Photo by Habiba Alcindor
Locals in the sleepy Delta town of Mileston, Mississippi, where King Cotton once reigned supreme, have lately begun to note a resurgence of wild fig trees and blackberry bushes, while creatures like lightning bugs, bees and caterpillars have bounced back after enduring heavy casualties from the harsh pesticides used to combat cotton's archenemy, the boll weevil. Calvin Head, a farmer and local leader, together with a handful of other small farmers in Mileston , a New Deal planned community, sees an opportunity in today's shifting economic environment to nurture another fragile population: its residents.
Mileston is part of Holmes County, which happens to be the poorest county in the poorest state in the Union. Less cotton means fewer jobs at the cotton gin; alternative cash crops with shorter growing cycles have similarly reduced the need for labor in the field, much of which is now provided by migrant workers. The Mississippi Delta region is also the national epicenter of obesity, with all its attendant health complications.
But Mileston itself possesses a rich cultural history as fundamental to its identity as its red earth. It was conceived as an experiment in cooperative living during the Depression and came into its own as a result of collective action in the '60s. The wisdom accrued by past generations has informed the community's idea to grow and distribute its own food through a farmers' market program.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Resettlement Administration, vast tracts of land were purchased from wealthy landowners, outfitted to facilitate a communal--some might say socialist--agrarian culture and then populated with poor people. In Mileston, black sharecroppers otherwise consigned to eking out a subsistence on the land of white plantation owners were transplanted to plots as large as 100 acres, which--with hard work, technical guidance and financial assistance in the form of low-interest loans--they could eventually purchase from the government.
By the 1950s, most of the tenants had become landowners, and Mileston was firmly established as an all-black resettlement community, one of thirteen in America. Head's grandparents Robert and Pecolia were among these first landowners. His grandfather, a carpenter, built the town's community center, now in ruins.
While deteriorating economic conditions and discriminatory practices by the white power structure whittled away at black ownership of land in the decades that followed, African-Americans continue to constitute 75 percent of Mileston's population and own more than 70 percent of its land. In addition Mileston retains a community-oriented ethic that distinguishes it even from nearby Tchula. "Just four miles down the road," insists the Rev. Tom Collins, who participates in the farmers' market program and whose small congregation is based in Tchula, "and you talk to people, and their ideology is totally different from what's down here. Totally different."
Members of the West Holmes Community Development Organization (WHCDO) got together and brainstormed the idea for the farmers' market in 2000. With the cooperation of the State of Mississippi, they created a program that enlists high school students to plant and harvest vegetable crops on land donated by farmers in the area. Residents enrolled in the USDA's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program can now redeem their vouchers for organic produce. The students learn how to assess their market, set prices and keep a tally of what's sold each day. At the end of the season, the farmers split the proceeds with the young entrepreneurs.
The roughly $700 a month earned by each of the fifteen to twenty students in the farmers' market program is not a living wage, but it goes a long way in supplementing the income of families straddling the poverty line. Jessica Howard, who plans to pursue a nursing career after graduation, uses the money she earns at the market to pay for her school uniforms and help her mother, who is disabled, with other family expenses. Her schoolmate Russell Scott also appreciates the extra income. "It's a nice amount to have, but when you're doing things for the elderly and young people, money don't really come to your mind."
Another participant, 24-year-old Carlos Walden, tells of how he once accepted $10 to deliver drugs for a man who turned out to be an undercover cop, a desperate decision that landed Carlos in prison. Today, Carlos is an enthusiastic advocate of the farmers' market program, describing the pride he feels when he's able to put food he grew and harvested himself on the table for his two young children.
What came as a surprise to Head and other farmers was the level of demand for homegrown produce. Once WIC recipients and senior citizens were served, other people in the neighborhood, including restaurant owners, arrived at the market waving dollars to buy freshly picked okra, peas, watermelons and the runaway favorite: greens of the mustard, collard and turnip varieties. Miss Pat's, a local eatery consisting of a shed with a kitchen in back and a picnic bench in front, is one business that benefits from the market. Five dollars will buy a baked chicken lunch with side dishes of stewed tomatoes with okra, and butter beans with bacon; or an order of meatloaf with collard greens and baked squash, depending on what's available. "She makes a killing," confides Head.
Members of the WHCDO believe that what began as a simple way to "give the young people something to do" can expand into a successful commercial enterprise. Sysco foods has been a client; even Wal-Mart has made inquiries. The students' eyes light up when they discuss the prospect of supplying produce to their high school cafeteria. But even though interest in the program runs high, it can meet demand only if there is a threefold increase in available land. Head has met some resistance in his efforts to persuade growers to devote more of their acreage to "truck patch" farming. "We did a market analysis to show them how much money they could make off just one acre of tomatoes," says Head. "You can make about $10,000 at a high yield." Unfortunately, soil healthy enough to grow vegetables is in short supply. Farmer Joseph Anderson explained why he didn't have any vegetables ready yet for the market: nearby aerial spraying of cotton pesticides had obliterated his first crop, forcing him to replant. The chemical cocktail is so toxic that laws prohibit spraying during improper wind conditions, which allowed Anderson and other affected farmers to sue for damages.
If enough farmers eventually come around, the next looming hurdle for the program is the purchase of a refrigerated storage unit. When the kids sell out of produce this season, their only recourse will be to go back into the field to replenish their stock. Last, a greenhouse would enable the program to continue year round, but that's still a distant dream.
"We were the ones who started the civil rights movement. Here, right here in Mileston," declares 69-year-old farmer Griffin McLaurin, the program's biggest vegetable producer. He remembers the day Hartman Turnbow stepped forward when the sheriff demanded to know which of the fourteen men standing in front of the county courthouse was going to be first to attempt to register to vote. "He went in there, and they gave him four sheets of paper that long. He had to pay poll tax, and he had to interpret all these different kind of government things that was on there. There was no way in the world you could pass." It was April 1963, more than a year before Freedom Summer.
"Things have changed down here, but there's a whole lot of things haven't changed," McLaurin observes. Because Mississippi remains segregated (Bee Lake divides the white section of West Holmes County from the surrounding area), class issues easily translate into race issues. McLaurin views the farmers' market as an almost quixotic countermeasure against the dual onslaught of poor nutrition and poverty besieging the black community's next generation. "We got all this land belonging to what we call 'the project' here. Rest of it is being farmed by the white man. He's the one making the money on all of it. And he's using it like he wants to use it. Puts whatever pesticides or chemicals he wants on it, and we can't even raise no mustard or turnip greens on it."
Members of the next generation are bound to reap at least one valuable lesson from their farmers' market: wherever their efforts eventually take them, the struggle must begin in their own backyard.