Organizing can’t be a government program.
- A Place In The Community
- All In A Day’s Work
- Disparity and Race Relations
- Beyond the Establishment
- Letting People Be Themselves
Larry’s work has been inextricable from his life of almost three decades in Noxubee County. He came to Mississippi during the Vietnam War, when he was assigned to the local hospital in place of combat duty. The Millers belong to the Mennonite Church and hold deeply pacificist values. Larry renewed his assignment for three years, having developed attachments to his co-workers and a sense of belonging to the community. When his service ended, Macon had become home, and Larry and his wife Maxine found a small farm in Mashulaville on which to begin producing pulpwood. The Millers cut wood for a living while finishing their education degrees at Mississippi State. One of Larry’s first organizing efforts was to establish a local credit union; today the credit union shares an office with two of the Millers’ other accomplishments, the Beat-4 Farmer’s Cooperative and the Noxubee County Farmer’s Market.
Larry and Maxine are reading teachers in the public schools, grow a plot of mixed organic vegetables, raise cows, goats, and catfish, supervise the market, and remain active in the co-op, including running the acclaimed youth project, training interns, and recruiting funding for program expansion, project development, and facilities improvement. Their vocational and volunteer work flow seamlessly together: Larry’s promising junior high students are selected to the co-op’s youth program, through which they grow okra to sell at the farmer’s market, depositing their profits in personal savings accounts housed at the credit union. Larry’s parents, now in their early eighties, work alongside Larry and Maxine on the farm and with the youth program. (The Millers have three children, and Larry is one of sixteen, ten of who are adopted Native American siblings, which may provide some insight into the Miller family’s commitment to work, education, and community.)
Larry’s initiatives reflect a unique awareness of the social and political issues that affect agricultural development and business opportunities in rural Mississippi. He is profoundly sensitive to the particular barriers that socially disadvantaged and limited-resource farmers have struggled with in the Delta. Not only have black farmers been victims of corruption and discrimination by business and government, but also there is little solidarity among small farmers across racial lines. Now more than ever, with farmers taking all of the risk and little of the return, and small farms left without a role in the market, Larry believes bridging the racial divide and organizing for change is essential. In Noxubee County, this process has historically been strictly on grassroots terrain. Now, Larry and the other citizen leaders feel that it’s time for Extension to extend its efforts beyond large-scale production for outside markets, and join with farmers in identifying and creating local value-added and direct-marketing opportunities
The Beat-4 Farmer’s Co-op grew from a group of small farmers that got into cattle with the help of a Heifer Project International program back in 1972. Although the cattle were high-quality cattle, the program was contingent on access to FHA loans that were largely unavailable. Many of the farmers received token loans for livestock, but were turned down for sufficient funds for fencing and other equipment. Without adequate resources, and in a climate of growing concentration in the cattle industry, most of the participating farmers never got their operations off the ground.
In 1980, the group had completely phased out of their cattle efforts, and began looking for new ideas. Most farmers had been growing vegetable patches all along, and U-Pick operations were sweeping the country, but the reality was that not too many white townspeople would venture out to the mostly black-owned farms. The U-Pick concept depends on comfortable grower-consumer relationships, which Noxubee County just didn’t have. This isn’t the kind of quantifiable factor that makes it into a feasibility study; it takes someone who is steeped in the culture of a place to say whether a venture is realistic or appropriate. Just because an idea is a good one doesn’t mean it’s right for the folks at hand.
Larry came up with a creative alternative, reviving the tradition of a traveling produce market. For years Larry and some others drove a farm route, loading vegetables into their trucks and delivering to various sites in Macon. The Okra Truck, the Tomato Truck, and the other weekly “peddler’s” routes were the first seeds of Larry’s efforts to bridge the gulf between black growers and white buyers in the region.
Today, Larry credits the market with providing more than just a place to exchange produce and dollars, but with building community relationships and social vitality in the region. It’s been a tool for forging camaraderie between black and white farmers, and for “bringing the farm to the town.” The beauty of a farmer’s market is it doesn’t matter who you are, you have to get here early and wait in line along with everyone else if you want lady peas or the best Silver Queen corn. The WIC program has helped to throw disadvantaged young mothers and babies into the customer mix, as well as providing them with a source of fresh, whole food. Elderly folks are the most frequent shoppers, and a cross-generational connection has formed as well: 26 teens run the Youth Project stand at the market, carry heavy bags, clean, and generally support market operations each summer. Several interns and Vista volunteers also work with the co-op each season.
Larry feels the co-op and market could benefit from recognition and involvement from Extension and other public agencies and officials. In the Delta, family-scale agriculture is often treated as an old-fashioned hobby, not the cornerstone of rural development it could be. Larry would like to see more research, outreach, and promotional help coming from agents and other sources, but believes in the power of grassroots organizing. Too many groups view change as only in the hands of “the officials” or subject to “the market” and don’t appreciate their own potential. His group has often struggled with this sense of foolishly trying to beat the system, of a futile battle against mysterious uncontrollable forces. Larry attributes the co-op’s survival to overcoming its own doubts, and a prevailing pair of sentiments: “we don’t need them,” and “we do need each other.”
The co-op hovers at around thirty growers annually, and anyone who sells at the market must join the co-op. Annual dues are used to pay insurance, utilities, garbage pick-up, and building maintenance. Farmer’s markets are particularly subject to the tragedy of the commons, and requiring that vendors be member-owners seems to counter this phenomenon. A few diehard individualists have wanted to cash in on the venue without the responsibility, but most growers view cooperative enterprise as a necessary and valuable structure. Larry points to a succession of great leaders who promoted the cooperative spirit and creatively held the group together, including current president Larry Blakely and his wife.
The market began without any structure, grew into a tent, and finally raised the capital to build a permanent shelter in 1995. Larry pursued most of the funds through various churches, private donations, and fundraisers. The Mississippi Association of Cooperatives also contributed to the building project. Working on a personal level, with church groups and other community contacts, raising a little here and there, the group was able to meet its goal. Rather than dismissing a project as unrealistic, the growers take an approach appropriate to their own resources, whether this means peddling produce from the back of trucks or putting on fundraising dinners.
The Youth Project is a permanent division of the Beat-4 Farmer’s Co-op based on the Miller Farm three mornings each week for the duration of the summer. The recruits are
kids from across the county whose families may have been farming not too long ago, but mostly they have no firsthand experience of agriculture. They come out to the farm to put okra in, just before school lets out, and learn the basics of prepping soil, handling tools and planting seed. But before the summer field work really begins, the kids are sent away for a few weeks at camp. Larry works to find admission and scholarship for them at various camps across the state. The purpose of the camp experience is to break up their routines, get them outside, and initiate a lifelong process of meeting new people and broadening their experience. They seem to come back to Noxubee County with fresher, open minds, and new curiosity.
The teens are assigned their own rows in the okra patch, and they are taught to weed, mulch, irrigate, harvest, grade, pack, and market the crop. They are expected to do a careful job and they learn with the first picking that quality makes for a nice profit at the market. At the market they get to know older growers, talk with customers, and learn merchandising and other business skills. Larry is trying to locate a flash freezer and a facility to process the okra for frozen sales once the season has ended. Proceeds from the market and hourly wages are generally the first money the kids have ever made, and they commit to save a portion of each check in their accounts at the credit union. Many are the first in their families to use a bank.
The program is more than just lessons and labor, though, or it wouldn’t appeal to notoriously lazy fifteen year-olds. Each Tuesday (the one day no one ever shows up late) Maxine cooks pancakes for the crew before they begin work. Out in the rows, Larry encourages the kids to laugh and talk, and usually there’s time to shoot some ball or just sit around for a while afterward. The Millers find themselves giving driving lessons, leading hikes, and getting to know the kids’ families. This is part of their informal philosophy of organizing: rather than trying to “program” people, it’s best to let them be who they are, and to let their own intelligence, ideas, and integrity exert themselves. Leaders must help people explore what they’re good at, what they’re interested in, what motivates and inspires them. You can’t force kids to be interested in chopping weeds at 7 am any more than you can force a fifty-year old farmer to join a co-op.
The heart of the matter, says Larry, is that all attempts at local business development should not be assumed to have positive social outcomes. Quality work, room for growth, self-sufficiency, fair compensation, and access to financing should be part of any attempts at job and wealth creation. The mission-focus of the Miller’s initiatives is bigger than just putting people in programs or jobs. Whether or not they become a new generation of organic farmers, the kids are getting a taste of good stewardship, the principles of cooperation, and the excitement of being entrepreneurs. They are empowered to change their own economic futures by participation in a profitable, sustainable business venture, and by socializing and transacting across socio-economic lines.
The credit union, the co-op, a direct market for homegrown produce, and hands-on youth mentorship are now part of the fabric of life in Noxubee County. These are grassroots attempts to enable a rural community to help itself, frequently regarded as inconsequential by the public agencies and large institutions. But these efforts may have done more to boost economic opportunities on these small farms than any windfall of dollars or coup on the policy front would have anyway. Rather than follow the “common denominator” recommendations (in the ag. world this amounts to signing a production contract or finding a factory job,) the Millers believe in utilizing local leadership to guide new enterprises, because it is more likely sensitive to the subtleties of local culture and politics as well as more personally committed.
There’s always a more efficient or profitable way of doing things, but it’s important to start with what is at hand, even if it’s nothing. Ventures like these are often prematurely stunted because of a feeling of “we’ll never raise enough money,” or “we’ll never be able to compete with the importers/brokers/chains.” Citing trade law reformation and redistributive taxation as preconditions for stable small farms and vital rural communities, many groups are too discouraged to engage in their own problem-solving. Fortunately there seems to be a contagious aspect to successful start-ups and the accumulation of social capital. A more comprehensive approach to small farms and rural development from the government may be on the horizon, but the Millers don’t sit on their hands. Their successes in Noxubee County make a convincing case for other groups of Delta farmers to revisit the cooperative structure, undermine traditional demographic divisions, and invest in future generations.