $760million fund to pay damages, as well as cancelled debts. Hispanics sued in 2000. Women sued and were added to the Hispanic farmers’ case. These cases opened the way for more claims from other minorities who had suffered discrimination.
Lloyd Wright, former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton—and himself a farmer—on his family farm in Montross, Virginia. Photo Donnamaria Jones
No financial settlement makes up for humiliation, distress and loss, and many of these farmers had already lost their land by the time they received money. It is past time we treated everyone with decency and justice.
Click the link for an interview with Pete Daniel and Jess Gilbert on Edge Effects
Book Review: Going Over Home: A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land, by Charles Thompson, Chelsea Green Publishers, September 2019. 243 pages, 33 photos, $18.
This engaging book is both a farm memoir and a discussion of racial disparities, wealth inequalities, and their effects on rural folk, mostly from 1959 to 1997, with a 2015 update. In his lifetime, Charlie witnessed the demise of every farm in his family. Working by turns as a farmer, a student, an advocate and a teacher, Charlie uncovered why small family farms have struggled so much.
The happiest parts of the author’s childhood were spent visiting his grandparents’ farms, particularly his paternal grandparents in Endicott, SW Virginia. He observed how hard they worked and how little money they earned from farming. This came into focus when he went with his grandpa to sell eight steers at auction in Roanoke. Only much later did Charlie find out how his grandpa ever managed to afford to buy land.
Click this link to see a video with the author reading from his book:
In 1940 there were 30 million people living on farms in the US (one-third of the population). Today it is a mere 1% of the population, and there are more people in prisons than on farms. During the 1980s American Farm Crisis, the bulk of Charlie’s parents’ generation moved off the farms to manufacturing jobs offering more pay.
In 1971, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, uttered the now notorious advice to farmers to “Get Big, or Get Out”. Black farmers were particularly poorly treated by the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which was set up to help beginning farmers and people of limited means (Black and white) get settled into farming. Black farmers were routinely turned down. In 1983, Charlie (who is white) had his own run-in when refused a loan to start Thompson Berry Farm.
In 1972, in High School, Charlie was excited to find a school greenhouse and a Hort 101 course. Most of the other Ag students were poor boys in the Vocational Agriculture program, not expected to do much academic work, but to learn farming and a manual trade, because they couldn’t earn a living solely from farming. Charlie discovered organic gardening and subscribed to Mother Earth News. He had found his tribe!
Charlie started his own garden, dreamed of a small farm. His grandpa owned some mountain land with an abandoned cabin. Charlie planned to move there, but his parents said he should finish high school and college before moving up there. Meanwhile Charlie and his cousin, as teenagers, worked on restoring the cabin, grew a garden, and enquired into the past of the place now named Woolwine Cabin. He read Thoreau’s Walden Pond, and saw through his initial romantic notions, realizing that Thoreau did not own the land he stayed on. He was a privileged guest and free to leave whenever he chose. Thoreau had access to hot meals, baths, laundry services provided by his family. The family who had lived at Woolwine Cabin had no alternative. “Deprivation, unlike simplicity, is not exactly something to celebrate.”
In 1975, Charlie went to Ferrum College, staying with his grandparents on their farm, 3 miles away. He studied art and Blue Ridge culture, and came to realize that living in the woods, growing food and making art for a living would not be enough. He needed connection with others, and to put effort into achieving justice for mountain people (and everyone). After giving thought, he applied to transfer to Emory and Henry College, whose curriculum emphasized community service. Rural justice had become more important to him than farming. This is one of several pendulum swings Charlie makes in his life between farming and doing political work for justice for farmers. He worked hard and volunteered at a campaign to prevent construction of a dam that would destroy a farming community. From there he became involved in other political action for social justice, and took a Politics of Appalachia course. He realized that Appalachian people had been exploited, victimized and then blamed for their situation. Being part of a community is not a passive act – it requires action.
The summer after graduation, he volunteered in the garden at Koinonia Farm in Georgia, a community committed to radical love of all people regardless of race. He was surrounded by poverty, and learned about the lives of former sharecroppers, who gave their lives to agriculture but owned no land to pass on to their children, and often died in debt. Even those who got “40 Acres and a Mule” couldn’t compete with the Big Ag farmers helped by USDA Price Supports. There had never been any “good old days” for most Southern farmers. Charlie’s summer garden work did not satisfy his need to reduce agricultural inequalities. But some of the other work at Koinonia addressed this directly, helping poor people afford housing (this became Habitat for Humanity). “Those who have power must be quiet and listen to those who do not have it.”
In 1979, Charlie got a job with the non-profit HEAD Corporation, organizing community gardens in the coalfields of West Virginia. But he missed farm country. He read Wendell Berry and went to a farming conference at the University of Kentucky. It was all white people. He pondered why the Back to the Land movement was divorced from the social justice cause.
The next year, Charlie got a job as garden caretaker and a member of the farmer-educator team at the Rural Advancement Fund (RAF) Graham Center – a demonstration organic farm in North Carolina, close to the South Carolina border. RAF advocated for racial justice. He worked there for a year and met his future wife Hope Shand. But focusing on organic farming failed to address the farm emergency around them, so they decided to fight the root causes of farm loss rather than teach organic methods. Farm loans to Black farmers were fewer and smaller than those to white farmers. Farmers “needed more help on how to raise hell than how to raise tomatoes.”
In 1982, Charlie applied to do a Master’s degree at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (a historically Black college) in Greensboro. NC A&T is an 1890 School (it got Federal support from the second Morrill Act to establish a “separate but equal” land grant university for people of color.) The 1954 Brown vs Board of Education declared this division was far from equal, and NC A&T was relabeled as the school for small farms, while NCSU was relabeled as for commercial farmers, rather than for white farmers. Inequality and segregation continued.
Charlie saw no other white people on campus. He found he was eligible for a full scholarship through the Federal Minority Presence Grant! Clearly the scholarship money was another form of white privilege, but Charlie reckoned that his contribution of a year as a volunteer with RAF made it fairer. And that the money would just sit there if he didn’t take it. He committed to two years of agricultural research there, becoming the horticulture teacher-in-training at Pittsboro’s Northwood High School. He questions his effectiveness as a teacher, but he learned a lot, and was conveniently near Hope, who worked fulltime for RAF, now in Pittsboro.
Charlie learned about Black land loss, in particular the problem of heirs’ property. When African American farm owners died without making a will, it has to be sold unless all the heirs agree to keep the land in the family. It usually ends up outside the family, often with a white farmer or a developer. During the Great Migration (1916-1970), young Black Southerners moved to northern cities. Some became unfindable, most had little interest in farmland. Charlie learned more about farm loss when he got a side job as a driver for Betty Bailey, the leader of the Farm Survival Project at RAF (she had a broken arm). She had started a Farm Crisis Hotline which got all kinds of calls, from those seeking information to those contemplating suicide or murder.
After graduating from NC A&T, Charlie got a job with RAF as a rural educator, and helped staff the Hotline, as well as visiting farmers, helping train them to support one another as farmer advocates. Unfair laws and credit policies encouraged farmers to go too deeply into debt. He started facilitating local meetings for women and men of all races to unite. Loan officers doled out loans in installments (“supervised loans”) to Black farmers, but deposited the complete loan upfront into the bank accounts of white farmers. Charlie hoped to unite the diverse farmers on common issues, but for Black farmers, the issue of racism was paramount. How to convince white farmers of the importance of dismantling racism? He had some success with this and with getting some of the leadership roles filled by women farmers.
In 1983, Charlie helped start the United Farmers Organization (UFO), a multi-racial, multi-gender farmer group. UFO called for a moratorium on all FmHA farm foreclosures nationwide (because of the inequities). Congress supported the call and prevented foreclosures for two years. This involved attending a lot of meetings. Some white farmers worried that their political activity might jeopardize their farm loans. Some Black farmers wanted faster change and refocused on saving Black land. UFO disbanded. In 2010 (under the Obama administration) payments were finally made to 34,000 African American farmers who had waited 25 years.
In 1984, the author continued his work advocating for and helping farmers stay on their land and making a living farming. He and his fiancée Hope applied for a Beginning Farmer loan to buy a farm. Near Pittsboro they found a 22-acre parcel of a worn-out tobacco farm with a decrepit house. The loan request was rejected by the FmHA, despite a carefully crafted farm plan. Charlie wrote a 5-page appeal, which he hand-delivered to the new county supervisor, asking for reconsideration, along with a revised 8-page plan and supporting letters from farmers and the extension agent. He got a second rejection, and appealed again, adding more allies and endorsements. He had been denied based on the opinion that his plan was “unusual” but this is not valid grounds for rejection. He went to Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, and stressed how well-prepared he was to start farming. After another month, he got a letter reversing the decision of the county committee, but it did not guarantee that a loan would be approved if he reapplied! Charlie did reapply, this time directly to the loan officer, who admitted to the unfairness and illogicality of the previous loan decisions. He could have got a loan for a large chicken farm, even though he knew nothing about chickens! This time he got his loan. Happily, the landowner had kept faith with Charlie for over 9 months, and refrained from building a trailer park on the land.
In 1985, Charlie and Hope married and moved to the land, Whippoorwill Farm. Both still had day jobs, but Charlie was working 14 hour days, starting the farm, and selling produce at the Carrboro Farmers Market. He also helped start more farmers’ markets in the area, to meet demand, and campaigned against the large Raleigh State Market that was not a growers’ market. After his Op Ed appeared in the paper, he started receiving threatening phone calls. Meanwhile many other farms in North Carolina were still struggling to pay their bills and the moratorium on foreclosures would soon end. Poor people did not have ability to buy food at the Carrboro prices. Charlie worked to incorporate WIC vouchers as a way of paying for produce.
Meanwhile the USDA Organic Standards allowed distant large farms to compete with small local farms, co-opting terms like family farm, natural, local as well as images of bucolic small farms. By focusing on small local organic farms, many foodies had stopped monitoring big corporate ag. RAF, now RAFI, revealed that agribusiness was merging with Big Pharma, and seed companies were bought by chemical companies. These changes squeezed out medium-sized farms, and reduced access of poor people to good food.
In 1986, Charlie (now farming full-time) needed more labor to pick his fruit. He got help from some Mexicans out-of-work from a chicken factory. He learned a lot about the struggles of farmers in Mexico, and reflected on the irony of local crops harvested by global labor! He came to see his deepest devotion is to farmers, not farming. “We as a nation have become dependent upon displaced farmers from elsewhere to do our hand labor in the fields. We eat because of their losses. US agriculture depends on the displaced. Indeed, it always has.”
By 1993, he and Hope had a son, and he was missing his extended family, needing a village and not feeling grounded at the farm. He had been asking his neighbors about the history of his land. It was once worked by a family of African American sharecroppers, who said the Black family before them lost the farm to crop failures and debt. Charlie realized he was working land where a silent racial clearance had taken place. He also found native American projectile points (“arrow heads”).
After seven years at Whippoorwill, he was rethinking farming, and wanted to pivot towards learning more, writing and making films. He wanted to amplify the voices of rural people, especially those forced to leave their land. He got a place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Religion and Culture program, and decided to sell the farm.
His second focus was to try to understand his family’s agricultural heritage in the context of European exile, concentrating on his mother’s side. They were Old Order Brethren immigrants from Germany in the 1700s. Most German immigrants from the Palatinate region, like the author’s ancestors, were exiles from religious persecution. Few immigrants ever intended to remain working for others as humble renters or laborers. Before they could start their own farms, they had to do 4-7 years of indentured servitude. 4-7 years of making the wealthy wealthier. Thomas Jefferson mused about alternatives to slavery, considering employing landless immigrant German farmers as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. This is another ironic contradiction in Jefferson’s legacy – another unlanded people from another country to work the soil without owning the land.
In 1997, Charlie went with his grandpa to the Floyd Country Store for the weekly dance. It was to be grandpa’s last dance. During the journey, Charlie asked him how he ever made the leap from a family of poor tenant farmers to owning 150 acres and a house in 1930, as a young man. The big secret came out. He had hauled bootleg liquor in a convoy of cars to the coalfields of West Virginia. Most of the money went to the Big Wheels, but grandpa made enough for a down payment on his farm. He had not told the story for 70 years. It was not the American Dream that provided. It was ingenuity and risk-taking in an illegal business. Charlie fit this piece with other stories of hardship and making ends meet, and even wrote a book about moonshine.
In 2015, the author joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “Moral Mondays” to call on elected leaders to do right by poor marginalized people. He and Hope got arrested, following a quote from Thoreau “If . . . the machine of government . . . be of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” They knew they were not risking as much as the Black people whose jobs were on the line.
Charlie’s positivity about rural America has taken a beating, especially since 2016. We have been told that “rural America” voted for Trump hoping straight whites could rise again and blame troubles on everyone else. Fear won the day. Equality and participatory democracy are seen as problems rather than cherished ideals. Welcoming immigrants and caring for the environment are seen as weakness.
Will farm communities survive? Inequality will get worse if we are idle. We must push back against intolerance and join the oppressed in their fight for justice. We need to acknowledge that the loss of good jobs is real, coal and factory towns have suffered great harm, farm communities have been shredded. Hurt people sometimes lash out. We need to understand the roots of rural discontent, reflect back people’s fears in constructive ways. We must love our neighbors (the neighbors we have, not only those we choose), and plant seeds of hope and change for the next generation.
Charlie’s latest film, produced by Farm Aid in 2017, is Homeplace Under Fire. It discusses the 30 year history of farm advocacy as supported by Willie Nelson and others. Here’s the trailer:
I mentioned before that I took part in the Organic Growers School Cuba Agroecolgy Tour in January. I’ve made some progress sorting through my photos, and this post is about Organopónico Vivero Alamar(Alamar Urban Organic Farm) on the outskirts of Havana. Alamar is one of the largest and most successful urban farms in Havana, and it is very impressive. It was founded in 1997.
During the Special Period in Time of Peace in Cuba (1991-2000), an extended period of economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union combined with a US trade blockade, Cubans were thrown back on their own resources. This was described to me as “Cuba went to bed with privilege and woke up with nothing.” Food, fuel and equipment were not imported, and people began producing food wherever they could. Because there were no fertilizers or pesticides, vegetables and fruit were grown organically. In time, Cubans came to see the superiority of organic farming, and today the urban farms and small-scale food-producing farms continue to be organic (Cuban organic standards are not the same as USDA requirements). Commodity crops (tobacco, coffee, sugar) however, are not usually organically grown.
Alamar Urban Organic Farm covers 11 hectares (27 acres) in a residential dormitory suburb, surrounded by grey prefabricated concrete apartment blocks in the classic Soviet style. Like many Cuban farms, there are many and varied tropical tree fruits, and permaculture is easily practiced. Sadly, it wasn’t mango season when I visited, although early-ripening mango varieties were in flower. Here is a fruit tree I lost the name of:
Alamar has 125 workers, with an average age in the “upper middle age” bracket. They produce vegetables and ornamental plants for sale, as well as medicinal and spiritual plants. 90% of their sales are to the public and 10% to hospitals. The Cuban government ensures that hospitals and schools get provided for, I think. They keep bulls (steers?) and rabbits for manure, and oxen and horses for cultivation. Rabbit meat is not popular.
Many of the crop plants are inside shade and/or screen houses, which took quite a hit from Hurricane Irma. Agricultural buildings are mostly pole barns thatched with leaves of the Royal Palm. Thus they can be rebuilt after hurricanes destroy them.
Vegetables are on raised beds. Almost all seed has to be imported and is not organic. Cubans we spoke with generally thought the humid climate would be too hard for seed growing. Personally, I wonder if that’s true. I think a home-grown seed business would be a good step towards more food sovereignty, but it’s not for me to say, really!
Alamar makes their own potting soil from 50% humus, 25% compost and 25% rice hulls. Cubans eat a lot of rice, and annually import 300,000 tons of cheap Vietnamese rice which needs a lot of cleaning.
Alamar is trialing biochar as animal bedding, to reduce smell, and charge the biochar with nutrients and micro-organisms before it is used on the fields. They have insectary plantings (flowering plants to attract beneficial insects and birds) at the heads of many vegetable beds. They use mung beans as a cover crop and to grow bean sprouts.
The tropical “oregano” in the photo above looks nothing like our temperate climate oregano. It is almost a succulent, and the leaves are much bigger than we are used to .
Alamar has tried growing mushrooms, but they are not commonly eaten in Cuba. They also make value-added products: condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles. Canning is not easy, as glass canning jars are not available and there are regulations against plastic jars.
They make for use and sale both compost and vermicompost. Below are two photos of open air concrete worm bins, which they cover with tarps.
Another source of income for Alamar is workshops and courses in organic agriculture and tours such as ours. Cuba geared up for a big increase in American tourists during the Obama administration but has seen fewer tourists since Trump introduced stricter criteria for Americans visiting Cuba.
There are several types of agricututal co-operatives in Cuba. Alamar is a Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). In 1993, the Cuban state handed over agricultural land to co-operatives “in usufruct”, which means “the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.”
I’ve just got back from a wonderful Agroecology Tour of Cuba with the Organic Growers School. Click the link to sign up for the 2021 tour. I have lots of photos and much to say, but so little time today! In 9 days we visited 9 farms, had several speakers address aspects of life (and particularly farming and environmental issues) in Cuba, had a couple of walking tours, ate many delicious farm-to-table type dinners and still had time for a salsa lesson
We are having trouble with our internet connection today, so this post will either be short or very short.
I’m headed to the Little Rock, Arkansas conference of the Southern Sustainable Working Group
Go to my Events Page for a full list of where to look for me. Not long after getting home from SSAWG I’m headed to PASA in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Then the West Virginia Small Farms Conference
Then OAK, in Louisville, Kentucky,
Then Organic Growers School in Mars Hill, North Carolina
Hang in there! Be careful what you wish for in terms of early frosts!
The August issue of Growing for Market is out. The lead article is Serving the Underserved by Jane Tanner. It’s about small farms connecting with people who are struggling financially and cannot easily feed their families good food. Examples include people working for food, gleaning finished crops, farms donating to shelters and other organizations, accepting SNAP cards at farmers markets, and an incentive program to encourage people to use SNAP entitlements to buy produce. Posting a photo of a SNAP card at your booth can help people using the cards feel welcome. The author encourages farmers to take flyers to distribute in the waiting rooms of agencies where people enroll for SNAP, WIC and other benefits. A approach used in central Texas is to post photos of available produce on popular Facebook groups for Spanish speakers that otherwise feature cars and jewelry for sale. The article is packed with ideas.
Ellen Polishuk’s Farmer to farmer Profile this issue features Shiloh Avery and Jason Roehrig of Tumbling Shoals Farm in NC. Here’s the very short version:
Tumbling Shoals Farm
3 acres certified organic
7 high tunnels ( one heated)
1 Haygrove tunnel
66 % FM, 26% C SA, 8 % wholesale
2018 is year 1 1 for this farm.
Ellen visited in mid-March, on the farm crew’s first work day of the year, when there was snow on the ground. The farmers made a thoughtful review of their first ten years, and a plan for the future. They decided to expand in 2017 to increase net farm income and quality of life. This involves hiring one more full-time worker for the season, for a total of five; building a heated high tunnel (for early tomatoes); and providing a four-day-weekend paid vacation for each employee during the dog days of August. Not everything went according to plan. Terrible wet spring weather led them to the somewhat desperate decision to also work a winter season too, to meet their income goal. This didn’t meet their quality of life goal, as you can imagine! The original investor for the heated hoophouse fell through, but they were able to finance it themselves. Everyone benefitted enormously from the little August break. For 2018 they are going to focus on their most profitable crops (they dropped strawberries, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, winter squash and cut flowers.) Ellen commended them for their bravery in taking the difficult decision to drop “loser crops”. I know what that’s like. As Ellen says
” There is history to battle, habits to break, customer wishes to deny, and maybe even some ego to wrestle with.”
The article continues with info on addressing soil fertility outside and in the tunnels, buying selected machinery, and running a Lean packing shed. For more photos from Ellen’s visit, go to tinyurl.com/y7r8vr5a.
For more information go to Ellen Polishuk’s website. (Her new book Start Your Farm will be out soon, and I will review it on my blog.)
The next article is on when to call in a book-keeper and when a CPA, by Morgan Houk. “Why are we asking ourselves to be our own financial advisors too?” We have many other hats, we don’t need this one. Rowan Steele writes “Working Together: Oregon multi-agency farmer development program grows farmers.” This is about providing opportunities for the next generation of farmers, and lowering the average age of Oregon farmers below 60, ensuring that food production continues, and that the land is well cared for. Doug Trott writes about protected culture flower planning, from am exposed hillside in west-central Minnesota. Flower growers everywhere will get encouragement from this careful farm research and practice.
Anyone who is looking at a broken hose can read this and gather what’s needed to get that hose back into service. Next hot sunny day (when hoses are more flexible) find half-an-hour to solve your hose problems
Year-Round Hoophouse Book Update
The Twin Oaks Indexing Crew has finished indexing my new book. Very thoroughly, I’m happy to say – what farmer has time to deal with a poor index when they are in a hurry?
All the typesetting is done. Next stop is at the printers. This will take five to six weeks. From the printers it goes to the warehouses, then out to the stores. I should have copies for sale at the beginning of November! I sign all the copies I sell direct through my website and at sustainable agriculture conferences and similar events I attend. Yes, it is possible to buy the book for less money, but you don’t get a signed copy, and you won’t have the warm heart that comes from knowing you helped support a small scale farmer and author. The amount that an author gets for a copy of the book sold depends on the price the buyer paid and the price the supplier paid. And there’s also the library for those with not enough money to buy.
I just completed another step on the way to getting my new book, The Year-Round Hoophouse, published. I proofread aver 300 pages of text over the course of five very intensive focused days. In the next four days I checked all the photos, including the color section. I replaced a few photos that didn’t come out clearly, fixed a couple of glitches (that’s what proofreading is for!) And I added up to 17 more photos wherever there was enough space at the ends of chapters. The index is being prepared, and another proofreader is also carefully working through the text.
Then the corrected pre-press proof will be prepared by early August, and we’ll be on track for the November 20 publication date, with the books coming off-press in mid-October and heading to the stores. ISBN 978-0-86571-863-0.
The finished paperback book will be 288 pages, 8″ x 10″ (20 x 25 cm) for $29.99 (US or Canadian). It will also be available in digital formats.
When we were clearing our early bush cucumbers from the hoophouse a couple of weeks ago, I found four plants at the east end of the bed with nematodes. I’ve written before about our struggles with root knot nematodes in our hoophouse, and indeed, you can read everything I know about nematodes in the Year-Round Hoophouse.
Here is another photo of the lumpy roots, with circles outlining the nematode lumps.
The July/August Organic Broadcaster is out. The first article is about a poultry system compatible with regenerative agriculture. Regenerative Agriculture is one of the sustainable agriculture movements that are springing up as an alternative to USDA Organic, which now allows CAFOs, hydroponics and other unhealthy, non-sustainable methods. The regenerative poultry system includes trees for shade, ranging paddocks where the poultry are rotated, and night shelter. The aim of the author, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, is a fully regenerative supply chain, starting with what kinds of grains they feed the poultry and how they are grown. Farmers can reach the organizers of Regeneration Midwest by emailing [email protected].
The second article explains the consequences of USDA halting the Organic check-off as part of their program. The editorial introduces Organic 2051, a one-day conference (Feb 21, 2019) prior to the MOSES Conference, “to bring together leaders in the organic and sustainable farming community to chart the path forward for truly sustainable farming by the year 2050 and beyond, demonstrating our capacity to feed the world.”
Another article (by Matthew Kleinhenz) discusses biofertilizers and explores differences between an average yield increase which is sustained and throughout the field, and one that might lead to a similar average yield increase, but with a result that is widely fluctuating between one plant and the next, producing a few start yielders but fewer plants with an actual yield increase.
Bailey Webster writes about industrial hemp, an up and coming crop with mostly non-food uses, although the seeds are finding favor, touted as a “superfood”. Brittany Olsen writes about the MOSES farm mentorship program, Teresa Wiemerslage writes about the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Regulation and Laura Jessee Livingston writes about a new apprenticeship program training farm managers.
Another article by Bailey Webster explores a shocking case that looks like racism in rural Kansas (although of course it could be almost anywhere). Kansas farmer Carlos Valencia, who is is black and Hispanic, began managing a farm in Norton, Kansas that was owned by Golden Duck LLC in 2007. He was working for equity in the farm, rather than for wages, with the goal of owning it himself one day. He planned to raise poultry, and had submitted documents to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to get farm operating permits to raise geese on a commercial scale. The paperwork was taking a long time, and if he was to raise geese that year and earn his living, he needed to get goslings on the farm while they were available. Geese do not produce young year-round, only February-June. Fully expecting to get his permits (the previous farmers there had an industrial hog unit), he bought 20,000 goslings. This sounds like a huge number to me, but I understand from the article that this is a modest start. In June, disaster struck in the form of an unusually strong hail storm that killed 800 of Valencia’s young geese. He chose a common practice on poultry farms: incinerating them. The local authorities caught wind of it, and worried that the poultry had died of disease. The USDA and the state biopsied the dead birds to check for disease, and found that there was no disease present. Continue reading “Year-Round Hoophouse book update, Nematodes in hoophouse cucumbers, Organic Broadcaster.”
We normally (or do I mean “used to”?) transplant our hoophouse tomatoes on March 15 here in central Virginia. But this year spring is late and cold. Our starts have been struggling in our greenhouse, not helped by our heat mat deciding to give up the ghost. Plus a spot of learning curve errors in not noticing this quickly, or that our germination chamber wasn’t as toasty as it needed to be. Yesterday I decided it was time to adapt to reality, and turned our greenhouse heater up from 45F to 50F. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are not going to do well at only 45F. We’re not getting any solar gain lately because it’s been cloudy. In fact, we’re bracing for snow tonight and tomorrow.
We have measured out spots 2ft apart down the middles of the two tomato beds in the hoophouse, cleared the winter crops from those spots (see the photo above), dug holes, added a shovelful of compost to each hole, and now we’re waiting for the plants to reach a sensible size to transplant.
Meanwhile outdoors, we have finished transplanting spinach as bare-root transplants from our hoophouse, and next up are the kale and collards. I wrote about bare-root transplantsin January 2017.
In the hoophouse we are encouraged by watching our snap peas grow.We planted these February 1, a month earlier than we plant outdoors. That “month earlier then outdoors” is our general guideline for hoophouse sowings after the winter solstice.
Our lettuce suffered a big setback/death knell in the New Year cold snap, and it’s a challenge to come up with 5-10 gallons of salad mix each day. Happily we have lots of spinach, several patches of baby lettuce mix and several of brassica salad mix (mustards). For cooking greens, our Red Russian and White Russian kales are doing very well.
The Organic Trade Associationis suing the US Department of Agriculture to defend Organic standards for handling of livestock and poultry. On September 13, 2017, the OTA filed a lawsuit against USDA over their failure to implement the new Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices regulation. These regulations would protect Organic integrity, advance animal welfare, and safeguard the process for developing Organic standards. USDA unlawfully delayed the effective date to implement the final livestock standards, several times over. The USDA violated the Administration Procedure Act, because the delays were issued without public process. They ignored the overwhelming public record in support of these Organic standards.
The Organic Welfare Rule is the result of 14 years of transparent public work within the process established by Congress. It addresses four areas of practice: living conditions, animal healthcare, transport and slaughter.
The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule was published on Jan. 19, 2017, in the Federal Register, and the government has now attempted to delay the implementation of the rule 6 times – either through the rule-making process or through court filings.
It was delayed to May 19, 2017 (because there was a regulatory freeze on new rules). In May it was further delayed to November 14, 2017 and the USDA opened a 30-day period for comment including options to go forward or to withdraw the Rule. There were 47,000 comments, of which 99% supported the rule as written becoming effective as soon as possible. There were only 28 comments to withdraw the rule. On December 15 USDA announced its plan to withdraw the regulation, giving 30 days for comment. Not that this 30 days included 3 Federal holidays.
USDA received roughly 72,000 comments (in this short comment period during the holiday season) with an overwhelming majority supporting OLPP. USDA also recognizes that of those comments, only approximately 50 supported the withdrawal – another clear disregard of the record by USDA in its attempts to kill the final rule.
Organic producers (the people directly impacted by the rule) overwhelmingly support the rule. Most of the (tiny amount) of opposition is from outside the organic sector. See the Washington Post of January 16, 2018 from 29 Organic organizations demanding a return to honoring the public process previously in place.
On March 12, The Washington Post (search for Ag Department kills animal welfare rule for organic meat) announced that the Trump administration, via USDA, has withdrawn the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule published in January 2017 by Barack Obama’s government.
The regulation would have ensured that organically grown livestock and poultry had enough space to stand up, turn around, fully stretch, lie down, and had ventilation and access to fresh air.