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Land Assistance Fund Feeds Farmers’ Hopes

Farming is not for the faint of heart. Thank goodness the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund is still here, bringing bounty and blessings to those who work the land.

It’s been 52 years since The Federation started helping small and minority farmers through advocacy, the development of farm cooperatives and land retention. According to Wendell Paris, the group’s first director of training, the FSC is first and foremost about the value of strength in numbers.

“You’re not just out there fighting by yourself, but you have some people that’s got a bulldog’s grip. They’re not going to give up on folks if there’s some way we can give them some help.”

Women quilters of the Freedom Quilting Bee work and visit in Alberta, Alabama, in June 1974. Photo by Pat Goudvis.

The Federation’s work stretches from Virginia to Florida and on to Texas. Land Assistance Fund offices are located in Marksville, La.; Jackson, Mississippi; Epes, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; and South Carolina. An upgrade to the Louisiana office is currently under way: A commercial office will soon replace the home-based one in Avoyelles Parish.

Bruce Harrell, an agriculture specialist, heads the Louisiana office and the Louisiana Asset Building Project. He is a fifth-generation farmer who’s worked with the Federation for 12 years.

Harrell estimates that he works with 50 to100 farmers annually in the state, traveling to wherever a need arises. He helps growers resolve growing issues and complete applications and claims of loss. Other services include workshops on heir-and-succession property issues, in-school programming on healthy living with fruits and vegetables and some OpenAg workshops on urban farming that haven’t quite taken off yet in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

“We were there letting the residents know about urban agriculture, how to start and let them know they can apply to get a loan to farm” with a high tunnel. (A high tunnel is a lightweight and mobile greenhouse where farming is executed in the soil, not just in pots on tables. The beauty of the high tunnel is that it extends the growing season, Harrell says.) These structures have revolutionized farming over the last 20 years, fueling the popularity of farm-to-table dining internationally.

“The USDA helps farmers pay for high tunnels. You just need to show [you] have had the land for at least five years,” Harrell continues. If you can, an applicant is put on the agency’s list and eligibility is determined. The length of the process depends on one’s parish of residency. Harrell has been waiting two years for funding.

Farmers prepare to plant soybeans in Epes, Alabama, in June 1974. Photo by Pat Goudvis.

In keeping with its 1967 mission, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund works with all minorities, Harrell says. It exists to organize and empower poor people, providing them the power to control their lives and resources, according to Paris, a founding member.

“Black farmers are losing their land. Ownership has declined tremendously over the last century,” Harrell says. “You have a younger generation that is not aware of what’s going on with their family’s property because their forefathers didn’t talk their business. The ancestor might have left a small debt, that goes into foreclosure, and the land is lost for a very little bit of money.”

To counteract this tragedy, FSC encourages its members to draw up a will or a trust so their land stays in their families’ possession.

Harrell farms grains: wheat, corn and soybeans. But he recently diversified his crop with several vegetables after a historically wet summer.

“It’s expensive to farm. There’s the cost of the materials and the implements,” he says. However, “there’s always a need for vegetables.”

Farming is a full-time job, so the fact that Avoyelles Parish growers have watched the price their soybeans fetch drop $2 per bushel over the last year is more than a little disconcerting. Harrell wishes President Donald Trump would lay off the tough talk about the Chinese trade imbalance. He figures the Chinese have now found a new partner in Brazil.

“Farmers need all the help they can get. People think farmers are making a bunch of money,” he says.

In reality, the average family farmer works a plot of land 50 acres or less – and usually just 10 to 15 acres- compared to the 10,000-plus an agribusiness has at its disposal, Harrell noted. Oftentimes, two or three households are reliant on any income generated from these yields, he added. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a small farm in 2013 stretched 231 acres and a very large one 2,086 acres.

“We need the support,” he admitted of government subsidies in general and the recent rebates due to the fall in prices, more specifically. “We need to start working with China and stop this trade battle.”

When the weather is adequate, Harrell says a farmer is going to work 10 to 12 hours each day, literally sun up to sun down, in the field and into the wee hours with record keeping and yield planning. Record keeping is especially crucial, he says, when a commercial grower is applying chemicals – or raising and selling vegetables.

In his 2009 keynote address on the history of the FSC, Paris remembered how important it was at the beginning for the Federation to not just help its members cultivate and profit from their land, but to also cultivate its membership. For farmers, a direct result of this emphasis was overall increased savvy and the abolition of records on loose leaf paper in notebooks.

In October 2018, the Louisiana state office of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives began administering the Louisiana Mediation Program, once run by Southern University. This procedure offers farmer-borrowers a mediation hearing when any adverse decision is rendered against them by the government. Southern has partnered with the Federation to train program mediators.

The Amistad Research Center is the repository for the records of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and is currently inventorying those records with grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Completion of this project will allow greater access to the records for scholars and researchers.

Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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