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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

African-American Farmers: Working the Plough

Air Date: Week of January 24, 1997

In 1910, roughly 15 million acres of land were owned by African-American farmers in the U.S. That has declined to less than 4 million acres. It has been predicted that by the year 2005 black farmers in this country will have disappeared. Steve Curwood traveled with producer John Rudolph to southern Arkansas for a look at some African-American farmers who are striving to hold on to the land.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, and today we're visiting the Mississippi River delta.

(James Cotton blues harmonica music x-fade into ambiance of walking and then Ephron's garage)

CURWOOD: This fertile floodplain is flat as far as the eye can see. This is the home of the blues and former cotton plantations. Ephron Lewis owns a family farm on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi river near Memphis, Tennessee, not far from where his ancestors once toiled in bondage. On his farm there are no chickens in the yard or cows in the fields. Instead there's a huge garage where Mr. Lewis works on the giant machines that till his soil, plant his seeds, and harvest his crops.

LEWIS: This is something I really love doing, mechanical work. And I tell folk, I guarantee em I'll get it outside the door, but I don't guarantee it'll work (laughter).

CURWOOD: Well this is quite this is quite a shop you've got, full, all kinds of -- this is like a major garage, as it were, that we're standing in. There's a huge combine you pulled in here.

LEWIS: We try to do most of our work ourselves. We're just a kind of a one stop shop, as we call it. We don't build tractor...

(Ambience of Ephron's farm -- shop noise at a distance fades into birds)

CURWOOD: At first glance, the Ephron Lewis Farm doesn't look like much. The few rusting old trucks in the yard and peeling paint on the buildings belie the economic powerhouse this 3000 acre spread has become since 1917. Back then, Mr. Lewis's father and grandfather crossed the river, leaving the state of Mississippi to buy this land at a time when many of their neighbors were heading north to the big cities.

(Birds)

LEWIS: This is our land here. This is our -- this is what we will hope to keep in this family for a lifetime.

CURWOOD: I see that little building down there is a church?

LEWIS: Yes that church was founded by my father and some more people. And that's on one corner of our property here. My father gave a spot there for to build that church on. An old name for it was Colored Methodist Episcopal church and they changed the name from that to Christian Methodist.

CURWOOD: Ephron. Where does that name come from?

LEWIS: That name comes from the Bible. That name was found 23rd chapter of Genesis. It's about a Ephron, a landowner in the country of Heath where Abraham buries his wife. That's where the name comes from.

CURWOOD: Landowner, sounds like you.

LEWIS: Yes, uh huh, similar to me. Maybe he ate more than I do but it was where the name represents.

CURWOOD: Faith, knowledge of the land, and a good head for business have been the keys to Ephron Lewis's success. In addition to growing rice, soybeans and wheat, Mr. Lewis operates the nation's only black-owned rice mill. His story is an exception. Since the Lewises purchased this cropland during World War I, farm acreage owned by blacks has shrunk dramatically. Today black family farms are disappearing even faster than white family farms. Ephron Lewis is fortunate. His family has overcome the challenges that drove other African-Americans out of the South and out of farming.

LEWIS: When I was in High School we didn't have electricity .... Arkansas Power and Light came within a mile, less, within a half a mile of us, and came on our road to a white family that's just down the road and they cut it off there. And we tried to get them to bring it on down here, but they just refused to bring it that far. And on the other end of the road there was a white family on that end, they brought it to their place. And so we were just left in the middle without utilities.

CURWOOD: Left in the dark.

LEWIS: Yes.

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Through the persistence of his father, the power company ultimately relented and brought in the lines. The house that got that first power hook-up still stands, though it used to be on stilts 3 1/2 feet above the ground. The stilts kept the house high and dry when the Mississippi river flooded its banks. The periodic floods were a nuisance, but they also were an essential part of agriculture in the delta region. Flood waters brought important nutrients to replenish the dark soil.

LEWIS: When we were children we called this "gumbo", but the real name for it is heavy clay. And this is what we have. We always talk about we wish we had some of that good light silt loam soil that we could work almost anytime. But this heavy clay is soil that, we had a saying when we were boys and girls growing up in this part of the country -- if you stick with it in the summer it will stick with you in the winter. And what I mean by that, as you walk on it in the winter it will stick to your shoes, and your feet keep getting larger and larger and larger so -- this is until a whole big clump falls off. This soil here is highly productive and it's real -- once you get it worked up and you work it right it will produce for you.

CURWOOD: Keeping that soil rich today is a challenge. Up and down the Mississippi, levees have been built to keep the river in its banks. And that means the natural fertilizers that used to come from river silt come instead from chemicals Mr. Lewis has to buy. It's all part of today's energy-intensive, mechanized agriculture.

(Combine truck arriving)

CURWOOD: It's the peak of the harvest season. A huge tractor trailer pulls into the farm yard, carrying a brand-new shiny red combine just in time to pick hundreds of acres of soy beans. The machine rents for thousands a week. But it pays for itself in less than a day and brings joy to the mechanic in Mr. Lewis.

LEWIS: And this is the driver's seat, and this is the control right here, this thing here, you just keep your hands on this. And these buttons here to control the head up and down and all that.

CURWOOD: How much soybean can you cut with this?

LEWIS: This thing you can cut 100 acres a day with. Its a bean getting machine, I'll tell you.

CURWOOD: Ephron Lewis's face lights up when he's in the driver's seat, looking ahead to a good harvest.

(Tractor trailer leaving, fade to birds)

CURWOOD: But ask him about the long term, and he's not so sure about the future of his farm or those run by other African Americans.

LEWIS: The average age of a black farmer in -- well I don't know about all the United States but in Arkansas is about 59 years old. And they say the average age of a white farmer in Arkansas is somewhere around 51. And so this is one of the things that's happening, farmers are getting old.

CURWOOD: Black farmers an endangered species?

LEWIS: Yes they are an endangered species, yeah. And I go as far as to say there's a concerted effort to keep us an endangered species.

CURWOOD: Oh?

LEWIS: What I mean by that is it's a concerted effort -- what keeps you going is finances, and if they can keep the finances away from you that's a way to keep you from being sustainable.

CURWOOD: Unlike many farmers Ephron Lewis has been careful to build up a financial reserve. It protects him against fluctuating markets and racial discrimination by banks and government agencies that make farm loans. In the 1980s when family farms across the nation were going out of business at record rates Mr. Lewis was able to survive. The motto of the day was "get big or get out of farming." He got big, with some assistance from his family.

LEWIS: We've kind of prepared for this. And we have a large family and we are close, and if I get in trouble I can go to my sisters and brothers and they'll help me. And then I've built back in a little sustainability within my farming operation myself, so that even though you may tell me no, you don't really keep me from going because I have a way of kind of support, backing myself.

(Crickets chirping, wind whistling in the trees)

CURWOOD: Taking care of his own farm was not enough for Ephron Lewis. So in the early 1980s he helped to create an organization to fight racial discrimination by lenders, and to assist other African-American farmers to keep their land. He became the founding president of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation and hired Calvin King as the group's executive director.

KING: In 1910 there was roughly some 15 million acres of land owned by African-American farmers, you know, in the United States. That has declined to roughly some 4-million acres or less than that now. And predictions are that by the year 2000 or by the year 2005 that there will be a total disappearance of black farmers in the country.

CURWOOD: Mr. King and I chatted on the grounds of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, about a hour's drive east of Little Rock. These gently sloping fields have been training grounds for African American farmers since 1919 when a disciple of Booker T. Washington established an agricultural school here. Today Arkansas Land and Farm researches sustainable farming methods and helps black farmers obtain the credit they need to stay in business. There's also a youth program that brings high school students from as far away as Chicago to learn about farming as a career. On this day Mr. King is launching a new project aimed at getting growers interested in raising hogs.

(Hogs grunting)

CURWOOD: But first he has to get 12 squealing sows off a trailer.

KING: You need to get 'em some feed out here. Put some feed out...

CURWOOD: Rather than being kept in pens -- the traditional way to raise hogs, these swine are being allowed to graze in a series of open fields. Yes, hogs do eat grass and in what's called rotational grazing when they eat most of the grass in one field they are shifted to another one. Each time they move, the hogs leave their manure behind. It fertilizes the field, instead of building up in a huge pile that could contaminate ground water. Calvin King says the project is designed to be low cost and environmentally friendly.

KING: Well hopefully it will bring more diversification with some of our smaller farmers, you know where they'll both understand the opportunities for diversification and the markets that exist as well as what we call some of the holistic approaches and production practices -- producing vegetables and corn crops, and how you can feed that back off through an alternative market through livestock, you know, as a support income area.

(Hogs, fading to trains)

CURWOOD: The trains that pass near the Arkansas Land and Farm complex are a reminder of how much has changed for rural southern African-Americans over the decades. For years the trains took them North, away from the threat of lynching and toward the promise of more opportunity. While the trains don't carry many passengers these days, African Americans still leave here for the cities, with a few notable exceptions.

(Cleophus tractor plowing the field)

MILLS: My name is Cleophus Mills Jr. from Marvel, Arkansas, and I'm 22 years old. And I'm a soybean, wheat, and milo farmer. I own two tractors and I work 220 acres of soybeans in the lower Mississippi river valley.

CURWOOD: If there is one person who represents the hope for the future of Arkansas's black farmers it is young Cleophus Mills. His is a classic American success story. In only four years he has built up a substantial farming operation.

MILLS: I started farming in 1993. My first experience with farming was I had a youth loan. And I went from one acre into six acres.

CURWOOD: And what were you growing?

MILLS: I was growing okra, very hot and sticky. I had to do it, I had no other choice, it was my only source of income.

CURWOOD: And the next year you went to 6 acres?

MILLS: Yes, sir. But I also was raising southern purple hull peas, selling for 8 dollars a bushel. I had about 3 or 4 acres, plus I was doing a little off season work for a grain elevator, which is in Marvel, Arkansas, which I really got my start of raising my soybeans by scooping beans off the floor, bringing them out to my farm, and planting them. So now I don't have time to work for Farmers Supply, I work for myself 7 days out of a week.

(Tractor starts and runs, goes away and comes back)

CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills now farms 220 rented acres. He owns an old combine, and looks to the day when he can afford a better one. He got his first farm loan after participating in a special training program sponsored by Arkansas Land and Farm. One of the agency's goals is to get farmers to reduce their use of costly agricultural chemicals, to save money and protect the environment. But so far farmers affiliated with Arkansas Land and Farm grow only about 10 per cent of their crops organically. One reason is a lack of markets for organic produce in the region, something the agency is trying to change. It's also trying to convince banks to lend money to farmers who grow alternative crops in a more sustainable way. On an afternoon when Cleophus Mills is turning the soil in a recently harvested soybean field, his former advisor from Arkansas Land and Farm, Bryant Stephens, stops by for a check in.

STEPHENS: How's it goin', Cleo?

MILLS: I'm doing all right, Bryant.

STEPHENS: All right, how's everything been going?

MILLS: All going fine.

STEPHENS: All right.

CURWOOD: Bryant Stephens is the director of Integrated Farming Systems at Arkansas Land and Farm. Mr. Stephens admits that it's been hard to convince even young farmers like Cleophus to move away from chemical-intensive farming methods. But he says those who don't farm organically will eventually pay the price.

STEPHENS: The more and more they become dependent on those chemicals the more and more expensive their farm is going to be. And so we can get them to cut down on that. And then the health issue also, you know cause to handle those chemicals is not healthy for them either. We already have a situation where a lot of the farmers have not been able to make enough profit where they can be sustainable and stay on their farms. But the environmental problem is coming up now, so we got to make them become aware or else there's gonna be another situation we'll be faced with later on.

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills once used organic methods to grow his crop of okra, but even with Mr. Stephen's advice, he says he can't afford to do it again.

MILLS: Why it doesn't make sense for me to go organic is because I don't have the labor. It take a lot of labor to grow organic because you can't use no chemical fertilizers. You got to use practically hand labor, that's about all you can do. The number of acres I'm working I wouldn't succeed right to use organic, because everything would get out of control for me.

CURWOOD: Control and independence are important to Cleophus Mills. But so is the romance of farming.

MILLS: I love the smell of the soil, because I love tillaging the soil. That's all I ever done all my life. I played farmer when I was a little kid, so I liked playing it, so I wanted to become a real farmer. So I got that chance, and I went for it.

CURWOOD: The smell.

MILLS: I love the smell of fresh dirt. I love to see the combines going through the fields. I like to see the dust. We can walk on a little further down.

(Footfalls)

CURWOOD: Though there may not be many young black people interested in farming today, Cleophus Mills is not entirely alone. He now shares what he's learned with new students at Arkansas Land and Farm, acting as a mentor.

MILLS: Most African-American farmers don't get the opportunity to get a chance to farm because they don't have the money, and they don't have the land. Without the land you cannot function. So you've got to have free working capital in order to get the money. You've got to have the experience, you've got to have land and you've got to have money. Without them three tools you cannot survive. And also, you've got to watch the next man from taking the land out from under you -- over rent, things like that. You've got to worry about the grain elevator taking your grain from you. Dockage, that's what hurts you.

CURWOOD: Dockage?

MILLS: When you raised the crop and they take it from you. See, if they can't get you in the field, they gonna get you at the end of it. There's some kind of way their gonna get the best of you. So it's tough, you got to love it in order to do it. If you don't love it, you can't do it.

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Cleophus Mills dreams of one day having a son who will inherit his love of farming. Ephron Lewis already has a son who lives in California. He left the farm a few years ago to explore the wider world. But Ephron Lewis hopes that soon his son will be drawn back to Arkansas to take over the family homestead.

(Birds)

LEWIS: This land is something near and dear to me. And it's near and dear to my brothers and sisters that's living. And I hope that it's near and dear to my son. And I'm looking forward to him coming back, where he can take pride in running this operation.

CURWOOD: But as Ephron Lewis and Cleophus Mills both know, it takes more than pride to survive as a farmer. It takes grit, thrift, and a willingness to change with the times. For African Americans there is the added burden of discrimination in lending. And though the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation has helped many black farmers stay in business, the decline in the numbers of black farmers continues. Whether people like Cleophus Mills and Ephron Lewis will still be tilling the soil a decade from now remains an open question.

(Birds)

CURWOOD: Our report on black farmers in Arkansas was produced by John Rudolph and edited by Chris Ballman.

 

 

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