August 16, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Kari Lydersen,
Washington Post: It took Bernard Thomas 19
hours to get here from his home in Bartow, Ga. It didn't
help that a tire blew out and a nasty thunderstorm erupted
on the way.
But despite the tough trip, Thomas plans to keep coming
to this suburb south of Chicago almost every weekend
for the rest of the summer, to sell his load of organic
melons, tomatoes, peaches and corn. He is a pioneer
of sorts, the first in a program that hopes to bring
more southern black farmers north to sell their produce
at higher prices.
Though the transportation costs for the farmers are
high, Thomas is banking on the popularity of home-grown
southern produce and the higher market prices in the
Midwest to make his effort worthwhile.
"You can make so much more up here. In the South
you can't charge near as much for anything because people
don't have as much" money, Thomas said. "This
is a long way, but it's worth the drive."
Things are tough for many family farmers, but for black
farmers in the South they are even tougher. Not only
do they face competition from huge corporate farms and
rising taxes, but many say they continue to be affected
by a long legacy of discrimination in receiving government
subsidies and loans from banks.
Minority farm ownership is down. In 1920 there were
about 900,000 black farmers in the South, according
to historical records kept by the National Agricultural
Statistics Service. The Agriculture Department's 2002
agricultural census found only 29,090 black farmers
in the entire country.
"It does show a dramatic decline," said Ginger
Harris, a statistician with the National Agricultural
Statistics Service. "The number of farmers in general
has declined, but black farmers have declined even more.
In 1920 they made up about 15 percent of all farmers;
today they make up only 1.2 percent."
As with family farms everywhere, children are deciding
not to take over their aging parents' farms, opting
instead for more lucrative and flexible occupations.
"Now there's no way you can earn a living on what
used to be a reasonable-sized piece of land," said
George Naylor, an Iowa farmer and president of the National
Family Farm Coalition. "And I'm sure it's worse
for [black farmers in the South]. They tend to have
smaller farms, and they're spread out more. And the
prices down there are a really big problem."
That is why Bob Storman decided to bring southern black
farmers up to Harvey.
"Most of us here in the southern suburbs originally
came from farming families," Storman said. "We
miss being able to get fresh southern fruit and vegetables
like this. So this gives the farmers a way to make some
money, and it gives the residents here a taste of the
things they remember."
On a hot, humid Saturday in late July, Thomas's pickup
and flatbed trailer were parked in a hotel lot. He was
surrounded by buyers, some who had driven an hour or
more to get a taste of real southern watermelon and
sweet corn. Many of the customers were born into farming
families in the South and missed the produce they remember
from their youth.
"We raised vegetables, cotton, corn, sweet potatoes,
our own chickens and hogs," said Willie Mae Alexander,
83, an Arkansas native who drove from Gary, Ind., with
Clara Brown Smith, 61. "Most African American families
who came here from Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas
did have farms. We're used to the farm life."
"They should get sugar cane. You can't find sugar
cane in Chicago," added Shelby Rowe, 64, who is
originally from a Mississippi farming family and now
works installing air conditioning units. "And it's
hard to find good lemons, pecans and blackberries. If
they bring those things up from the South, people will
Thomas, 33, has worked on his family's farm since he
was 6. Along with his 58-year-old father and four other
men, he farms about 200 acres. They sell their goods
to the Georgia state prison system and a few other private
Kathy Ozer, executive director of the National Family
Farm Coalition, notes that Thomas's choice to take up
direct marketing, bringing the produce straight to customers
rather than selling it to a middleman, is a route many
farmers are taking.
"When they sell things wholesale, they're getting
such a tiny percent of what the consumer pays, that
they see there is money in direct marketing," she
said. "Even if it means they have to truck food
up 1,000 miles and sell it. Ideally, they could find
local markets to sell their produce directly."
Leon Crump, a South Carolina farmer and state director
of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, has participated
in programs similar to the Harvey market, driving hundreds
of miles to Philadelphia, New York or other cities every
week to sell produce from his and neighbors' farms.
He said their program with a church in Baltimore ran
smoothly for several years, and their profits were worth
the transportation costs.
"People like the idea that we're picking something
fresh in the South and we can be in their town the next
morning," he said. "Northern folks are just
not used to tree-ripened and vine-ripened stuff, compared
to something that was picked green and shipped."
Thomas figures he only broke even over the weekend
in Harvey, considering his travel costs, which were
partly reimbursed by the city and township.
He expects to earn more in coming weeks as word of
his produce spreads. He said several other farmers he
knows are planning to make the trek with him or give
him some of their produce to sell. Alexander and Smith
said they will be back, with friends.
"They said they'll have greens and crowder peas
next week," Smith said. "I'll be waiting."