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Interview with Ben Burkett
of the National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S.

Civil Rights, Market Cooperatives, Buying Networks

Matola, Mozambique

Ben Burkett at the Via Campesina conference in Matola, Mozambique. Photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Ben Burkett at the Via Campesina conference in Matola, Mozambique. Photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Via Campesina members during a celebratory dance towards the end of the conference.
Via Campesina members during a celebratory dance towards the end of the conference.

Via Campesina members on stage during cultural presentation at the conference.
Via Campesina members on stage during a cultural presentation at the conference.

A new chicken raising project of a farmer association in Lusanyando, in Niassa province in northern Mozambique.
A new chicken raising project of a farmer association in Lusanyando, in Niassa province in northern Mozambique.
Two cooperative members working with tree saplings at the headquarters of UCAM (Union of Agricultural Cooperatives of Marracuene). After the conference, many delegates visited farmers cooperatives in Marracuene, near Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

Two cooperative members working with tree saplings at the headquarters of UCAM (Union of Agricultural Cooperatives of Marracuene). After the conference, many delegates visited farmers cooperatives in Marracuene, near Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

A cabbage crop of the Bolazo B Association in Marracuene.
A cabbage crop of the Bolazo B Association in Marracuene.

Ben F. Burkett is president of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) in the U.S., and a cooperative-marketing-specialist member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund. He was in Mozambique attending the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina as a delegate of the NFFC. La Via Campesina is an organization of organizations, part of a global movement of peasants, family farmers, indigenous and landless people. The interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on October 22, 2008 during the Via Campesina conference. The conference was held at the FRELIMO Party School in Matola, Mozambique.


Ben Burkett: My name is Ben F. Burkett, currently serving as the president of the National Family Farm Coalition. I am also a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund and my local coop is Indian Springs Farmers Association in Petal, Mississippi.

In Motion Magazine: You are a farmer yourself?

Ben Burkett: I am a fourth generation farmer, presently operating 255 acres.

In Motion Magazine: What do you farm?

Ben Burkett: I have a hundred acres of trees and 150 acres of crop land. At the present time, I am planting all vegetables. I do plant some soy beans and corn sometimes.

In Motion Magazine: Four generations on that very farm?

Ben Burkett: Yes, four generations. My mother’s great-grandfather received a homestead from the United States government in 1889, I believe. We still have the original documents signed by President Grover Cleveland himself. He homesteaded 164 acres. There were quite a few African American families that got homesteads in that area at that time.

In Motion Magazine: Was there a movement that caused the Congress to pass that act?

Ben Burkett: The Homestead Act was passed in 1862. But, from my understanding, the research I did, in 1830 they signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit which ceded that land from the Choctaw to the United States government and it opened it up for settlement. I’m still trying to understand how these Black people were able to get land just twenty years after the Civil War. Somebody had to be filing the paperwork in Washington, because there wasn’t no land office there at the time, and everything had to go to Washington.

In Motion Magazine: And this was during the time of the Black Codes?

Ben Burkett: Right. There were several families through there, at least ten I know of, that had a homestead, 164 acres. I can just go by what I’ve been told, handed down, generation after generation, but there was a Black gentleman that had attended either Hampton or Howard University and he knew how to read and write. He was doing the documentation for everybody, both Black and white, that acquired a homestead.

In Motion Magazine: Was it just in your area?

Ben Burkett: I don’t think so. It was in other parts of the lower South -- Alabama, Mississippi, on the lower end, not up in the Delta. My farm is on the coast, fifty miles inland, down in that area. I know some in Alabama who acquired a homestead. Everyone tells me that this is rare to hear.

If you lost your farm, you lost everything

In Motion Magazine: Well, what is the history of African Americans owning farms in the South?

Ben Burkett: From the 1880s to, I think, around 1919 almost 15 million acres were acquired. Now it is down to less than 2 million acres ownership.

In Motion Magazine: So, what happened?

Ben Burkett: Some were tricked out of it. Some of it was forcible -- they ran them off the place. In my county, again I’m just going by what I was told, several families were forced off and went to Chicago. They just left 80 acres, 100 acres. I think a lot of it was trickery.

Some people I know in this county, now, that have Black tax collectors and assessors, they be telling me about how the records show a Black person would go to get a loan and they would take everything, even a rocking chair sitting on the front porch -- that’s recorded in the court house -- as collateral. An old cow named Betsy. An old mule named James. They were all on the chattel list. I have actually seen some of that myself. I just didn’t believe it but, yes, in Yazoo county, Mississippi, Humphreys county, Perry county. I have actually seen documents like that. So, if you lost your farm, you lost everything.

In Motion Magazine: And people would have to leave the area?

Ben Burkett: They left, and then, you know, a lot of them left and went to Chicago. That was my intention too, to, when I graduated from Alcorn State University in 1973. My generation was leaving, going to Chicago -- but they all go to Atlanta now. It was my intention to go, but I went back home and have been farming ever since 1973.

But, lately, a lot of it is just being sold. Some, they are losing it for non-payment of taxes too. They just don’t pay the taxes.

In Motion Magazine: Because they can’t afford to?

Ben Burkett: They can afford to. I will give you one example. This young lady, she inherited 20 acres from her great-grandfather in south Mississippi, in Petal, Mississippi. She moved to Jackson and she just didn’t pay the taxes. I met her on the street one time in Jackson, because the Federation office is in Jackson, and I explained to her she needed to go pay her taxes. She never did go pay it, so a white lawyer acquired it. Even in between, my niece and I offered to buy it from her. She lost 20 acres of land for $3,500. That’s three years worth of taxes.

In Motion Magazine: She just never thought it appropriate to pay her taxes?

Ben Burkett: Yes. So, the Federation, we have classes all over the state of Mississippi about the importance of paying your taxes, making a will, an estate plan. We have classes all over the state of Mississippi on a regular basis because that’s important if you are going to hold on to it.

Now, in my case, my land is classified as agricultural land, the taxes can only go so high. But now, because the city is expanding, they are building subdivisions around me. Eventually, they are going to raise the taxes. That’s another way they get the land from you, too. The land gets so valuable that you can’t pay the taxes on it from farming. Then you have to sell it to the realtors. Unless you do what I’m planning on doing, and putting it in some type of land trust, open space.

Federation of Southern Cooperatives

In Motion Magazine: Can you tell me a little of the history of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives?

Ben Burkett: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives grew out of the Civil Rights Movement. It was organized in 1967. So, it’s a little over forty years old. It’s got members from Texas to South Carolina. You have to be a cooperative in order to be a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

My cooperative was organized the first time in 1964 with a $250 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity. Most people don’t even know that office existed. But the cooperative only functioned for about three years. Then it was reorganized in 1978.

We didn’t know anything about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives until 1981 or ’82. We were an unincorporated coop. We just organized and the Federation helped us get incorporated and get all our legal status. We became a member of the Federation in ’81 or ’82. We’ve been a member ever since. They helped us all through with the hurricane disaster.

In 1996, we built a new packing facility for half a million dollars where a farmer can bring their produce and we can wash it, bag it, cut it up, freeze it and ship it out. The Federation helped us put that deal together. It was a combination of federal grant money, state grant money, and we had to put our own money in it too. We have a beautiful facility.

In Motion Magazine: In general, how many farmers are in a cooperative?

Ben Burkett: In my cooperative, the highest membership we ever had was 56. At the present time, we have 34. We lost eight members when the Hurricane Katrina came through. The hurricane destroyed their farm, and they were up in age too, and so they decided they wouldn’t try to come back. We are down to 34 members and our biggest problem is I’m one of the youngest ones. So, you can see we got a problem there (laughs).

In Motion Magazine: Where did all the young people go?

Ben Burkett: They tend to leave and go to Atlanta. Hopefully, next year, the Federation is going to start a program, a three-year internship for young people that want to go into farming -- production agriculture. It will be a three-year deal. We’ve already got five lined up in my coop. Twenty-one, twenty-two, I think the oldest one is thirty-eight and she is a lady. She wants to grow cut-flowers, which is a good business at farmer’s markets. You can sell more flowers at these farmers’ markets than you can peas and okra and butter beans and cucumber. We are going to work with these to try and get a new generation in my cooperative, as well as other cooperatives. But that’s the biggest problem wherever.

My cooperative is a marketing coop

In Motion Magazine: Sometimes you see these big cooperatives which are really like corporations.

Ben Burkett: I belong to one or two.

In Motion Magazine: Why and how are they different, these big ones, from the kinds of cooperatives you have in the Federation?

Ben Burkett: They are not too much different. I just say that when you get to them big cooperatives like Land O’ Lakes you are just a member. You don’t know what are the inner workings of the cooperative. You just go and buy your seed and fertilizer and chemicals, whatever you need, and, at the end of the year, if you do enough business, you get a refund check. You have one annual membership meeting and they come out there, the president, in about fifteen minutes the meeting is over with. How much they made, lost, they don’t even much take any questions, lately.

In Motion Magazine: So, in your cooperative?

Ben Burkett: My cooperative is more like a big family. For example, on one day everybody picks okra, and they come to the cooperative and parade it out, pack it out.

In Motion Magazine: Okra?

Ben Burkett: That’s a big crop in Mississippi. It’s not a big acreage crop but you can take an acre of okra and net $5-6,000 on one acre. Those people just buy it. But our cooperative is one man, one vote -- 34 members. Everybody knows everybody and we tend to work together. We have an annual meeting. Then, we have another meeting with all the Federation coops in Mississippi, once a year. We just have a good time. A two-day meeting.

We try to work with each other and see what we can do to support each other. Like my cooperative sells to other Federation coops inside the state of Mississippi. Some in Georgia too.

In Motion Magazine: There’s a marketing aspect to it as well?

Ben Burkett: Yes that’s the most important thing. My cooperative is a marketing coop. I would venture to say that if we didn’t have that facility and the coop, we wouldn’t be in business. We wouldn’t have the infrastructure. And because we have that facility -- and we are fortunate to be one of the few cooperatives in the Federation, who does, I think -- we have a contract with Harrods Casino.

In Mississippi, there are twenty-nine casinos and six of them are Harrods’ properties. They buy everything we produce, just about. They buy 23 million dollars a year of fresh produce. That’s our number one customer now. But we sell to all others. This is our first year trying to sell to Wal Mart, though I don’t think we will try that again because that ain’t our type of customer.

In Motion Magazine: Why is that?

Ben Burkett: They want to pay as little as possible, and they want the best, and then they won’t send you the money for 60-90 days. They want everything and they pay less than anybody.

We sell to other institutions, Sysco Food Systems, U.S. Food Service, other supermarkets, and we participate in three farmers’ markets, too.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think your cooperatives are a model of a different way of doing things? Do you look at them as not the corporate way?

Ben Burkett: We don’t look at it that way, but we have been studied now by a company out of Washington looking at 25 successful coops -- although I don’t consider us as being that successful. Over the whole world, we were chosen as one of them. We’ll be in Washington to get some kind of award or something, pretty soon, for being one of those twenty-five cooperatives.

In Motion Magazine: So, how do you look at it?

Ben Burkett: I know it’s a struggle to keep it going day to day, because members, you have to keep them involved else they’ll stray off. They say they’re going to grow ten acres of squash, but if somebody comes down the road and offer them a dollar more a box than what they committed to the coop -- you have to keep that training and keep everybody together. For example, even though it was started in 1964, it has never been all Black or all white. There were white members in the beginning and there’s white members now. There’s thirty-four members now, and we have five white members, with one on the board, actually one of the founding members. There always has been. They tend to work together in that community, even through the ’60s, and ’70s, and ’80s.

A land-bound organization: a sanctuary

In Motion Magazine: Were you involved, back in the Civil Rights period, in the founding?

Ben Burkett: I was just a little bit too young. I remember I slipped off in 1964 and went and marched. I was thirteen-years-old and my mom and dad wore me out for doing that. I didn’t go back no more. But I can remember. And I try to explain that to my great nephews and things, how things was. They are 18- and 19-years-old and they’ll tell me they don’t want to know nothing about all that.

But I try to explain to them, “You go to Petal Mississippi High School”, which is the number three ranked school in the state of Mississippi, the school district. It is a beautiful school, you would think it is a college. But it is just a high school. And, I think, Blacks make up about maybe fifteen percent of the students there. It makes a big difference going to school together.

Since the year I graduated, in 1969, from high school, well, that’s the year that all the schools in Mississippi had to integrate. I went twelve years to an all-Black school and I never had a new text book. For twelve years we always got hand-me-down books. Reader’s Digest and National Geographic in the study hall that were published in the ’50s, and this was the ’60s.

Integration in the schools in certain parts of Mississippi has been a wonderful thing. But you go to the Mississippi Delta and there hasn’t been a school built since the ’60s. Almost all those districts are 100 percent Black. No white students in the schools whatsoever. There might be one. So, every time they want to pass a bond issue to build a school they can’t get nothing passed because the people who own the land are white. This is what they tell me when I talk to them, “Why should we build a school because our children don’t go to it.” They go to the private schools. We fail on that issue in at least thirty counties in Mississippi.

In Motion Magazine: And that’s today?

Ben Burkett: That’s today. There hasn’t been a new school building in thirty years. But not on my end, it is just the opposite. On my end we don’t make up over thirty percent of the population.

In Motion Magazine: Do you know what the thinking was when they started the Federation as part of the Civil Rights Movement?

Ben Burkett: The Federation started in ’67 when Fannie Lou Hamer, which I had an opportunity to meet, and others were registering to vote. Well, they were sharecroppers, they were staying on a white plantation owner. When he found out they were registering to vote, they had to get off his plantation that night. In Mount Bayou they had the Bolivar County Development Corporation which was 300 acres, they were bought by the National Council of Churches. So, when they were put off those plantations, they could come there and stay. That’s how the Federation started. We had three different sites like that that I know of in Mississippi.

The Federation started out as a land-based organization, to have these sanctuary places so when you got put off the plantation you could go and stay. Epps, Alabama, we have well over a thousand acres there and it was acquired that way. That was the purpose of it. In the ’60s, early ’70s, when you had to leave the plantation you had to have somewhere to go.

In Motion Magazine: They still call them plantations?

Ben Burkett: Well, yes, they are in Mississippi. The big farmers in Mississippi belong to the Delta Council and about ten years ago was the first time they had a Black member. They meet once a year in Greenville, Mississippi at the country club. The private meeting is at the country club. The public meeting is the next day at Delta State University. They have a huge office in Stoneville research which is part of the United States government. Their office is on that campus and that is the biggest agricultural experiment station in the United States, in Stoneville Mississippi. They research cotton, how to gin cotton, how to grow it better. They got everything. It’s huge. Eight or nine hundred people work there. It is the largest agricultural research center in the country. They also have a ball once a year at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, these same farmers. Delta Council: six thousand square miles of farmland in the Mississippi Delta.

In Motion Magazine: They represent the majority of the land?

Ben Burkett: In the whole state of Mississippi.

In Motion Magazine: What percentage of land is farmed by the Federation?

Ben Burkett: We estimate in the Federation membership in Mississippi we have the largest membership of farmers, around five thousand Black farmers. In the state of Mississippi, about a half a million acres.

Cotton: subsidies and GMOs

We did a survey of our membership who grow cotton, two years ago before the Farm Bill, because they wanted to see how our members feel about subsidies, cotton farmers getting subsidies. And we surveyed 10 percent of them, which was estimated to be 700 cotton farmers in the whole Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the vast majority in Mississippi. And all of them were in favor of keeping that little bit they got. There wasn’t nobody who said, “Do away with it.” Though they said, “If the pricing was fair it wouldn’t matter. It takes about seventy-two cents to produce a pound of cotton, so if we ain’t going to get seventy-two cents for it the government has to pay the difference.”

But what we found out at the same time was they had a somewhat higher standard of living than our other farmers. Educational-wise most of them had master degrees. And the debt was better off than the other farmers in the Federation. Bad on the one hand and good on the other one.

I used to raise cotton myself.

In Motion Magazine: Why did you stop?

Ben Burkett: In my area, the acreage got so low that they closed the gin. There’s not one cotton gin south of Jackson now. At the time, we were hauling cotton in a wagon to the gin. It has made a comeback in the last six years because now they don’t haul cotton to the gin in a wagon. They haul them in modules with ten or twelve bales on a block. You just set it on the ground and a truck comes and picks it up at night and take it to the gin. With that technology now, you don’t need a gin close by. They can take it a hundred miles and get a gin. In the last six years, cotton has doubled in my area.

The thing about cotton is that it’s a crop you know if you plant it and take care of it, you ain’t going to lose no money because the government is going to give you two payments. You might not make anything, but you certainly ain’t going to just lose a crop.

Another reason why I don’t want to fool with it is it is all GMO. The cotton, corn, soy bean, all of it is engineered seeds. You can’t hardly find open-pollenated soy bean or corn seed. If you wanted to plant it, you have to track the seed down because 97 percent of the crop is genetically engineered.

In Motion Magazine: Weren’t there problems with GMO cotton, that the bolls were falling off?

Ben Burkett: Yes, and sometimes the worms still attack it. Those problems still exist and you have to pay Monsanto a royalty just to plant it. $22.50 an acre. You are just renting their seeds, you never own it. I can see down the road there is going to be some major problems with that. Who knows what is going to happen if it gets loose, out of control? It’s going to mutate into something. I’m quite sure these companies know that, but they are making plenty of money now.

In Motion Magazine: Are they making more money off the crops than the farmers?

Ben Burkett: Well, certainly. Cotton seed used to be $40 a bag. Now a bag costs $400, for a 50 pound bag of seed and then you have to plant about two acres and you have to pay Seneca, or who you bought the seed from, a royalty to plant. If you are planting a thousand acres of cotton, you’ve got to pay the seed company $22,000.

In Motion Magazine: How much does the farmer end up getting?

Ben Burkett: If you have a good year, now, with these new seeds, you can get two bales today, so that’s a thousand pounds of lint. And let’s say you get 80 cents, that’s $800 an acre. You’ve got at least $500 an acre in the crop, but not six.

In Motion Magazine: It’s really not much different from sharecropping, except you are sharing the seeds instead of the land.

Ben Burkett: That’s it and that’s the reason you have to have so many acres. Say you are making $200 an acre of profit, well, if you ain’t got but a hundred acres all you are going to make is $20,000 -- if everything is going right. In our area, you would have to have a perfect crop. And here comes a hurricane in August or September.

Transnational corporations: integration and NAFTA

In Motion Magazine: So, you say people think the prices are not fair. Why aren’t the prices fair to the farmer?

Ben Burkett: I say because these transnational corporations, myself. You’ve got three or four corporations controlling 80, 90 percent of the market for cotton, soy bean, corn, wheat, rice, and the cattle business. Also, in my area there is a lot of poultry produced. There used to be three or four companies you could contract to, ain’t but one company they can contract to now -- that’s Tyson.

Tyson company has bought up all the local plants. So, now, if you are raising poultry and you’ve got two (chicken) houses and they cost you $400,000 a piece, you only get one contract. Ain’t nobody else. If you say, “I don’t want to grow for Tyson,” there is no other company. What can you do? You’ve got fifteen years to pay for that house so Tyson can just .... .

I know a normal chicken farmer, if you don’t meet a certain quota, so many of your chickens die, you don’t get a contract next year. So what you going to do with these chicken houses. They are built for just chickens. You can’t do anything else with them. You can’t live in them. You can’t grow corn in there. I know one or two who are like that. We’ve been working with them to try to find -- they call them integrators -- another company to come in there to give Tyson some competition.

I grow vegetables. Now, if I didn’t have the cooperative to sell through ... . There used to be vegetable buyers in our areas but they are not there any more because from 1946 to 1995 we had a contract in there for cucumbers. We grew cucumbers for Vlasik. We grew hot pepper for the Louisiana pepper salt industry. All of that was contract. We grew bell pepper on contract. But after they signed NAFTA, after ’95, all those contracts were gone.

I say they took them to Mexico. We had a meeting with the president of Vlasik and he said he wasn’t going to take them to Mexico. They were consolidating their growing regions. They wanted all their cucumbers grown in the Carolinas, Michigan, Ohio. But we all know what happened with that deal. It went south of the border. We don’t grow cucumbers no more for process. We grow cucumbers for the fresh market. We were growing cayenne peppers and sending it to the Panola Pepper Company, Tabasco. All those companies were buying our pepper to make pepper sauce. We don’t have that contract no more.

We had a canning plant that would buy okra and bell peppers and squash. It’s closed, you know, since the signing of NAFTA. I say that’s had a lot of impact.

It doesn’t get too cold where I’m at so we farm year-round. In January, February, we would be harvesting snow peas, sugar snap, an acre of peas. That acre was way up there. But I did a little research on, I’m trying to figure out, what happened here. You can get a 10-pound box of snow peas in Miami for $5 that’s been grown in Guatemala or El Salvador. For $5! I can’t compete with that.

The box cost me a dollar and quarter and I’ve got to pay somebody $2.50 to harvest. So, if I can’t get $10 a box, or $10.50, I can’t compete with it. All we grow now we have to sell on the farmers’ market into high-end restaurants in New Orleans.

That was a huge industry in my area, but now it’s gone. And okra is getting to be the same way. Okra is a labor-intensive crop. You’ve got to figure every day, seven days a week, so your labor costs are 50 percent of the crop. Now they are bringing okra all the way into New Orleans from Central America.

Every town and crossroads

In Motion Magazine: Are the farmers’ markets the beginnings of a local economy?

Ben Burkett: Absolutely. We were one of the founding members of the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans. Very good farmers’ market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. So, now, every town and crossroads wants a farmers’ market, but there’s not enough farmers. Every little town in Mississippi wants a farmers’ market. Our phone at the coop jumps off the hook every spring. “Can y’all come down to the farmers’ market?” “Can y’all come down to the farmers’ market?” Well, we’re going to three weeks and we stretched out. We go to the one in New Orleans. One in Hattiesburg. One in Petal. And we made a commitment to go to the one on the Coast to help them rebuild, to get some activity going behind the Hurricane Katrina. We’ve been going down there ever since the hurricane.

In Motion Magazine: For the farmers that are left, besides the corporations, the important things are the cooperatives ... (?)

Ben Burkett: ... and the farmers’ markets. And certain wholesale still treats us fair. Like I said, I deal with Harrods Entertainment. They pay us well. If you deliver Saturday, you’ll get your check Monday.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think there is room for expansion?

Ben Burkett: Most definitely. We started with them four years ago and every year we have been increasing it.

In Motion Magazine: And that’s why you are trying to get the young farmers?

Ben Burkett: Yes. In order to be one of the farmers in that program there is one criteria. You must have access to land. Either their family owns some land or they can rent some from somebody.

Diversity, conservation, seasons

In Motion Magazine: Is there much land left that can be accessed?

Ben Burkett: In certain areas. In my area, there’s hundreds of acres that is our land. (Let me explain.) When we quit growing cotton, some of us put it in the Conservation Reserve Program which, you know, you plant trees on. But, after fifteen years, you can cut the trees and go back into farming. A lot of those contracts are twenty years old and Katrina destroyed all the trees so they’ve been cut anyway.

(For example), I signed a contract to lease twenty acres from my neighbor to plant watermelons on next year. It was twenty acres that were in the Conservation Reserve Program. But when the hurricane come through it blew all the timber down anyway. All I got to do is clean it up a little bit.

In Motion Magazine: You don’t have to plant more trees?

Ben Burkett: He probably will. I just got a one-year lease on it so I can plant watermelon -- and most of the time we follow watermelon with wheat -- then, when we have to turn it back over to him, he probably will put it in the reserve program.

In Motion Magazine: You grow a lot of different types of crops. Do you think that diversity is important?

Ben Burkett: Most certainly. I grow about 15 different varieties. Summer squash, leafy greens, cabbages, snow peas, okra.

I started farming in ’73, ’74, and I can see global warming now. I am getting to the point where there ain’t no four seasons down there where we at no more. There’s just winter and summer. Normally, by now, we would have had a frost. We wouldn’t be harvesting okra and squash. Here, lately, we have been picking okra and squash up into November 15th, November the 20th. I used to could grow just two crops of snap beans. I really can grow three crops of snap beans now.

In Motion Magazine: So there’s advantages and disadvantages?

Ben Burkett: That’s the thing about that. In our area there’s going to be an advantage.

In Motion Magazine: Except for the hurricanes.

Ben Burkett: That’s another part some people say about global warming. They come often now.

The NFFC, the Farm Bill, the Small Farmers Initiative Program

In Motion Magazine: Do you want to talk a little bit about the NFFC?

Ben Burkett: The NFFC, again, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is one of the founding members of the NFFC. Twenty years ago. I’ve always been a member. We usually rotate representation. Before me it was somebody else. We always kept somebody involved.

Basically, it’s our organization in Washington, D.C. to help us stay up with what Congress is doing, legislation. We did a lot of work to try to get things in the Farm Bill, the new agricultural farm bill. The National Family Farmers and the Rural Coalition played the lead in that. We would come to Washington and go and visit our congressmen and senators. We were successful with a very few things. But the major changes -- like reducing subsidies, export market payments -- we didn’t change that too much. We did get more money for organic research through land grant universities. We got a little more money for taking assistance for small and disadvantaged farmers. We have some set-asides in certain programs for socially disadvantaged and small farmers. The Conservation Reserve.

One good program which we helped, the National Family Farmers, the Federation, it’s been around about four years, was called the Small Farmers Initiative Program. It is only in the six Southern states, which we caught a lot of flack behind that, to set aside a million dollars for each state to help farmers, socially-disadvantaged small farmers with less than a hundred acres, on a cost-share basis to put down irrigation, fencing, soil improvement. You can get up to $10,000 for a farm on a ninety-percent cost-share. Several farmers in my cooperative that didn’t have irrigation, six farmers, took advantage of that program. And we’ve got three or four more already put in so that when the new money comes down ... . These irrigation systems can irrigate up to five acres a day, which is a small system, but that is perfect. We were able to keep that in the new Farm Bill.

That has been probably one of the most successful the USDA has to help small farmers. We’ve got some states like Georgia and Louisiana that are not really using all their money. In Mississippi and South Carolina we use all ours. We are trying to expand that program where you can use it to help with your record keeping, help you to computerize, help you to buy some specialized equipment. That’s not in there now but we are trying to get it in the next years to come.

All this equipment done got ridiculous high for some reason. A two-row vegetable planter will cost you $14,000 dollars. Just for two rows. If you want a four-row, you are looking at $28-30,000 for a planter. These machines cost this much, and you give all this money to the chicken farmer to build them compost houses for dead chickens, and cotton farmers to get that water off their cotton. Need to help the small farmer a little bit.

So National Family Farmers, the Federation, we did a lot of work on that. The National Family Farmers main goal is to participate in like this meeting here. To send representatives to national and international meetings. To come where we can work together as small farmers all over the world.

The small farmer is vital to the economy

In Motion Magazine: Why do you think it is important for the NFFC to be here in Mozambique?

Ben Burkett: We are a member of La Via Campesina. Me, personally, it’s the first time I’ve been. We had a two-day meeting on food sovereignty. I think it’s important from the standpoint that the consumer and America need to know that the standard of living we live in, in America, someone is paying for it, somewhere else in the world. By us taking the message back that you are paying a price for milk and bread and things, but that’s not what the farmer is getting for it.

We need to train the consumer awareness that the farmers in the United States, as well as the farmers in West Africa, the farmers in Central America, or Asia, or whatever -- the small farmer is vital to the economy.

For example, just since I’ve been here, I had never thought about it, the way we farm leaves a very small carbon footprint. The way we farm compared to other farming. We don’t use a lot of fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, all of that.

In Motion Magazine: Can you say a little more about what it is that the consumers need to understand?

Ben Burkett: They need to understand where their food comes from, first. Bringing food all the way from -- we always pick on California in Mississippi -- from California to Mississippi is not necessary when we can grow good strawberries there. We grow all types of vegetables. (An exception would be) we can’t grow as good lettuce as they grow in California. Though we are working on some varieties that’s specifically designed for the Southern heat tolerance.

The consumer needs to know where their food comes from. If they want to really have an impact on global warming, they won’t buy something that has been transported from New Zealand. They get eggplants down there in Harrods from Italy. I don’t understand that, when we grow eggplant.

And that’s been one of the biggest battles for NFFC, to bring that message to the public -- the importance of, “Buy fresh, buy local, support your local farmers”. By doing that you are reducing global warming. That’s one of our continuous messages.

That and food sovereignty, the right of every human being on this planet to have good, wholesome, high quality food.

Farmers’ issues

In Motion Magazine: What other things are you finding out here?

Ben Burkett: It is meeting, the awareness of, so many people from so many different cultures, and so many different places.

I’ve been talking with farmers from India, and farmers from West Africa, and farmers from Central America, Haiti. (First,) they all seem to think when we say we are from America that we’ve got plenty of money. For some reason, we are big-time farmers (laughs). I have to explain to them there’s small farmers in America. But, after we get over that hurdle, then we (get along well.) We have small peasantry farmers in the United States. You know, people that’s all they do for a living and they are barely making it. They are making a menial living farming off 40, 50, 20 acres.

In Mississippi, in some places that’s all there is to do. Nissan just built a car factory in Mississippi. Toyota is going to build one. But those factories are always going to be close to Jackson or somewhere where they have the workforce. Out in the rural areas, still, ain’t much to do. You are either going to work in the paper mills, farm, or you are in the timber industry -- cutting logs. That’s about it.

Agriculture, even in Mississippi, agriculture is still part of a vital economy -- what makes the economy roll along. In National Family Farms, as well as the Federation, we try to take that message to everywhere we go. They are partners of agriculture. Like, when these small farmers go to these farmers’ markets where they sell a thousand-dollars-worth a day, well, they going to buy some gas. They’re going to eat somewhere. That money is going to turn over, it’s estimated, nine times in a community when you go to a farmers market. That’s what we be trying to do in the National Family Farmers Coalition. Keep our members informed.

We have over thirty member organizations in National Family Farmers Coalition from California to Maine, Ohio, Wisconsin, all over the United States. We have a diverse membership too, so we have a lot of issues. Some dairy farmers, they are having problems. GMOs. Biodiversity -- I don’t think nobody should have the right to patent a seed, myself, personally. I’m saying I don’t know how a company can say a seed is theirs. We have a lot of those issues.

We have six representatives here from the National Family Farmers Coalition at this Via Campesina 5th International Conference. We will take this information back to our winter meeting in January. Our executive committee meeting is this month in Cleveland, Ohio. We all will make a report there. Then we will try to disseminate what we gather here through our membership.

The financial crisis: cutting credit and operating money

In Motion Magazine: In the United States as a whole, what do you think is the situation for farmers? How do you think this financial crisis is effecting farmers?

Ben Burkett: We just had one of our members, he had a credit card for emergency use with a $10,000 limit. Well, they’ve automatically done cut him to $3,000. And I got one too, I have an American Express card which had a $20,000 limit on it. I ain’t used the card only for trips like this thing here. All of a sudden, I got a letter saying, “Your limit has been reduced to $5,000.” So I wrote them a letter about it.

I hadn’t done on my mind what they were doing, but I get my operating money at the Bank of Mississippi. And the banker there, which is a lady, she said they look at it this way: if you got four cards in your pocket and each one got $10,000 limit, well, that’s $40,000 credit you can go get Monday morning. These banks is cutting that automatic so they cut their exposure, is what she was telling me, because they were doing the same thing at the Bank of Mississippi. I said, “That don’t seem to be fair to me”.

I said all that to say, this year, when we come in January, and December, a farmer like myself going to these banks to get our operating money for seed and fertilizer -- we borrow that on an annual basis -- I’m afraid it is going to be mighty hard to get operating money this year.

In Motion Magazine: What’s that going to do?

Ben Burkett: Well, that’s going to make it tough because you’ve go to have some operating money to buy seed and fertilizer, to get started off every year. I’m saying that it’s going to be a situation that’s going to affect an awful lot of mid-size and small farmers because, from what she was telling me, even if you got good collateral and you’ve got perfect credit, it’s still going to be hard.

I’m assuming it’s because these banks don’t have the money to lend. I can’t understand if, here, somebody that done paid them back every year, you got land for collateral, what else they want? And this bank I’m talking about, the Bank of Mississippi, got several branches over Mississippi. They are known for doing business with farmers. They base their portfolio up on lending money to farmers for building those chicken houses and barns and buying land. Most of their loan portfolio is farmers. I don’t understand that. But I guess that’s the whole financial crisis. It’s going to trickle on down to farmers.

That’s one issue that is going to definitely be a problem in the next three or four months, unless something changes.

And now prices done went back low too. Corn shot up there, $9, $10 bushel for about a year. Now, it’s back below $4 a bushel.

In Motion Magazine: But the inputs went up. Are they coming back down?

Ben Burkett: They ain’t coming down much. Diesel oil, I paid $4-a-gallon one while, now it’s down to about $3.20. But still that’s too high. I went to buy a five-gallon can of transmission oil. Last year it cost me $40. I went in to John Deere to buy it and it was $68 for the same five-gallon can.

Realtors and Katrina

In Motion Magazine: Are you concerned that the corporations are all around you and they are going to start buying up the small farms?

Ben Burkett: The realtors are already waiting on that. I get a letter every week, “Do you want to sell your land?”

In Motion Magazine: Every week?

Ben Burkett: That’s these realtors.

In Motion Magazine: What are they going to do with it?

Ben Burkett: Build houses.

In Motion Magazine: They are not keeping it as farmland?

Ben Burkett: No. Every time a farmer sells out, them realtors going to buy. One of my neighbors, about five miles from me, died. I went and sat down and talked to the widow and said my brother and I want to buy this land. We’ll give you $120,000 for it. She said, “That sounds good but I already got it to a realtor. Go down there and talk to the realtor and see how much they are asking for it.” I went down there and they told me they wanted $600,000 for this 120 acres. It actually sold for $660,000. They’ve got about 200 houses on it now. That’s how they made their money.

What put the pressure on my area for houses is that a lot of those people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans, they came up there behind Katrina and they are not going back. I don’t know where they are getting that money from, but they will buy five acres and build a half-a-million dollar house on it.

In Motion Magazine: Where there used to be farms ...

Ben Burkett: ... they are building five acres and ten acres, ride their horses, and drive their Hummers and things. In the county, you got farming on this kind of land, farming on that kind of land, and the city is eating all the center. Although, I think it is at a stand-still right now. I don’t see nobody buying no land, building no subdivisions. In fact, I’ve seen two or three of them that got started and done stopped.

It might be slowing down but you can’t compete. I would like to have had that farm. I had $120,000 -- the most I could have went was $200,000 -- but I definitely couldn’t have went no $600,000. I was going to try and farm it, but I can’t pay no note like that and farm it.

A buying network

In Motion Magazine: What do you think is the strategy for the corporate farmers in Mississippi?

Ben Burkett: They are hurting too. I was on one outside of Jackson, a couple of weeks ago. 7,500 acres of cotton. This family owns the gin. They own the bank and the car dealership. He said he was barely making it.

In Motion Magazine: Do you see Mississippi changing its nature as far as what it produces?

Ben Burkett: I don’t see that. Cotton will always be a big crop there. Unless something goes wrong with the cotton. Somebody has got to farm. He was working fifteen people in the gin. I went out to the field and they were harvesting soy beans. He had another four or five people working out there. Driving a combine, filling the truck, hauling his grain to the elevator. But he said with the cotton and soy bean, after everything is sold, he doesn’t know where he is going to make any money. And even in his gin, to run his gin he needs to gin at least 20,000 bales. After corn shot up $8, $9, everybody planted corn. He says he might gin 10,000 bales. It’s all in a turmoil -- agriculture.

In Motion Magazine: Does NFFC have a vision of what to do?

Ben Burkett: We tend to work more with commodities. We are doing something for the dairy farmers. We are trying to do something with the CAFO -- to help the farmers in Iowa and Texas fight those feedlots.

I guess the biggest thing we try to do is, if we went back to family-size farms -- grass-fed beef, grain-fed beef on the farm, then take it to the processors.

In Motion Magazine: That’s what you mean by food sovereignty?

Ben Burkett: Right. Farmers, like myself, we grow calves until they get to 4-500 pounds. We sell them to an auto-buyer. The auto-buyer is going to take them to the feedlot and he’s going to fatten them to 1,200, 1,300 pounds, take them to the slaughter house, and then bring that same piece of meat back and sell it in the supermarket in my town.

In Motion Magazine: Are there examples of people moving in the family-farm direction?

Ben Burkett: Several cooperatives in the Federation, like Patchwork Farms in Missouri, that’s one of the Federation members too, we all buy our ham from them. Most of our members in Mississippi, that’s where we get all our meat from. John Kinsman and them with the cheese -- we buy cheese from Wisconsin.

In Motion Magazine: There’s a network?

Ben Burkett: There’s a network in place. We have a coop with a pecan processing plant in Georgia. They shell them and smoke them and roast them. We all buy from them. Those are the kinds of things that I think is going to help the small farmer survive. That type of buying network.

If we can just stay out of Wal Mart and Kroger. Just don’t go in them stores. I don’t go in Wal Mart unless I just have to buy something. I don’t go in Wal Mart stores. I try to buy everything I need local too. Of course, I don’t buy much because my daughters they always say I wear the same clothes all the time -- overalls. They be buying me all these fancy clothes and I never wear them.

But the National Family Farmers have a strategic plan of exactly where we are going. We have one, but it is always a work in process. It is always changing. If something comes up real quick, we have to fight that. Putting out fires, I say.

In Motion Magazine: Is it fair to say that the biggest thing now is this network?

Ben Burkett: The network of family farms and food sovereignty. We are going to have a national campaign around food sovereignty to try to get the United States government to start thinking in that way. Hopefully after the election, whoever wins, Obama or McCain, we are going to be there the next day with our proposals, of what we think agriculture ought to be. And ever who wins I don’t see much change either in current farm policy. But we are going to be there, knocking on the door, the next Wednesday.

The importance of food

In Motion Magazine: Anything else you would like to say?

Ben Burkett: We’d like for everybody to support family farmers and go to the farmers market and buy something and always remember that we are the backbone of any economy, in any country, it’s agriculture.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think there is a connection between food and building a real democracy, not a pretend democracy?

Ben Burkett: I never thought of it that way, but now that you mention it I’m going to have to say yes because food is such a basic, I want to say commodity. It’s such a basic thing to survive for life, and we as human beings, and especially Americans, we kind of got out of the way from thinking of food as the nourishment of life. We eat on the run. Have something driving and eating. We don’t tend to sit down at the table no more as a family and really enjoy a meal. You know, you eat in a hurry because you got to get somewhere. Go through the drive-in. We’ve got to rethink that thing, the importance of food, and who is producing, and become a part of that chain, not just the end-user of it.

In Motion Magazine: How does that relate to having control over your community?

Ben Burkett: Because if you’ve got enough food, you’ve got time to pursue other things and develop your government, your schools; if you are not overly concerned about where your next meal is going to come from.

Like some of these countries I have visited in Africa -- I’ve visited quite a few of them -- it’s a day-to-day struggle just to produce enough to feed yourself. But if you have a village or community where you have a number of farmers -- and farmers like in the Federation too, where we have active farmers -- those farmers tend to be more active in the school board, more active in the electoral process, more active in local politics.

In the state of Mississippi, there’s forty-two African Americans in the state legislature. We have more than any other state. I’d venture to say a third of them came out of the Federation. At least twenty of them are our current members, and they are farming. They got that bug to get involved by getting involved in their local cooperative -- and then they decided to run for the school board. My good friend Bill Brown, up in Humphrey county, he is a cotton farmer. He’s the president of the Humphrey County Board of Supervisors. He came out of the cooperatives.

So, it’s definite that food, and farming, and being involved plays a key part in democracy. In the ’60s, farmers, when they got locked up in those jails, farmers put up their land to bail them out -- when they were marching, and the freedom rides. You know in Mississippi, in order to get out of jail, you’ve got to have a property bond.

And that’s happening today, that farmers are involved in things like that. It goes on up, on up. Definite, farmers play a part in democracy.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 25, 2009

Also see:

  • 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina: Series of interviews and articles gathered by In Motion Magazine in Mozambique during and after the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina in October 2008

  • Interview with Logan Perkins
    of the organization Food For Maine’s Future
    Local Economies and a Just Food System
    Matola, Mozambique

  • Interview with Diamantino Nhampossa
    of the União Nacional de Camponeses / National Peasants' Union
    Organizing Food Sovereignty in Mozambique
    Matola, Mozambique

  • Interview with Ralph Paige
    Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives
    African American farmers organize against Republican "Freedom to Farm" bill
    Washington, D.C. / Atlanta, Georgia

  • Interview with Rhonda Perry
    of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center
    Grassroots Missouri Organizing Since 1985
    A Variety of Tactics, Consistent Strategies
    Armstrong, Missouri