Civil Rights is not enough
Building, organizing, maintaining
When people have an idea, and need help,
they don’t want to be told how to do the business.
- Where Harvey comes from
- Lee County Vegetable Growers’ Cooperative Association
- Encouraging diversification
- Facilitation methods
- Synergy of health and ag organizing efforts
Lee County, Arkansas– in the heart of the Delta — has been a hotbed of organizing since the civil rights days. Harvey Williams’ facilitation has focused on maintaining two grass roots organizations: a small farmer’s cooperative and a health cooperative.
Harvey grew up on a farm near Rondo Arkansas. After high school, Harvey left the area and lived and traveled “all over the country.” After being drafted into the Army, Harvey, decided that he wanted to go back home. “There’s no other place I’d rather be….” He returned to Lee County and worked in a factory for 30 years. He started farming for himself part-time in 1977 on his dad’s land, growing soybeans, it “wasn’t a big task to grow soybeans” and he could continue working at the plant. Harvey’s dad grew okra, wheat and soybeans. Harvey notes that “all the farmers around here grew a few acres of some produce crop during a season.” Up until the 70’s, Harvey says, nearly everyone had a few acres in produce and the income was instrumental in making some opportunities accessible, such as college educations. Since many people were growing and had a history of growing produce, they all had the experience and “ability” to grow produce crops.
Harvey’s pop grew okra before the coop got established. At the time that Harvey was beginning to grow for the produce market, he became involved with the Arkansas extension service. The extension service has been helpful to Harvey with technical and marketing assistance. Through a joint effort with two other states, the extension service opened another farmers’ market in eastern Memphis and this gave Harvey and other farmers growing produce to have a direct-market outlet. The extension service has also provided technical assistance when Harvey certified an acre as organic for fresh market organic tomatoes.
“We used [the farmers’ market] (about two hours away) for three years. Then we moved into the Marianna Co-op (about ten miles away). This meant a real reduction in time spent delivering and less wear and tear on the truck. Harvey’s wife was “always involved in the marketing” of the coop. The oldest boy was a senior when Harvey started working full-time farming. While living at home, the boys would help in the growing after school hours and helped out during the summers when they would come home from college.
Harvey used to do a great business with organic tomatoes at the farmers’ market in Memphis, but the commute was unmanageable with changes in the family situation. His wife used to run the farmers’ market, but when she went back to teaching, it was no longer manageable for the family.
Harvey notes that his experience at the farmers’ market, “really opened my eyes to what people want…. I couldn’t grow enough organic tomatoes for that market, although they looked just like the other tomatoes at the market.” “That was amazing to me, they looked like conventional tomatoes.” Harvey stopped growing the tomatoes when he stopped going to the market, there was “not enough demand here.”
“There’s no money in small acre soybeans. You’ve got to leave it [commodity crops] or grow something different.” Harvey noted, “I liked doing farming. I had three sons and wanted to teach them what I knew.” Harvey’s mother and father were retired, but were always there helping and advising.
His learning never stops. “I read a bunch of produce trade magazines and attend lots of conferences.” Harvey says that he still travels to other produce-growing areas, meeting with farmers and learning new marketing possibilities and production techniques. “I may not be able to grow like them, but there are things I can adapt or see a new way to improve what I do.” For instance, “I use as few and lesser amounts of chemicals on my crops as possible. I may use some chemicals, but I try to be as sustainable as possible. I saw an organic field and it looked and smelled healthier than the other fields surrounding it. This convinced me and made me restructure my fundamentals – that chemicals are not needed and that more eco-friendly farming activities are coming.”
The Marianna Vegetable Cooperative started in 1967 when several individuals came together. Harvey notes that many of these individuals were instrumental in getting the health coop started in that same period of time. Both coops have been “good for the community”. The Vegetable Cooperative pooled each farmers’ extra crop, that would otherwise sit in the field into enough volume so that it could now be marketed where smaller amounts couldn’t be sold. “This adds income to the farmer’s pocket that wasn’t there before the coop. That crop in the field has been turned into an income where before it was considered waste.”
The Extension service helped set up the coop, providing information and technical help with incorporating it, business plan and getting a start-up loan. The extension service also helped to establish relations with two vegetable processors, and a contract was signed with them for the first year of the coop’s existence “based on the potential volume that the coop could do.” Harvey noted, “the coop let us pool our produce, and with lots of volume we could do lots of business.”
Harvey became involved with the vegetable coop and joined the board of directors in 1977 after one season of vegetable production. A number of people were doing cucumbers, okra and black-eyed peas
“What you have to know is what happened with the coop after the 70’s when the two companies left the same year and went south to Texas and Mexico, the coop had been producing two million pounds of okra and the cost of labor went up here. In the early 80’s, through AFLDC, we picked up a fresh market broker and we are still working with them. But working with fresh market brokers, if they don’t need any more produce they cut you off and whatever is left in your field would not be harvested and become lost income. At this same time, the number of farmers was decreasing due to retirement and no incoming farmers (“nobody taking their place”) and so the volume went down. The volume never got up again, but prices were better (for fresh market) and people found that they were making more money than before.
“When my involvement become the most was in the early part of the 80’s. I went on the board and next year became chair and remained so for 5 or 6 years.” We were searching for new crops, like peppers, and buyers. All or most board members were farmers and so all had some objective to keep the coop so that it could put together volume to satisfy bigger markets.
Increasingly from the 1970s, there was a problem getting sufficient labor. “…[I]t’s every other day of picking cucumbers and okra.” “It used to be mostly family labor: everybody had children and they worked on the farm.” Major population drop in the county; older people died, and kids moved on to college and didn’t come back.
There’s less people growing produce than before and some farmers are going into commodities. Horticultural crops take “a lot of labor” requiring hand-picking and there’s no longer the “concentrated labor in one area anymore”. “Quality control is the big thing, we can’t afford to lose a market.”
It is good to have the coop in place. It’s got great potential with the rising demand for produce and the decreasing ability to earn an income from commodity crops with a limited land resource. Walmart has agreed to buy three crops that the coop handles.
We were searching for new crops and buyers, like peppers. All or most board members were farmers and all had the same objective: “to keep the coop [viable].” With the coop, we “could put together enough volume to satisfy the bigger markets.” I worked day in and day out, year in and year out to keep the coop alive. The Coop had borrowed 40K to build a 100ft building. Most of the debt was paid by the time the two processors left, but we are still paying on it. My job was to make sure the farmers had some income to look forward to. I needed “to do everything I could to show that [the coop board] was looking for buyers. Some of the debt had been forgiven – by Farmer’s Home – and when the hwy dept expanded the highway they paid for the corner of the lot that they used for the road.)
The coop is in a better position to earn money for the cooperative and for the farmers. In 1994, AFLDC granted the coop a loan for new equipment for handling green beans and squash and a hydro-cooler when they got a contract with Kroger to provide green beans (and okra) for two years. “We’ll keep paying down the debt and asking AFLDC to forgive part of the loan. 1994 was a tough growing season, “rainy springs and then summer drought”. They couldn’t produce the quantity of quality green beans, but the demand was great. The next spring we had a similar season and again there was a relatively poorer yield. During these years, Kroger had started going to produce brokers and asked that the coop become involved with them so that they could continue to buy their goods. Been very tough to grow these past two seasons. Some disaster relief money helped.
In 1998 there was an agreement with Walmart’s local stores and will start selling into their warehouse in Clarkesville. The manager of the Walmart warehouse used to rotate through every four months. Recently this position became permanent and Harvey was introduced to him. They went in to negotiate for a 12 week contract. They were given a four-week contract which they fulfilled and now this year they’ve got a twelve-week contract to provide “locally-grown” produce that are to be advertised as such. Walmart has been very supportive of the coop. If the coop provides quality and quantity, then they’ll buy it all. They want to advertise it as locally-grown: yellow squash, eggplant and several more. This way, other farmers can move into produce through the coop.
Right now there are two other crops we could grow for Walmart, but we need to get the equipment to process them. Nobody in Eastern Arkansas, closest is in Southeast Arkansas.
How does the coop work for members? Farmers meet to fulfill a contract for each kind of crop. “Not many farmers growing any one item, so there’s not much contention…. Strange thing with produce farmers, they will pretty well try new stuff (on a small-scale). They’re already used to taking risk with unsubsidized crops which are perishable and have a high labor demand”, but they know that if they find a niche market that they have a better chance at doing well financially than if they stuck to the commodity crops.
The coop has always encouraged people to start bridging transition. When there were more people on the farm and more smaller patches – good source of income for families and provided for better life. Lots of people were doing produce then. Now we’re encouraging alternative crops to keep the rest from going out of business. How do you get them interested?
- Show the cash flow per acre for different crops. Number of people saying they are interested, but have to see how and the income. There’s also equipment needs and these can be expensive. All that start-up funds have to be considered.
- Commodity farmers are hard to convince to grow something now even though new money. “If they don’t see what others are doing – it’s hard to show people it can be done.”
- Selectively bring existing farmer into coop.
- Somebody expresses an “interest” – probably been talking with them for about a year and nurturing a relationship with them
- First learn how to grow. Read it and put your hands in it.
- Got to farm one acre at a time.
I go and visit some farmers who are doing it, better learning experience. Visiting in FL, TX and CA. Found that practices might not work, but some things can be incorporated. “It never hurts to know something.” That’s a big problem to convince new potential growers to do it. They don’t want to go and visit. “Thing about the mid-south is that we can grow any crop that FL and CA can, except citrus. And that includes Catfish. The future looks bright for the coop. People are interest in collective growing. Coop has a relationship with one major brokerage that, once there is sufficient volume, they can sell to them.
The coop could start doing more value-added processing before they sell. “This is another market we could sell through, giving members more options for selling seconds. It also means that we protect ourselves from contracts that go belly-up. We’ll have more possible products to sell and are better able to find the best price at any time in the market. It’s a very voluble market and fluctuates widely and quickly, but the payoff is that they earn better money at any time than traditional crops. There’s a company looking at coming to Marianna to do processing – and that will be another huge market we can sell to. Harvey is building relationships within the market to ensure that anything that is produced by coop farmers can be sold at the best price possible. This will keep the farmers they’ve got and increase their margin. It will build a reputation among farmers that the coop is not only capable of selling, but that it will deliver on prices – being able to sell what you produce is one of the determining factors in trying a new crop. The coop provides this channel. It also provides a community of farmers who are also growing non-commodity crops. The more growers the better – the more they can help each other and possible share in equipment and expertise.
We’ve got to prepare ourselves to meet the consumer’s needs and the consumer’s demands. For example, if it’s loose or if it’s packed. Walmart bought directly from a couple of farmers. They were growing sweet potatoes and cured them, but putting them in 5lb bags increased their value significantly. Walmart wanted a bushel of baking-sized potatoes.
You really have to keep up with consumer demands, however strange they might seem. Harvey sold certified organic tomatoes at the farmers’ market which he grew on one acre. He couldn’t satisfy the demand, even though they were considerably more expensive. How get others to try new crop? Show the income flow versus telling.
Extension helped to figure out the use of chicken litter, and Harvey wanted to grow pretty and well-sized tomatoes that looked like commercial ones. Lots of people choose vegetables, particularly tomatoes “sight unseen”.
Never been many whites in county growing produce. Vegetable growers are small-scale in the county. Financing options have been one of many major problems – didn’t matter who you are (color-wise). Lending institutions in the last two-three years started listening (Farmer’s Home and other banks) to alternative crop business plans. It was new and something they didn’t know about. Huge amount of distrust between banks and business plans – couldn’t believe your figures, and you didn’t have anything to back it up. Now extension is doing stuff to convince them that the figures are real. Much more receptive now to alternative business plans.
Look at the production cost versus the selling price:
Two bales are expected for this area
.60/lb = $600/acre-cotton
Need $200,000 cotton picker
Cheaper to put in, harvest is expensive – pay laborers by the bucket.
$0.25/bucket to pack
$1.15 for each case container.
Dollar value is no comparison…200-300 cases per acre. $10/case
$2,000 to $3,000/acre-squash
Small farmers have got to understand that some crops (commodities) just aren’t feasible.
Don’t be in a hurry – show them the field – it’s the best way to make point. Need to see the crop in order to be convinced. You could get burnt and then you don’t want to do it again. Plant an acre and learn first how to grow it before investing significant resources. Very possible to have a bad growing season, or poor market – one year weather caused the loss of 35 acres out of 60. Other times, need to sell it fast – but if not a market at that moment you can lose it that way.
Stored and shipped together – consider temperature, pheromones – much learning to do over time, and there will be errors made.
The other side of diversification is recognizing that everyone can’t grow squash for this market. You need to identify the number of acres to produce the contracted amount (established ideally before the growing season). The board votes on who gets how many acres of what crop, considering how many farmers want to grow and if they are set-up (equip, irrig, migrant labor, etc.). If you have three to four crops, and got surplus growers for a crop – there’s going to be acres more in the future – so to get somebody involved I would be willing to give up an apportionment. It doesn’t take a lot of people to grow for a contract, a lot of produce. Got to have acre commitment. Harvey’s attitude is not unusual he says. There are some crops that can be grown to whatever volume, that the coop can sell any amount of, such as Okra (“it’s open”). “There’s no cap on Okra.”
The board decides who can grow what and how much. The board determines what and how much of a crop based on the capability of the grower to produce what they say (board is mostly farmers if not all farmers presently or in the past). The coop trying to get as many farmers in and involved with as many crops, this has become a priority along with the continual market building. The coop’s job is to seek more acres for the next year.
Today, Harvey is not a board member. The first year of his membership he was a board member, and the second year he was chair, later became coop manager. Now he represents the coop “when they ask me.” There’s younger and more capable people that need to come up to speed and so Harvey is helping training the board and management. When Harvey goes to see buyers, he brings two board members with him, so the processors and buyers get to know them, and so he can train new people. I see it that if they can then meet with them next year on their own – and build the business. And this frees Harvey up to build his farm business He doesn’t sell all through the coop and does his own direct-marketing. Right now the coop don’t have paid staff and they are seeking AFLDC loan forgiveness so that the money can be used to pay for staff. Harvey wants to help as many as possible.
Harvey’s experience working with groups: “kind of mixed.” “It’s not easy all the time. First of all, not a lot of trust that people have in each other. So trust is one of the major problems. Another thing is trying to convince group of people to, for example, grow bell peppers, where I don’t have any history to show them what’s involved and the problems, cons with growing an acre.” This leaves Harvey to describe what other people have done and relying on extension unless he has an “explorer.”
Harvey has worked some with programs to help young people enter farming. But he says that “kids are just different over the years or maybe my tolerance is just lower.” They don’t even know where food and fiber coming from, whether its Green beans, sweet corn, butter beans, cotton. That was amazing to me that they didn’t know. It took about 2-3 weeks for them to settle down when they come to the farm. Just got to keep doing what you’re doing. Takes patience and letting them come to terms with it on their own time. Willingness to work with them and fan flames of interest and being there to continue helping with equipment and technical information.
Facilitation works better when it’s one-on-one than in groups you can better answer questions,. Each person has different knowledge needs and their own unique emotional issues. In winter you can meet with people, but from March through October this takes a much lower priority.
Harvey work with his neighbors one on one. With one, Harvey convinced him to try growing sweet potatoes and he made money, although Harvey planted and harvested for him. Keeping it small enough, so that if it should fail it won’t turn the grower off from trying again.
Southern field peas uses all the same equipment and technique as soybeans, and worked very well for one farmer who was very happy with soybeans and comfortable with them. He planted the peas and had a great yield behind wheat. The companty that bought the peas the first year, started growing their own the next year. If a market could be found for those peas, then that grower would be interested in growing them again, because he’s convinced he can do it and do it well.
A key part of Harvey’s work is establishing trust with buyers. You have to convince them of volume, quality and consistency. If you’ve got a track record, show it off, particularly if you’ve sold to reputable, well-known companies “Kroger and Walmart stand out”. Second, show them with similar type companies and these will help you get to sit down with them. Above all, you just “gotta try. They can’t tell me but one of two things: yes or no.”
Part of the way you get in is through other established growers. Abraham Carpenter had been doing business with Kroger. Their business had gotten too big, spread too thin selling to Little Rock (1.5 hrs away) and to Memphis (2 hours away) and they “walked the coop into the memphis office” and introduced them. Harvey had been selling to Carpenter, who used his relations with Walmart. “Once someone gets you in, you just got to do your part to stay there.”
“Off-season brings higher prices, but the risk of frost and hail increases. It’s riskier to grow off-season although possible, and loose the crop, but the payoff is greater. Carpenters got two stores, and in april when people shed their coats, they’ll be wanting fresh greens.
Keep up with news of other coops. There’s a big advantage for coops if people would use them. One big problem with farmers, some don’t understand value of having money instead of individual markets. I will use the coop for my excess harvest that I can’t sell through my personal markets. The coop will pool these excesses and sell to another market. These farmers are not looking at the big picture. It’s been really hard for us to convince farmers that the coop is good for them. Coop has relationships to deal with harvest excesses, such as a canner, but the volume is essential otherwise they loose money because they can’t maintain the efficiency of the plant.
Health Center Coop established in 1969. More involved in its inception that currently. He became involved in its second year.
Board members were elected and selected from Neighborhood Action Councils from each community and the number of delegates were based on population levels. There were two at-large members, which the board votes on. In 1971, Harvey joined the board. It was formed for same purpose as the ag coop back in the 1950s and 1960s, we had lots of health problems. One to two local physicians, couldn’t get services that they needed, particularly black people. Some people involved in setting up Marianna Veg coop helped set up the health coop. VISTA provided one doctor and one nurse to the county. In 2000, the coop employs 55 people and has a two million budget. It has done much for the county beyond providing health services – it has gone after root causes. In the beginnig it was recognized that safe water and proper sewage system was fundamental to improving health, many poor wells and numerous outhouses. Another organization, “Dusko”, was formed out of the health coop to deal with water and sewage issues and received government legislative authority for rural areas for the state. That organization no longer exists – it worked itself out of a job. When the coop first started transportation was a big problem. Now people can get transportation (4WD to get people). Local government not supportive at all. Now people can get to see doctor or a dentist when they need to. Two satellite clinics in other counties with a doctor on site one day a week and an 24hr on-call nurse and transportation to the main clinic if needed. Technology is a big issue now. The feds don’t want to pay for this.
The health coop has been a big help to the community. It’s been one of the tools that have brought racial matters together more than anything else, because we all go for the same services. Racial relations improved: first one white person belonged, now its almost 50/50. Blacks and white realizing we’re all a part of the same organization. You see people getting along and demonstrating to others that they’re getting along. They don’t hear people talking about each other. Offices, school boards, etc have all become more equitable, for example, they will sit and laugh with each other in restaurants. The vegetable coop is next door to the health coop, and those attending the health clinic would stop and buy food, both black and white people.
Coops support each other the whole time. Veg coop in 1967 and health coop in 1970. Economic benefit to help pay for health. Spirals up health means can produce off of vegetables, although it was never designed for that mutuality – just worked out that way! Both have been very valuable to community. Don’t want to think happen would it would be like without the coops. It’d be whole lot tougher. Whatever affects my neighbor affects me. Had to train local people because recruitment too tough. One told Harvey recently, “I was so glad to get an opportunity to work as an aide – relieved to get off welfare.” The coop helped to pay for nursing school, as well as support her and her children in lots of small intangible ways.
We don’t really know who all has been touched and the full impact. People come to work for short time. How can you figure it out? The most recent administrator was born and raised in the county and was the administrator for the last 21 years. His two kids are now physicians. A former administrator, who is now at Howard University, is helping with a search committee. The coop utilizes former employees and county people – keeping people involved in the coop and the community – keeps good relations, builds contacts with other parts of the country and other types of enterprises/establishments, etc.
Got to try new things. Relations didn’t exist between clinic docs and hospital. We almost had sue to get clinic doctors to get hospital status (enables clinic doctor to admit patient to hospital, and good for their resume, legitimacy). Need to have 24-7 on-call, but now refer to emergency. Coop care is cheaper than hospital, especially emergency.