Black farmers in america 1865 2000


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Black farmers in america 1865 2000

  1. 1. United StatesDepartment ofAgriculture Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000Rural Business–CooperativeServiceRBS ResearchReport 194 The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives
  2. 2. Abstract Black farmers in America have had a long and arduous struggle to own land and to operate independently. For more than a century after the Civil War, deficient civil rights and various economic and social barriers were applied to maintaining a system where many blacks worked as farm operators with a limited and often total lack of opportunity to achieve ownership and operating independence. Diminished civil rights also limited collective action strategies, such as cooperatives and unions. Even so, various types of cooperatives, including farmer associations, were organized in black farming com- munities prior to the 1960s. During the 1960s, the civil rights movement brought a new emphasis on cooperatives. Leaders and organizations adopted an explicit purpose and role of black cooperatives in pursuing independent farming. Increasingly, new technology and integrated contracting systems are diminishing independent decision- making in the management of farms. As this trend expands, more cooperatives may be motivated, with a determination similar to those serving black farmers, to pursue proactive strategies for maintaining independent farming. Acknowledgments The idea of conducting this research was developed from reading an unpublished manuscript by a co-worker, Beverly Rotan, which was based on several case studies of black farmer cooperatives. Her research indicated that historical background was essential to understanding many of the current conditions for black farmers and their cooperatives. Discussions with Beverly and another co-worker, Edgar Lewis, were indispensable in the effort to adequately understand the goals and practices of black farmers and cooperatives. John Zippert of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund provided background on some of the major devel- opments of black farmer cooperatives during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as provid- ing a substantial set of key documents. The historical component of this report relied to a large extent on three excellent books by the Smithsonian Institution scholar, Pete Daniel (see the References section). Furthermore, he reviewed an earlier version. His suggestions were helpful for making several improvements in this report. A second version was reviewed by Professor Robert Zabawa of Tuskegee University and Spencer Wood, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin. They offered several excellent critical observations and suggestions. October 2002 Reprinted October 2003
  3. 3. Contents Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1 Black Farmers in the South, 1865-1932 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2 Independent Farming Initiatives, 1886-1932 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5 New Deal Agriculture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8 The Civil Rights Movement and Cooperatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10 Promoting Independent Farm Enterprise Through Cooperatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13 Summary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .19 Appendix Table 1- A Chronology, 1865-1965 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22 Appendix Table 2- Number of farm operators and operating status, 1900-1959 . . . .23 Appendix Table 3- Farm operators in the U.S. by race, 1900-1997 . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24 i
  4. 4. Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role ofCooperativesBruce J. ReynoldsEconomistRural Business-Cooperative Service Farming as a family-owned and independentbusiness has been an important part of the social andeconomic development of the United States. But formany black farmers it was more often than not a losingstruggle.1 The end of slavery was followed by about100 years of racial discrimination in the South that lim-ited, although it did not entirely prevent, opportunitiesfor black farmers to acquire land. Enforcement of civil rights in the 1950s-60sremoved many overt discriminatory barriers, althoughby that time increased technology had significantlyreduced the demand for farmers in agricultural pro-duction. Nevertheless, cooperatives, while havingsome limited application in earlier decades, emerged About 25 years ago, an independent farmer wasas a significant force for black farmers during the civil generally defined as having freedom to make decisionsrights movement. They assumed a major role in mar- with risk and reward consequences while functioningketing and purchasing and in improving opportunities in an interdependent market system (Breimyer, 116-17;for black farmers to retain their ownership of land. Lee, 40-43). While this definition is still valid, interde-They essentially helped keep alive a traditional aspira- pendencies in the farm economy are increasing andtion for independent farming. This report reviews the farm decision-making has become more coordinatedhistory of black farmers to explore the role of coopera- and restricted during the last 25 years (Wolf).tives in their pursuit of independent farming. Definitional boundaries of farming independence The term "independent farmer" is often used for are left to farmers and agribusiness to negotiate with-different purposes, ranging from description of a per- out major interference by government in determiningsonality-type to justifications for farm policy. A gener- how risk and reward are shared. In general, public pol-al definition is an individual who makes farm-operat- icy and agricultural research are focused on how toing decisions that have variable risk and reward increase aggregate income and to provide a farm safe-outcomes. For independent farming to be successful, ty net, but for the most part are neutral about therisk/reward combinations must be competitive with extent of a farmer’s entrepreneurial independence.2what is offered by alternative production systems thatdiminish operating independence of farmers. 2 U.S. agricultural policy in general has adhered slightly more to a philosophy of "consumer sovereignty" in regard to not directly promoting the operating independence of farmers, than for example, French agricultural policy. For a comparison between1 The abolition of slavery did not end domineering systems of French and U.S. policies on the role of cooperatives with respect to command and control by some white planters over most black independent farming of grapes for wine production, see Knox. For farm operators. The undermining of opportunity for blacks to an institutional and policy comparison between the U.S. and develop independent farming, in many cases by the use of France regarding the relative importance of consumer sovereignty peonage, existed well into the post-World War II era. (Daniel and of human factors of production, i.e., independent farmers, see 1972). Chen. 1
  5. 5. That leaves cooperatives, with their democratic period of 1880 to 1932 for establishing independentcontrol of value-added businesses, as the major institu- farmers: cooperatives, farm settlement projects, andtional mechanism for sustaining independent farmers. farming self-sufficiency. The third section describes theHowever, as applied in predominantly white farming impact and legacy of the New Deal period, 1933-41, onregions of the U.S., members’ operating independence the prospects for black farmers. The fourth sectionis assumed and the primary objective of cooperatives examines the influence of the civil rights movement onis to maximize member earnings. By itself, indepen- the rise of black farmer cooperatives during the 1950-dent farming traditionally has been regarded as only 60s and the role of the Federation of Southernan implicit objective in these cooperatives.3 Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC/LAF). The For many white farmers, independent farming last section discusses some of the challenges in usinghas been an economically challenging vocation, but cooperatives to sustain independent black farmers,unlike black farmers, they have not experienced social and how they are being met in rural black communi-and institutional barriers to owning and operating ties to accomplish value-added initiatives.farms. For many black farmers, there is a special incen-tive to operate independently: to avoid both farmingunder the controlling systems that many white Black Farmers in the South, 1865-1932planters applied in the past, and the trade credit prac-tices that led to foreclosure on land they owned Abolitionists worked to end slavery for several(Litwack, 137). decades before the Civil War, but most were uncon- Since the civil rights movement, cooperatives cerned about how former slaves would transition tohave played an important part in helping black farm- freedom in a capitalist society (Pease, 19 and 162).ers to sustain or develop as independent operators. As When victory by the North was imminent, this issuea public issue, the objectives have been civil rights and was immediately in the forefront. Its resolutionfighting poverty, and not independent farming. In fact, required answering a basic question: to what extentduring President Lyndon Johnson’s "war on poverty," should government provide for a transition to "free"many of today’s black farmer cooperatives got their labor rather than support the desire of many freedmenstart with financial assistance from the Federal to be independent farmers?Government. But to black farmers and community There were isolated opportunities for formerleaders, building and sustaining operating indepen- slaves to acquire land. As early as 1862, Union gener-dence is a concomitant objective and cooperatives have als subdivided some plantations of Confederate lead-a major role in achieving that end.4 ers for small farm settlements by former slaves. The The experience of black farmers is directly con- government sold confiscated land on St. Helena Islandnected with major events in Afro-American and gener- and Port Royal, SC, in 1863 to a philanthropist-entre-al U.S. history. For a quick reference on pertinent his- preneur who produced cotton by hiring freedmen andtorical developments, see a chronology of periods and arranged mortgage payment plans for those farmers toevents for 1865-1965 in Appendix Table 1. The first sec- gradually purchase the land (Pease, 139-41).tion of this report discusses farm-operating arrange- The first Freedmen’s Bureau Act in 1865 includedments that developed during Reconstruction and the plans for 40-acre tracts to be sold on easy terms fromsubsequent decades of progress for some, but worsen- either abandoned plantations or to be developed oning conditions for most black farmers with the rise of unsettled lands. But by late 1865, President Andrewthe Jim Crow era in the 1890s. The second section Johnson terminated further initiatives by the Unionexamines development of three strategies during the Army for small farm settlements. In 1866, a second3 Joseph Knapp’s two-volume history of American agricultural 4 Even black political and government leaders emphasize economic cooperatives, the most comprehensive to-date, describes how development and not operating independence. This emphasis, farmers formed associations to improve their income. He attached which misses the desire of many black farmers, is described by a different meaning to the term "independent farming" from the Jerry Pennick in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land way it is defined in this report. He viewed the late 19th century Assistance Fund 25th Anniversary Report of 1992: "Of all the black commercialization of agriculture as eliminating farmer leaders, both locally and nationally, how many have provided us independence. In his view, the decline of independent farming with a real and viable plan for economic independence? Invariably created the need for cooperatives (Knapp 1969, 46). The stated they say that in order for us to achieve economic independence, purposes of most cooperatives are synonymous with sustaining we must have jobs. By jobs, they mean working for the established the independence of farmers, but in following Knapp’s conception, employment producing industries, which are over 95 percent they are rarely ever described in such terms. white owned and controlled."2
  6. 6. Freedmen’s Bureau Act was passed that lacked specific vest or of sales. In contrast to sharecroppers, tenantsterms and actions for implementing 40-acre settle- supplied more farm production inputs in addition toments (Shannon, 84). their labor. The distinction had originally meant that Social scientists and economic historians have tenants paid landowners for use of the land, includingconsidered the government’s reluctance to implement debt payments, while sharecroppers received theira major land settlement program for the freedmen as a share, less debt payments, from landowners. Severallost opportunity for independent farming (Marshall southern states passed laws during the late 19th centu-57; Higgs, 78-79). The extent to which land reform ry that established the status of payment terms andwould have required seizure and breakup of planta- working relationships as subject to determination bytions may have worked against adoption of such a pol- private negotiations between the landowner and ten-icy. There were opportunities to provide small farms ant worker, which resulted in negligible differenceson government-owned or unsettled lands. But a relat- between tenant and sharecropper (Edwards). Hence,ed issue was what to do with large plantations and the alternative forms of contracting that are reportedhow they would be farmed? By leaving the plantations in the Census of Agriculture for the South were inintact, a demand for farm-operating labor was created. many cases of actual practice equivalent to sharecrop- Despite early announcements of plans for land ping in providing slight incentives to increase effortssettlement programs, the work of the Freedmen’s for more productivity and earnings, as observed inBureau focused instead on facilitating a transition from later studies (Woofter, 10-11).slave to various types of farm operation or labor rela- The Freedmen’s Bureau was not in a position totionships. During a 4-year period, the Bureau mediat- uniformly establish fairness in farm contracting. Itsed agricultural production contract negotiations termination by 1869 may have been premature, but itbetween planters and freedmen (Woodman 1984, 534- did help establish terms under which some planters35). In other words, national leaders decided that its and black farm operators would develop effectiveappropriate role was to help former slaves become working relationships. The Bureau, in concert with pri-"free" in being able to offer labor and farm operating vate organizations, also helped establish schools thatservices, while independent farming was left to indi- remained in operation throughout the Reconstructionviduals to pursue.5 The demise of land distribution period (Vaughn, 9-23).plans did not eliminate opportunities for ownership The presence of Federal troops also facilitated theand independent farming, but its future depended on exercise of new freedoms by former slaves, especiallythe extent of economic mobility, or what was called the establishment of their own churches. The churchesmoving up the agricultural ladder. The Freedmen’s became a focal point of community development.Bureau sought to establish potential for mobility by Some even assumed coordinating roles in educationrequiring fairness in the terms negotiated for farm pro- and commerce.duction. Newspaper stories from Alabama in the 1870s The freedmen eschewed operating as wage-work- describe corn production and price agreement strate-ers out of concern that planters would establish a gies used by black farmers to withstand pressures to"free" labor variant of the factories-in-the-field system sell cheaply. This coordination was accomplishedof slavery. They also wanted more connection to the through the informal channels of church with responsibility for raising crops such as cot- In fact, the value of church membership created suffi-ton on individually designated tracts. Furthermore, the cient incentive and social cohesion to prevent free-rid-freedmen wanted separate family residences, in con- ing behavior from unraveling group commitments.trast to the centralized living quarters under slavery These assertions of coordinated market power by black(Ochiltree 357, 377). Each tenant or sharecropper fami- farmers in the Reconstruction years, however, fueledly had its own cabin and designated section of land. resentment among some elements of white society The two general alternatives to wage labor were (Curtin, 26 and 34).tenancy arrangements under rental contracts and The withdrawal of all Federal troops in 1877 sig-sharecropping. The tenant contracts were often not a naled a turn for the worse in making progress for inde-fixed-rent type, but a specific share of either the har- pendent farming. The availability and quality of public and private schools declined. In many rural areas, there was no access to high school education for black children (Litwack, 56-113). Concurrently, institutions5 As noted in footnote 2, independent farming has seldom been a direct concern of policy in U.S. history. and arrangements for agricultural production in the 3
  7. 7. South evolved further away from incentive-based rela- The increased land ownership and prosperity oftionships to increasingly rely on more command and the first two decades of the 20th century, however,control over farm laborers (Ochiltree, 367-68; Curtin, were not shared by a large majority of black farm oper-35). ators. Enactment of Jim Crow laws in the late 1890s The extent of progress of black independent empowered landlords and planters to try to extractfarming does not admit easy generalizations for the more output from tenants and sharecroppers with lessperiod of 1880-1920. Census data and other evidence is compensation, rather than using incentives for self-mixed between progress in land ownership for some motivated work (Ochiltree, 367; Litwack, 127-29;and economic stagnation for most black farmers. Alston, 267). Oppressive farm operating contracts were W.E.B. Du Bois estimated 19th century progress easier to impose because the voting rights of blacksin land ownership by black farmers: 3 million acres in were limited. Without the franchise, black tenants and1875, 8 million in 1890, and 12 million in 1900 sharecroppers had no legal or political recourse. These(Aptheker, 105). The Census of Agriculture shows a laws also facilitated tacit coordination by white land-steady increase in the number of farm operators own- lords in applying stricter terms in agricultural con-ing land in the South from 1880 to 1890 and again in tracts.1900, but does not distinguish between white and non- The purchase of farm and household supplieswhite owners until 1900. Census figures show 1920 as was financed by loans secured with crop liens fromthe peak year in the number of nonwhite owners of merchants, which put many farm operators into a per-farmland in the South (Appendix Table 2). In terms of sistent state of debt (Litwack, 136). In some southernacreage owned, the census shows 1910 as the peak states, a peonage system developed from laws onyear for the South. More than 12.8 million acres were indebtedness that enabled planters to force some ten-fully and partly owned, respectively, by 175,290 and ants to remain as operators on their plantations43,177 nonwhite farmers.6 (Daniel 1972, 20). Cotton grown by tenants and share- Increases in land ownership after 1900 were part- croppers was usually sold for them or credited to theirly due to a significant rise in cotton prices that lasted furnishing accounts. So, even when these growersuntil the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The growth avoided peonage, they likely received lower returnsin farmland acquisition by blacks during the late 19th because they lacked the power to monitor marketingand early 20th centuries demonstrates a period of eco- transactions (Woodman 1982, 228; Litwack, 133).nomic mobility for about 25 percent of farm operators The misery brought on by cotton crop liens was(Appendix Table 2). In the early 20th century, there not limited to blacks. During the antebellum period,were instances of black farmers having achieved the many southern whites had been small subsistencestatus of landlords and becoming philanthropic com- farmers who did not grow cotton. They shifted to cot-munity leaders (Grim, 412-14). ton after the war, but many lost their farms because of During the 19th century there were some oppor- dependence on crop liens (Woofter, xxi; Woodmantunities to establish farms on unsettled lands, but over 1982, 229). Increasingly, landless whites became a largethe long run, most black farmers gained land through part of the tenant and sharecropper workforcetheir working relationships with white planters (Appendix Table 2).(Higgs, 69, 130-31). Landowners profited by offering Census reports from 1900 to 1920 show antenant farm operators the incentive of having an increasing number of black tenant and sharecropperopportunity to buy certain tracts of land in exchange families in the South. By 1920, there were 369,842 ten-for increased farming efficiency. Much of the land ants and 333,713 sharecroppers. Natural disasters andblack farmers own today is adjacent or relatively near agricultural price declines during the 1920s createdto farms owned by whites. much economic distress. By the 1925 census, share- croppers had become more numerous in the South than rental tenants. By 1930, the number of southern black sharecroppers peaked at 392,897. Between the6 The census only reported sharecroppers for classifications of white 1920 and 1930 censuses, the number of white share- and nonwhite farm operators. However, by confining the data to southern states during this period, the count in the nonwhite croppers also increased; many of them may have fallen category is either identical or only slightly larger than the actual from the ladder rungs of tenants and owner-operators enumeration of black farm operators. Although Texas and (Appendix Table 2). Oklahoma were included as southern states in these census While not all individuals succeed in farming in reports, their sizable populations of Mexican-Americans were included in the white category. any setting, the repressiveness of Jim Crow society sti-4
  8. 8. fled market incentives that enable economic mobility.Economist Robert Higgs observed that many planterswere willing to trade off some potential earnings inreturn for the social solidarity achieved by pursuingwhite supremacist values (130). Many planters mayhave also believed that it was advantageous to main-tain a supply of low-paid farm workers by limitingeconomic mobility for sharecroppers.7 The erosion of opportunities for decision respon-sibility and for education worked against black farm-ers’ pursuit of independent farming. USDA studiesduring the 1930s revealed that the production contract-ing and furnishing system of previous decades createddependency and ignorance about economic alterna-tives (Woofter 142-43; Daniel 1985, 85-87). But sufficiency. The first two directions proved to bealthough opportunities and capabilities for operating unsustainable, but they reemerged in later years as keyindependence were systematically undermined, the strategies for supporting the independence of blackdesire of tenants and sharecroppers to achieve the life farmers. The third initiative helped many farmersof an independent farmer was not extinguished. avoid the continuous indebtedness and peonage that often resulted from cotton sharecropping and crop lien finance.Independent Farming The Farmers Alliance of the 1880s and early 1890s was a significant cooperative organizational move-Initiatives, 1886-1932 ment. The Alliance spread throughout the Plains states and the South by regionally organizing into northern Between 1886 and 1932, there were several types and southern branches. Alliance cooperatives wereof initiatives to promote more independent farming by established in many communities. The movement alsoblack tenants and sharecroppers. The most famous and attempted a centralized cooperative marketingdurable achievements were in agricultural education. approach that had not existed with the earlier GrangeThe Second Morrill Act of 1890 established state agri- cooperatives. Opposition to the crop lien system was acultural colleges for black students. Booker T. primary motivation for the Farmers’ Alliance, and itsWashington (1856-1915) emerged as a leading public leadership developed several innovative financial andfigure in promoting education and farm improvement. cooperative strategies (Knapp 1969, 57-67).But three other initiatives of this period applied direct- A faction within the Alliance tried to build aly to development of independent farming: (1) organi- cooperative society without segregation and racism,zation of cooperatives for farmers and other communi- but Alliance leaders were conflicted on the issue ofty services, (2) projects for land purchase and resale to participation by black farmers. Black participation wassmall farmers, and (3) farm diversification and self- accomplished by establishing an organizationally seg- regated branch of the movement, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union (CFNACU) in 1886 (Goodwyn, 278-85). A history of the association7 B. T. Washington, who preached that hard work would be claims that the CFNACU cooperative exchanges that rewarded, observed how this was not always valid in practice. In operated in several southern cities provided supplies an article in the Country Gentleman magazine, he tried to point out to planters the advantages from using incentives for gaining and loans to help members pay land mortgages.8 But more efficiency: "In one case I happen to remember a family that the resources, size, and operations of these coopera- had three or four strong persons at work every day that was tives have not been documented. allowed to rent only about ten acres of land. When I asked the owner of the plantation why he did not let this family have more land he replied that the soil was so productive that if he allowed them to rent more they would soon be making such a profit that 8 The general superintendent of CFNACU was a white Baptist they would be able to buy land of their own and he would lose minister, R.M. Humphrey, who had also served in the Confederate them as renters. This is one way to make the Negro inefficient as a Army. An historian, who is currently researching the CFNACU, laborer—attempting to discourage him instead of encouraging has studied the Alliance publications and a history written by him." (BTW, V12, 392). Humphrey (Ali). 5
  9. 9. However, the Alliance’s political activism may also have influenced many southern whites to move in the direction of segregation and disenfranchisement with the passage of Jim Crow laws in several states throughout the 1890s (Goodwyn, 304-06). A movement for black cooperatives, separate from the Alliance, developed in East Texas. Robert Lloyd Smith (1861-1942), a local school principal and community leader, initiated it. His first step in the direction of cooperatives was to establish a branch of the Village Improvement Societies, a movement from the northeastern United States. This movement was dedicated to home and community improvement efforts, but as Smith learned about the perpetual cycle of debt caused by crop liens, he reorganized it as the Farmers’ Improvement Society of Texas (FIST) in 1890 (Zabawa, 463-64). FIST helped farm families develop more self-suf- ficiency and strategies for operating on a cash basis. It The Alliance also tried to build organizational established local purchasing cooperatives that, whilebridges between farmers and laborers, with the latter separate from the Alliance, may have been influencedbeing represented by the Knights of Labor. The by that movement’s promotion of cooperatives. SmithAlliance was renamed the Farmers and Laborers was politically competitive with the Alliance supportUnion of America in 1890. Steps toward amalgamation of the Populist Party, which he defeated in the 1894ended as farmer participation declined and attention and 1896 elections to the Texas House ofturned toward political actions in the formation of the Representatives by running on the Republican ticket.Populist Party. Ultimately, as one historian has pointed FIST was a successful regional cooperative forout, unions were more relevant for sharecroppers than several years. Its membership grew from 1,800 in 1898cooperatives (Woodman 1982, 229-30). Nevertheless, to 2,340 members by 1900, with 86 branches in Texas,sharecropper and tenant unions can be regarded as a Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Its members owned 46,000stage in the pursuit of independent farming and, like acres of farmland. FIST was also adaptive in its strate-cooperatives, are forms of democratically governed gy. While many members needed to operate on a cashcollective action. basis, others had credit needs for acquiring land or CFNACU ordered a general cotton harvest strike developing their farms. To meet the needs of suchin 1891, although several of its local suballiances members, it established the Farmers’ Improvementopposed it. Black sharecroppers struck in a region of Bank in Waco, TX, in 1906. Even though it servedArkansas, and violent altercations ensued. This form many low-resource farmers, FIST’s annual supply pur-of activism increased divisiveness between CFNACU chasing volume was estimated at $50,000 in 1909.and the Southern Alliance, which included some Other projects and services included agricultural edu-planters who operated with sharecropping (Goodwyn, cation and facilities for applying best practices in pro-292-94). The Alliance movement began to further ducing eggs, poultry, and swine (Texas State HA).unravel when it effectively amalgamated with the The success of FIST was partly due to achievingPopulist Party. It dissolved after losses in the elections critical mass by meeting a range of member needs.of 1892 and 1896. But the Knights of Labor continued Smith coupled the agricultural side of cooperationto recruit sharecroppers and accomplished substantial with the Village Societies’ home and communityinterracial organization (McMath, 126). Their work improvement work. The letterhead on FIST stationerymay have influenced the specific unions of tenant stated its purpose: "What We Are Fighting For: Thefarmers that organized in the early 20th century. Abolition of the Credit System. Better Methods of In summary, the Alliance introduced the idea of Farming. Cooperation. Proper Care of the Sick andcooperatives to some black farmers in the South, and Dead. Improvement and Beautifying of our Homes"may have contributed experience that was applied toother types of associations in rural communities.6
  10. 10. (Washington, henceforth, BTW, V.5, 4). In other words, B. T. Washington promoted land purchasing pro-its activities covered services from better living to dig- grams that influenced future rural development strate-nity in death. gists. He was a major public figure and widely In the early 20th century, many associations were respected by political and business leaders such asorganized by black church leaders and provided a President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie.range of community services for education, health He used his many connections to raise startup capitalbenefits, funerals, and credit services for buying land for several settlement projects. His first project focusedand establishing homes. They often had religious on improvement for tenant housing. In the 1890s, thenames, such as "Good Samaritans" or the "Order of Tuskegee Institute received a grant from a Boston phil-Moses." They operated with member dues and control anthropist to establish a revolving loan fund for homeas in mutual insurance associations or shared-service improvements. This grant contributed to tenant well-cooperatives (Ellison, 9-15). being, but the program always required new funding Prior to the Depression, the largest type of self- because the economics of most tenant production con-help association in terms of membership and financial tracts did not generate sufficient earnings to capitalizeassets was often cooperatives for providing funeral the program (Harlan, 213).and burial services for predominantly black rural and In future projects, Washington sought a kind ofsome urban residents. Members paid monthly assess- hybrid plan for satisfying investor interests with a tar-ments and accumulated benefit certificates over time. get rate of return and philanthropic interests by help-Many of these cooperatives were federated into orga- ing black farmers establish independent farm enter-nizations that covered fairly large geographic areas. prises. In the late 1890s, he and supporters debatedOne of them had members in seven states. Some had various alternatives for financing and managing a pro-accumulated several million dollars in assets by 1931 ject for land acquisition by small black farmers. The(Ellison, 13). experience of FIST in applying cooperative organiza- The growth and formal structure of the funeral tion prompted consideration of the idea of organizingcooperatives did not carry over to farmer coopera- a "co-operative land association" with stock subscrip-tives. Outside the Alliance experience and FIST, farmer tions and application of a cooperative system for pro-cooperatives were mostly of an informal and ad hoc duction (Zabawa, 465-69). Yet, when this project wasvariety. Their informality reflected the limited com- implemented in 1901 as the Southern Improvementmercial opportunities and unequal market access Company (SIC), the cooperative dimension was leftavailable to black farmers during the first half of the out. Nevertheless, SIC intended to be a practical way20th century. A formal and countervailing-power type for black farmers to obtain ownership of land.of marketing cooperative of black farmers was not tol- SIC was capitalized by a group of northern phil-erated in the pre-civil rights era. Vocational agriculture anthropist entrepreneurs and managed by a Tuskegeeteachers and county agents often provided leadership graduate. A 4,000-acre tract of land was purchasedand management of informal cooperatives (Pitts, 21). and subdivided. The business plan included housingTheir purposes were limited to making seasonal bulk and small-acreage farms for purchase with relativelypurchases of farm supplies, organizing street markets, low mortgage interest rates. Project revenue was gen-or handling occasional surpluses that farmers could erated primarily by cotton and cottonseed sales thatnot sell or consume on their own. were exclusively handled by agents for SIC The most direct strategies for the pursuit of inde- (Anderson, 114). Historical research on SIC offers con-pendent farming in the early 20th century were pro- flicting views about its success.9 The project workedjects for coordinated land purchase and contiguous well when cotton prices were high, but after condi-settlements of small farmers. tions worsened, individual farm holdings foreclosed By the late 19th century, a few prosperous black by 1919 (Zabawa, 467).communities emerged in the South and in other partsof America (Grim). Booker T. Washington studied andwrote about some of the most successful rural commu- 9 See Harlan; Zabawa and Warren for an appraisal of the SIC’snities, pointing to them as examples of economic positive impact, while Anderson, who used different archivaluplift. Mound Bayou, MS, founded in 1887, became sources, argues that it became exploitative of the farmers.famous for establishing black-owned businesses and Washington wrote in glowing words about the accomplishmentsindependent farms, and governance entirely by its of the SIC in a magazine article in 1911, but died before farm earnings plummeted and undermined the project (BTW, V10, 605-black residents (BTW, V9, 307-20). 06). 7
  11. 11. Washington initiated another land project in 1914 than cooperatives or coordinated land purchase initia-that was earmarked for Tuskegee graduates who tives. Increased self-sufficiency would help to reducelacked family farm ownership. An 1,800-acre tract was dependency on cotton, but with the exception ofpurchased by a group of investors, led by a Tuskegee tobacco-growing regions, there were insufficient alter-trustee. The Tuskegee Farm and Improvement natives for involvement in and experience with a moreCompany, also called Baldwin Farms, basically fol- commercial type of farming. In any case, crop diversi-lowed the same operating procedures as SIC (BTW, fication away from cotton was gradual and not uni-309-10). Unfortunately this project was started as the formly adopted. As late as 1964, the Census ofcotton market entered a period of low prices and boll Agriculture reported that about half of the blackweevil problems. A community of independent black farmer population produced sustained operations until 1949 (Zabawa, 467- The period of the 1920s and 1930s was a water-69). shed for many tenant farmers and sharecroppers. A The most successful strategy for independent combination of steadily increasing mechanization andfarming in the early 20th century was crop diversifica- economic depression forced a major reduction in thetion to build self-sufficiency. Washington regarded this demand for farm labor in the South (Appendix Tableas a way for black farmers to avoid the problems of 2). Natural disasters in the late 1920s and major com-dependence on cotton and indebtedness from crop modity price declines increased the role of govern-liens. He influenced the development of the black ment in the farm economy. In 1929, the Federal Farmextension agent system and the content of what was Board was established to sanction and direct marketpromoted to farmers. Much of this influence was car- intervention by farmer membership associations, pri-ried forward by Thomas M. Campbell, a student and marily nationwide or regional cooperatives.assistant to Washington at Tuskegee. Campbell was The onset of the Depression in 1933 triggered anthe first farm extension agent to be appointed by expansion of the interventionist role of government inUSDA, and over his career from 1906-53 he was the agriculture through the administering of commoditypredominant leader of the black extension agent ser- payment subsidies directly to individual farmers.vice (Jones). USDA policies abated a market process of land In addition to crop diversification, information turnover to would-be independent farmers by restrict-on preserving farm-grown foods was disseminated by ing the entry of new producers and reducing incen-agents as a way to develop self-sufficiency and insula- tives for many landowners to quit farming. In retro-tion from white commercial society. Black extension spect, the apolitical approach advocated by Booker T.agents initially focused their efforts on farmers who Washington was to prove especially disadvantageousowned enough land for independent operating, but to black farm operators with the increased politiciza-depending on the receptiveness of planters, they tion of agriculture that the New Deal inaugurated.10increasingly promoted gardening by sharecroppers(Zellar, 432- 438). Washington knew about cooperatives but did not New Deal Agricultureembrace them as an appropriate strategy for blackfarmers, at least under the prevailing economic condi- The New Deal was for the most part a bad dealtions and political power structure. Extension agents for black farmers. Under the Agricultural Adjustmentcoordinated occasional group purchasing or joint-sell- Act (AAA) of 1933, cotton was supported by restrict-ing efforts but did not systematically disseminate ing acreage and guaranteeing minimum prices. Theknowledge for formal cooperative development. immediate impact of reduced cotton acreage was dis- During the years of the New Deal, Campbell placement for many black and white tenants andseized the opportunity to establish a cooperative at the sharecroppers. There were also cases of landlords whoTuskegee Institute to serve as a model of this methodof self-help (Jones, 53). Prior to the 1960s and apartfrom a few New Deal programs, the Federal 10 Washington tolerated a temporary acceptance ofGovernment offered negligible assistance and encour- disfranchisement that he believed would change in step withagement of cooperatives for black farmers. economic progress of blacks (Harlan, viii ; Lutwack, 146-47). Of the three directions for developing indepen- Though tolerating disfranchisement and segregation, he took adent farming, self-sufficiency with crop diversification behind-the-scenes activist role in fighting debt peonage because of its direct interference with economic opportunity (Daniel 1972,had a more immediate and lasting impact at the time 67).8
  12. 12. did not distribute the share of payments that belongedto their tenants or sharecroppers (Woofter, 67; Fite,141-2; Daniel 1985, 101-4). The New Deal also markeda significant increase of government services, forwhich distribution was controlled by politically con-nected groups in rural communities. For much of theSouth, this system resulted in diminished access to ser-vices for many blacks which, as alleged in recent law-suits against USDA, persisted into recent years(Pigford). Another unintended consequence of the AAAwas to raise entry barriers to farm ownership.Numerous studies estimate that commodity price sup-ports raise the price of farmland by as much as 15 to 20percent as a national average (Floyd; Ryan). The com-modity programs are tied to specific lands, which capi-talizes the future value of the programs into the value near white farms. The AAA programs and continuedof the land. supporting of prices in farm policy raised barriers to Although farmland prices were depressed during land ownership for black farmers and limited theirthe 1930s, ownership was often not feasible for those, opportunities to either stay in farming or achieve thelike many blacks, who had diminished access to AAA status of operating as independent farmers. Yet, farmprograms. Incentives for land purchases and expan- policy is only one of several institutional factors thatsions of farm acreage were increased for those with have worked against ownership of land by black farm-access to AAA programs. Census figures show that ers, and these have been examined in various studiesbetween 1930 and 1935, white farm owners and tenant and investigations (see Gilbert; and Associated Press).operators increased farmland acres in the South by 12 New Deal policymakers did not neglect displacedpercent, or more than 35 million acres. But farmland tenants and croppers. Subsistence relief and resettle-acreage owned by nonwhite farmers declined by more ment programs were offered for these farm operatorsthan 2.2 million acres, from 37.8 million to 35.6 million, and their families during the mid-1930s. Such pro-during the same period. White farmers with full own- grams functioned more as a holding action for theership in the South increased by 13 percent or 139,646 unemployed than in addressing the economics ofbetween 1930 and 1935, and white part-owners excess labor supply in southern farming. But duringincreased by 8 percent or 15,299. Nonwhite full-owners 1935-41, the programs of the Resettlement Admin-of farmland increased by 6 percent or 9,617 between istration, followed by the Farm Security1930 and 1935, but part-owners decreased by 13 per- Administration (FSA), were a substantial governmentcent or 5,571. During the same 5-year span, white ten- effort to help tenants become independent farmers andants increased by 145,763, while nonwhite tenants to use cooperatives (Knapp 1973, 299-316; Baldwin,decreased by 45,049. These divergent changes may 193-211). Lending programs were established to enablehave reflected differences in access to subsidies tenants to purchase farmland and machinery. By ana-(Appendix Table 2). lyzing creditworthiness, these programs tried to target The increased entry by whites into farming those with the most capability to farm efficiently.appears to have been at least partly policy induced Displaced tenants and sharecroppers, who werebecause it occurred during a period of acreage reduc- selected for participation in some of the resettlementtion for cotton and low commodity prices. The gains in programs, were in effect offered an opportunity toland values from commodity price supports accrued develop as independent farmers. In many cases newlyonce it became evident that these programs would per- settled farms were in contiguous areas. Such commu-sist. For those who added to their land holdings dur- nities provided a basis for establishing cooperatives,ing the Depression, the benefits were gained once which FSA actively promoted and operated. Theseacreage restrictions for cotton and other program crops cooperatives included both traditional farm supplywere eased or lifted. Future inducements to expand purchasing and marketing, but also a range of sharedfarming acreage would especially jeopardize much of services. The latter included associations for joint own-the land owned by black farmers that was adjacent or ership of farm machinery and breeding stock 9
  13. 13. (Baldwin, 203). These initiatives represented an aware- business (Baldwin, 203). Many closed during 1950-59,ness of the needs of new entrants to farming, of oppor- the 10-year span with the largest rural exodus in thetunities for farm ownership, and of the potential role Nation’s history (Appendix Table 3). This period wasof cooperatives in rural development, which had been also the turning point from increasing to decreasingput aside during the initial years of launching the numbers of cooperatives in the United States (Mather).AAA programs. Yet the Mileston Farmers Cooperative that was estab- Many tenants lacked sufficient farming assets, lished in Tchula, MS, by the FSA programs continuesequipment, and skills to qualify for land purchase to serve its members, a problem that the FSA sought to address by The establishment of cooperatives through gov-implementing two types of cooperatives — farm pro- ernment initiative in FSA programs contributed toduction and land-lease. The former projects failed due knowledge about how individuals can work togetherto insufficient property rights incentives (Knapp 1973, in organizing agricultural purchasing and marketing.316). But land-lease cooperatives used a more individ- The FSA programs also applied the ideas for landual-based incentive system. These cooperatives acquisition and community planning that Washingtonreceived loans for leasing entire plantations that were had promoted. The elapse of these programs in 1941subdivided into family farms for subleasing to mem- and the post-war exodus from farming (Appendixbers. They also operated the plantation cotton gin and Table 3) ended a phase of cooperative development,other facilities on a cooperative basis, in addition to but made room for more enduring and grass rootsfarm supply purchasing. By 1940, there were 31 land- approaches in the cooperatives, with 949 black and 750 white farmfamilies (Knapp 1973, 313). An alternative program involved lending for the The Civil Rights Movementacquisition of large tracts of land and subdividing and Cooperativesthem into individually owned family farms. It fol-lowed a plan similar to the projects promoted byWashington 30 years earlier, but this time with govern- The civil rights movement emboldened manyment support. FSA implemented 10 or more black set- black farmers to join cooperatives. It may have alsotlements that were designed for family farm owner- provoked more discrimination by white-owned busi-ship. The Tuskegee Institute assisted the Prairie Farms nesses against black farmers in commercial Macon County, AL, in developing a community But, discrimination in some cases induced cooperativeinfrastructure. The Prairie Farms community included formation. In a time of interracial tensions, bulk pur-a cooperative for purchasing and machinery sharing chasing of farm supplies or assembling member prod-and a K-12th grade school (Zabawa, 480-3). Prairie ucts for consolidated transactions enabled black farm-Farms shut down in the 1950s. ers to minimize the frequency of their individual FSA programs for farm ownership and coopera- interactions with white merchants and product bro-tive development were phased out after 1941 although kers. Cases of this mechanism are documented, whereshared services, particularly farm machinery sharing farmers’ access to supplies or markets were blockedcooperatives, were actively supported during World when they were known to be members of the NationalWar II (Sharing). In fact, 32 farm machinery coopera- Association for the Advancement of Colored Peopletives were reported to be active in black communities (NAACP).of North Carolina throughout the 1940s (Pitts, 35). In 1956, black farmers in Clarendon County, NC,These programs likely contributed to the increase in organized the Clarendon County Improvementfarm ownership in the South between 1940 and 1945 Association to circumvent discrimination due to their(Appendix Table 2). Knapp’s general assessment of the NAACP membership. It provided small loans, farmFSA initiative toward cooperatives was that the gov- supplies, and services. When area gins would noternment was too directly involved and idealism often accept cotton from black farmers, the cooperativecrowded out the practical experience needed for long- transported it to distant facilities for ginning (Danielterm sustainability (Knapp 1973, 316). 2000, 247). Circumventing discrimination was also the Some of the cooperatives organized by these pro- purpose of forming the Grand Marie Vegetablegrams lasted for several years after 1941. A 1946 sur- Producers Cooperative, Inc., in Louisiana in 1965, aftervey showed that only 16 percent of the 25,543 coopera- brokers boycotted some growers for their civil rightstives organized under FSA programs had gone out of activities (Marshall, 51).10
  14. 14. While cooperatives helped reduce members’ the founding of the Southern Consumers Educationexposure to potential racial discrimination in commer- Foundation (SCEF) in 1961. His work drew attentioncial dealings, the formation of associations elicited and support from the Cooperative League of the USAantagonism and reprisals from racist business owners. (CLUSA), the Credit Union National AssociationThe Clarendon association lost access to credit from (CUNA), and other national organizations.12 Alonglocal banks, but it was able to borrow from the with some foundations, they helped establish theNAACP and also received funds from the United Southern Cooperative Development Program (SCDP)Automobile Workers for purchasing farm machinery in 1967. It offered cooperative education and technical(Daniel 2000, 247). One of the largest and most widely assistance to cooperatives and credit unions locatedpublicized black cooperatives to emerge in the late primarily in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.1960s was South West Alabama Farmers Cooperative After two years in operation, SCDP realized a need toAssociation (SWAFCA). It encountered numerous boy- focus assistance on a group of 25 associations, rathercotts from local businesses and discriminatory actions than spreading its resources on new cooperative devel-from politicians.11 opment (Marshall, 42). The civil rights movement had a direct influence The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC)on cooperative formation by introducing the critical was also founded in 1967, organized by representa-element of leadership. Black farmers were receptive to tives from 22 cooperatives across the South (FederationTable 1 —Federation of Southern Cooperatives membership, 1969 Agricultural Credit Unions Consumer Othera TotalStates co-ops members co-ops members co-ops members co-ops members co-ops membersAL 2 1,825 6 2,784 3 230 3 2,789 14 7,398MS 5 1,875 1 500 3 1,080 8 1,482 17 4,937LA 3 290 4 1,833 -- -- 1 2,050 8 4,183Otherb 14 1,992 5 801 9 1,720 13 578 41 5,091Total 24 5,982 16 5,918 15 3,030 25 4,303 80 -- a Other cooperatives include handicraft, small industry, and fishing. b Other states are Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.cooperatives, but getting organized was often difficult 1992, 7-9). Its director was Charles Prejean, who, likebecause many potential members lacked the training Father McKnight, was involved with improving adultand resources. As in the past, county or university literacy and realized the importance of concrete inter-extension agents provided the initiative and leadership ests and tasks such as cooperative participation infor informal or ad hoc cooperation, but many civil helping people develop their economy (Bethell, 4). FSCrights leaders wanted to help develop cooperatives of had common purposes with SCDP but was morea formal and more visible type. encompassing in its plan of action. For a brief period Many initiators of cooperative development were in the early 1970s, SCDP combined with the FSC as areligious leaders, continuing a tradition of churchestaking an active role in community building. Forexample, the Rev. Francis X. Walter founded theFreedom Quilting Bee cooperative in Alabama in theearly 1960s. Father A. J. McKnight organized the 11 SWAFCA had been approved for an Office of EconomicSouthern Consumers Cooperative (SCC) and several Opportunity (OEO) grant, but in June 1967 Alabama Governorcredit unions during the 1960s-1970s (Marshall, 37-40). Lurleen Wallace vetoed it. Sargent Schriver, the director of the Father McKnight also contributed significant OEO, overrode the veto (Marshall 48; Bethell, 6). 12 Father McKnight was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fameinstitutional development for black cooperatives with in 1987. 11
  15. 15. lending unit for cooperatives. It was renamed the During the mid-1970s, SWAFCA attempted toSouthern Cooperative Development Fund (SCDF) but shift its focus from marketing vegetables to producinghas operated separately since the mid-1970s. gasohol. The late Albert Turner, who was a civil rights FSC encompassed a comprehensive range of ser- leader and an experimental engineer, led this endeav-vices for rural community development, including or.13 In the 1970s he developed a system for using corn,help for farmers to secure their ownership of land and vegetables, and organic residues supplied by membersoperating independence. The scope of FSC programs for producing gasohol. He adapted a pickup truck tofor training, consulting, and research, as well as capital run on gasohol and drove from Alabama tofor land and business project development, has Washington, DC, to promote his plans. His proposalsrequired financial assistance, including grants from also included feed byproducts and methane from cat-government and private foundations. tle waste for generating electricity. These projects were Founded by 22 cooperatives, FSC had 80 mem- appealing to the membership, but were denied fund-bers after only two years. By the mid-1970s, it had 130 ing from government agencies.14 By the mid-1980s,cooperative members (Voorhis, 212). Table 1 is a con- SWAFCA terminated its operations. Some of its assetsdensed version of FSC membership data in 1969 as were transferred to another farmer association.published in a study by Marshall and Godwin. The The civil rights movement also reinvigoratedtotal membership is not reported because some mem- land purchasing for small farms, yet land retentionbers belonged to more than one cooperative. The FSC became a more urgent issue for independent blackdraws from 14 states, but over time Alabama and farmers. During the late 1960s, churches and otherMississippi have consistently accounted for much of groups were independently making purchases of rela-its membership. tively small tracts of land for self-sufficient farm settle- The challenges in promoting cooperatives for ments. In other cases, a few cooperatives purchasedblack farmers were demonstrated by the experience of small tracts of land for market production by mem-SWAFCA. It was the largest cooperative in FSC’s ini- bers. Both FSC and SCDP assisted in those projectstial membership. It was established in 1967 with 1,800 (Marshall 59).farm families. SWAFCA epitomized the spirit of the In the late 1960s, several Alabama tenant farmerscivil rights movement in asserting freedom from dis- were evicted after they won a lawsuit for their share ofcrimination and pursuit of economic uplift for poor USDA price support payments. They formed thefamilies. Its initial membership grew out of discus- Panola Land Buyers Association to combine theirsions among black cotton farmers who wanted to efforts for finding and acquiring farmland. With finan-diversify into vegetable crops but needed a marketing cial assistance from several individuals and groupsoutlet. A large-scale membership campaign was throughout the U.S., Panola and FSC jointly purchasedincluded in voter registration drives and in the Selma- a 1,164-acre tract of land near Epes, AL, in the mid-to-Montgomery "March for Freedom" in 1965 (see 1970s. Panola members built homes on part of it, whileAppendix Table 1). Civil rights workers and organiza- FSC established a training center and demonstrationtions such as the National Sharecroppers Fund and farm on the remaining part (Federation 1992, 25-26;CLUSA participated in its formation (Marshall, 46). Bethell, 6-8). SWAFCA achieved some marketing successes, The Emergency Land Fund (ELF) was organizeddespite harassment from some white politicians and in 1971 to assist black farmers in Mississippi andbusiness leaders. Although members were predomi- Alabama with problems they faced in retaining land.nantly black, SWAFCA’s vegetable marketing pro- By the 1970s, displacement of tenants was abating, butgrams attracted membership from some white farmers land loss by black farmers continued. While assistance(Voorhis, 96). Nevertheless, it encountered problems in for land purchasing was provided, ELF’s major thrustestablishing durable cooperative programs. Marshall was to provide legal, tax, and estate planning advice.and Godwin observed that its management was not upto serving such a relatively large membership. Theynoted, "… members had very limited understanding of 13 Albert Turner was the Alabama director of the Southern Christiancooperative principles" (Marshall, 47-9). FSC worked Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was a leader of voterdiligently to bolster management and cooperative edu- registration drives and confronted considerable danger in thesecation deficiencies, but market access problems and activities during the 1960s. He was chosen by the SCLC to lead thesustaining the involvement of SWAFCA’s large mem- mule train that carried Dr. Martin Luther King in the funeral procession.bership continually weakened the organization. 14 This information was provided by John Zippert of the FSC/LAF.12
  16. 16. ELF established a grass-roots network of citizens, many black farmers and cooperatives. But the cooper-called the County Contacts System, who were trained ative system established by FSC/LAF has contributedin identifying farmers in their counties who were in to identifying and eliminating discriminatory prac-danger of having to sell their land. When owners were tices.15notified of pending problems, ELF followed up with Recent court decisions and USDA reforms havelegal and other technical assistance (Wood 21). the potential for creating a new chapter of more Over time, County Contacts personnel developed progress for black farmers (Civil Rights, USDA). Ralpha system that paralleled the county extension service Paige, the executive secretary of the FSC/LAF,of land-grant universities. But the information they observed: "Black farmers and all other others who areprovided was more relevant to the economic survival recipients of government services deserve nothing lessof small farmers. During the 1960s, the USDA con- than justice at the hands of government officials.trolled much of the content that moved through uni- Perhaps now some healing can begin and Black farm-versity channels of extension, including the black ers can work toward becoming an integral part ofextension service. In one instance, an initiative for American agriculture" (Zippert, 152). One of thetraining on cooperatives for black farmers was blocked avenues for progress is to assist black farmers in(Equal Opportunity, 47). By contrast, County Contacts greater use of formal cooperative methods and proce-personnel covered not only information directly relat- dures. Some of the challenges for and progress byed to managing land ownership and rights, but also on black farmers in applying cooperative business prac-marketing strategies to generate more economic value tices and establishing value-added businesses arefrom the land. ELF generated much of this information reviewed in the next section.from its demonstration farms and greenhouses (Wood,22-23). ELF received Federal funding in 1977 to establish Promoting Independent Farm Enterpriseland cooperative associations. The land cooperativesoperated like credit unions as member savings institu- Through Cooperativestions but were designed to help farmers finance con-tinued ownership of their lands in times of financial Marketing and purchasing practices of blackpressure. ELF also spawned several other organiza- farmers for most of the 20th century have centered ontions with a similar mission of land retention. In 1985 local dealings where trusting relationships were sup-the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the ELF ported. During this time, black extension agents initi-combined to form the FSC/LAF (Land Assistance ated informal associations or ad hoc cooperatives forFund). seasonal activities such as harvesting, assembling FSC/LAF’s educational programs and concern products, and bulk purchasing of farm supplies (Pitts,for land ownership carry on the tradition of Booker T. 21). The acceleration of cooperative development inWashington. But in its commitment to cooperatives, the 1960s witnessed many associations continuing theFSC/LAF is more reminiscent of Robert Lloyd Smith informal approach of the pre-civil rights era whileand FIST. In contrast to earlier initiatives, the some of the civil rights-inspired cooperatives emergedFSC/LAF leadership recognized the indispensability with a more progressive market access and value-of civil rights to achieving the goals of prosperous and added orientation. The former cooperatives are moreindependent farming. FSC/LAF brought farmers tied to historical experience, while the latter have beentogether in cooperatives for a unified voice to influ- building new organizational strategies to develop andence development of more favorable, equal-access maintain independent farming.public policies (Marshall, 3-4). FSC/LAF currently has about 75 cooperatives Melding civil rights with cooperative develop- and credit unions. The majority are predominantlyment has led to some outside criticism and to periodic black rural cooperatives and credit unions in thedisruptions in funding of FSC/LAF programs (Bethell;Campbell). Even supporters of civil rights regarded 15 Legislation such as the Minority Rights Act in the 1990 Farm Billthe multiplicity of objectives in cooperatives like and the favorable ruling in the recent anti-discrimination caseSWAFCA as impractical for cooperative business effec- against USDA are visible signs of the political and legal gains thattiveness (News 1969). In retrospect, progress on civil have been made. Several studies by the U.S. Commission on Civilrights has turned out to be slower than was anticipat- Rights have documented the discrimination and inadequacy of USDA services to black farmers (Equal Opportunity in Farmed in the 1960s. Its incompleteness disadvantaged Programs; The Decline of Black Farming). 13
  17. 17. South. Some nonmember cooperatives and credit Leadership has played a critical role in bothunions work with FSC/LAF State associations or with informal and formal types of black farmer coopera-universities. Table 2 lists these organizations by type tives. In informal cooperatives, leadership provides theand location in a few of the major states and for the cohesion and coordination that would otherwise beSouth in total. established in part by written membership agree- Eleven of the 50 agricultural cooperatives report- ments, bylaws, and business plans. Many of the infor-ed are not members of FSC/LAF. Some have devel- mal cooperatives that depended on leadership fromoped with assistance from the Arkansas Economic black extension agents have disappeared. In recentCorporation, an organization with similar objectives years, the black extension service has been merged intoand services as the SCDF and FSC/LAF. While these the general agricultural extension system. Changes in50 cooperatives have a formal organizational structure its program have reduced the extent of past outreachand status, there are an unreported or undocumented to farmers (Scott).number of informal or ad hoc cooperatives. Many of today’s extant cooperatives are held together by strong leadership from one or just a few members.17 Of the informal type of cooperative, bulk seed purchasing is the most common service to persistTable 2—Black cooperatives and credit unions in theSouth over time. Member involvement in these associations, while lacking the equity capital commitment of theLocation Agricultural co-ops Credit Unionsa Other co-opsb Total standard cooperative model, has been an in-kind type, based on volunteers for carrying out servicesAL 6 6 6 18 (Onunkwo,18). But volunteerism cannot sustain mostMS 11 3 3 17 cooperatives that seek improved market access andGA 7 3 4 14 value-added operations.SC 11 0 3 14 The experience of FSC/LAF staff and the recentOtherc 15 7 5 27 survey research have identified weaknesses in cooper-Total 50 19 21 90 ative education regarding transition to formal coopera- a Includes only black credit union members of FSC/LAF. tive organization and operations. The pre-civil rights b Other cooperatives include handicraft, small industry, fishing, ad hoc cooperatives did not provide this type of educa- housing, and day-care. tion and experience. Thus, many aspects of the human c Other states are Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. and social capital that make farmer cooperatives work did not have enough opportunity to fully develop in many rural black communities in the South. Recent survey-based research in the lower For most of the 20th century, many black farmersMississippi Delta region (Scott) and in Southeastern sought to protect their independence and ownership ofStates (Onunkwo) have shown that most black farmers land by diversifying away from cotton and relying onhave had experience with cooperatives in the past and local sales of fruits and vegetables to citizens in theirare aware of their potential benefits. Much of this communities. One cooperative operates today withexperience, however, was confined to the informal help from fellow parishioners of a church. Parishionerstype of cooperatives (Scott).16 Although most of these volunteer for harvesting and packing, as well as pro-associations are defunct, they had lasting influence on viding a large share of consumer purchases (Rotan). Athe preferences black farmers express about what they 1996 farmer survey in south-central Alabama observedwant from cooperatives. a predominance of local selling of fruits, vegetables, Membership size of most cooperatives in the and livestock where other potential higher-value mar-southeastern states ranged between 15 to 20 farmers, kets could be developed (Tackie, 50). A concern forwhile membership size surveys for the Mississippi protecting independence can sometimes work againstDelta states revealed fewer than 30 members per coop- long-run sustainability of independent farming if aerative on average. A preference for smaller and local more commercialized and remunerative system ofmembership cooperatives was indicated among a sam-ple of black farmers in South Carolina. They preferredsmaller membership cooperatives because of ease of 16 The research report by Scott and Dagher is in a draft stage, socommunications and in organizing meetings references will just refer to Scott, without page numbers. 17 Edgar Lewis (USDA/RBS), who has worked with some of these(Onunkwo, 16). cooperatives over several years, offered this observation.14
  18. 18. marketing does not develop.Without better prospects, youngergenerations of black farmers willincreasingly seek economic opportu-nities outside farming. Some cooperatives, particularlymany members of FSC/LAF, havemade progress in commercializationand value-added operations. Thefounders anticipated long-termneeds in both the areas of coopera-tive education and in coordinatinglocal production. They have helpedmember cooperatives introduce andcoordinate adoption of various veg-etable crops to replace cotton.Obtaining sufficient volume of a newcrop for a marketing programinvolves extensive outreach. FSC/LAF’s training cen- the cooperative to expand its direct marketing byter and demonstration farm in Epes, AL, is designed using an array of methods such as e-commercefor this type of outreach. When a new vegetable or ( crop is identified as suitable for local growing A major challenge in retaining land is to increaseconditions, FSC provides training in production and the profitability of farming enough to attract youngmarketing to area farmers. This center has also helped farmers. However, the "aging of agriculture" is alsomany young farmers, not only with production tech- having an impact. The average age of American farm-niques, but also with training in cooperative principles ers reached 54.3 years in the last census. In theand procedures. Mississippi Delta survey of black farmer cooperatives, Black farmer cooperatives are increasingly mov- members were on average more than 60 years old. In aing toward value-added activities and market develop- survey from south-central Alabama, almost 50 percentment. Several have vegetable packing facilities to serve of limited-resource farmers were between 40 and 54supermarket buyers. Others are packing high-value years old, while almost 32 percent were 65 years andproducts like pecans; pepper growers are bottling a older (Tackie, 47). Survey results for the southeasternbranded hot sauce. Several livestock projects have also region found that more than 61 percent of farmerbeen implemented (FSC/LAF annual report 2000). cooperative members were 50 years or older.The development of Southern Alternatives, a pecan- Some of the black farmer cooperatives are takingmarketing cooperative in Georgia, reflects the recent a proactive strategy of teaching younger generationsemphasis on commercialization and expanding market about the rewards of farming. The Beat 4 Cooperativeaccess. The farmers who formed this cooperative in in Mississippi has an innovative youth program.1991 were seeking a way to get around the "middle- Young people participate in a full range of both farm-men" who procure pecans for the operators of shelling ing and marketing activities (FSC/LAF annual reportand processing facilities. 1994-95). They are also trained in computer applica- Progress in this direction was started in the mid- tions for farming and business, which is particularly1990s from discussions with Ben Cohen from Ben and appealing to many young people.Jerry’s Ice Cream Company. A project director from An important dimension of profitable farming isthat company worked with Southern Alternatives and low-cost scale of operation. Surveys indicate that blackthe FSC/LAF in developing a business plan. Ben and farms are relatively small in relation to the averageJerry’s established a purchasing agreement with the size of farms. In a survey of 54 black farmers in Southcooperative, while a pecan processor in Georgia pre- Carolina, about 70 percent farmed 100 or fewer acrespared the quantities needed. This opportunity enabled (Onunkwo, 22). In the south-central Alabama survey, the mean farm size was 138 acres and the median was 40 acres (Tackie, 47). Although these farms are relative- 15
  19. 19. ly small, recent census data suggest some consolida- Cooperative consolidation or establishing ation in black land holdings. While farm numbers regional organization is another strategy that maydeclined by 365 between 1992 and 1997 (Appendix offer efficiency gains and cost reductions for blackTable 3), during the same period the amount of farm- farmers (Scott). In one survey of black farmers a major-land owned by blacks increased by 3.2 percent ity preferred small-membership cooperatives to large,(Pennick, 6). but a large majority also wanted a cooperative to offer In the recent class action lawsuit against USDA, it a comprehensive set of services (Onunkwo, 27). Thewas alleged that in many cases black farmers were feasibility of delivering services is unlikely withoutturned away from obtaining loans needed to maintain economies of size. More statewide, multi-state, andownership of land. In many instances, these lands had even regional organization of cooperatives wouldbelonged for many decades to black family farmers achieve various economies in providing services and(Pigford). Some individuals also experienced delays commercialization strategies. Lack of start-up capital iswhen trying to borrow to purchase lands from other likely to be a constraint, but important initial stepsblack farmers, while credit for making such purchases include developing more lines of communicationwere made available sooner to white farmers. These between growers throughout the South. The FSC/LAFinstances not only frustrated the opportunity of some regularly holds conferences that develop acquain-black farmers to expand their scale of operation, but tances and communications among black farmersalso increased their concern for the loss to black farm- throughout the in general.18 An example of consolidation is provided by the New North Florida Cooperative (NNFC). When several black farmers in north Florida wanted to organize a marketing cooperative in 1995, they18 Knowledge of these developments was provided by Edgar Lewis. received technical assistance from USDA’s Natural Also see the series of investigations by the Associated Press.16
  20. 20. Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other ser- are increasingly discovering that as many of the oldvice organizations. The NRCS agent in north Florida barriers fade away, the practices that had developedprovides on-going leadership and assistance in making around such past constraints can be set aside for newNNFC successful. The cooperative receives, washes, business opportunities in using cooperatives.and packages a variety of fruits and vegetables forshipment to schools and other institutional markets USDA Rural Development Programsthroughout their region (Karg; Holmes). As its cus- A primary role of USDA’s Rural Developmenttomer base grew, NNFC sought out neighboring black today is to work with farmers and rural residents tofarming communities in Alabama for increased build cooperatives and other enterprises to increasesources of supply. This is an example of a multi-state farmer income. To be successful in this role, USDAapproach to expanding the membership. assistance must be tailored to adapt to the differences A consolidated structure for black farmer cooper- in both individual and community needs and localatives could reach more customers beyond their com- conditions. These efforts must be coordinated withmunities. A full-time cooperative manager could find those of a wide range of universities, state and localvaluable markets for member products. Furthermore, a governments, nonprofit organizations and citizen-cen-manager can provide the communications link tered grassroots organizations. All of these organiza-between customers and farmers. Customers may want tions can play critical roles in the process of ruralcertain attributes in produce or in its packing for development.which producers can capture value. Black farmers who The history of black cooperative developmentoperate independently have the flexibility to offer demonstrates the necessity of recognizing how culturalqualities or features for certain fruits and vegetables and social institutions must be considered in the devel-that other systems may not supply. In addition, given opment of economic solutions to the challenges facingtargeted promotion, their produce would have special black farmers.appeal to urban consumers. FSC/LAF periodically The goal of this report was to gain a more com-coordinates participation in farmers markets for mem- plete understanding of the historic processes andber produce in large cities. Start-up costs for an unique challenges that have faced black farmers asexpanded program, including market promotion, are they have tried to gain operating independence andrelatively high for low-income farmers, but are likely viability through use of cooperative tools. This under-to be remunerative in the long run. standing enables USDA to develop more effective A major obstacle to applying cooperatives is the strategies and partnerships in addressing those uniquereservations that many black farmers have in regard to needs and providing the assistance strategies andhaving some of their earnings retained in an associa- methods most directly meeting the needs of blacktion as compared to immediate dealing with familiar farmers.individuals, whether they are customers in their com- Many black farmers today have small-scale oper-munities or a local broker/dealer. Distrust by some ations. Without coordination with other producers toblack farmers for more distant commercial relation- adopt effective strategies for competing in their localships and for larger membership cooperatives does not markets and entering new, more remunerative mar-reflect excessive individualism or a desired indepen- kets, opportunities for these farmers will shrink. Thedence from commercial society. Rather, its source is historical challenge of obtaining and holding onto landlikely the experience (which has gradually changed in is today, more than ever, linked to having marketingrecent decades), of being denied equal access to mar- programs and cooperative organizations in place. Forkets and many government services. A history of dis- black farmers, a key challenge is to build effective mar-couragement of opportunities for black farmers to keting cooperatives that are adequately capitalizedactively and visibly participate as leaders and directors and operating with sound business community cooperatives may have also weakened USDA now offers a number of programs thatthe development of adequate trust in more sophisticat- black farmers can access to assist them in the processed commercial-type cooperatives. of developing and strengthening cooperative business- In addition, a century of often having crop liens es to increase returns to their farming operations.used to undermine their economic independence was USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Services (RBS)not conducive to developing trust in other types of provides research, technical assistance and educationalcommercial dealings, including formal methods of services to farmers involved in cooperatives through acooperative marketing such as pooling. Black farmers network of national office and state cooperative spe- 17