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African American farmers organize against
Republican "Freedom to Farm" bill

Interview with Ralph Paige, Executive Director
of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives

Washington, D.C. / Atlanta, Georgia

Rural Alabama. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Rural Alabama. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In the following interview, conducted in February, 1996, Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, talks about the situation of African American farmers.

The interview was conducted by phone frm San Diego in two sessions. The first interview occurred while Mr. Paige was in Washington, D.C. participating in efforts to fight to change the Farm Bill being developed by the Republican Congress. The second conversation was held while Mr. Paige was in Atlanta, the national headquarters of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The interview was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke.

In Motion Magazine: What is the Federation for Southern Cooperatives?

Ralph Paige: The Federation is an organization that came out of the Civil Rights Movement in the early '60s as a means for rural communities and African American farmers to develop an organization that would provide the means for survival. Although we had a right to vote there was no economic incentive or economic base for the African American community. So the membership created the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to develop cooperatives for low-income people that would help them with economics, that would help small farmers come together to develop systems to create housing, to help with agricultural production and marketing of crops, as well as developing credit unions. We also created systems to provide training and technical assistance for farmers and other rural poor people They came together and formed 20 cooperatives and federated into what is now the Federation of Southern Cooperatives / Land Assistance Fund.

In Motion Magazine: Do the farms tend to be small farms?

Ralph Paige: The average farms is 50 - 100 acres and most are vegetable producers. Others produce such crops as cotton, corn, peanuts and tobacco.

In Motion Magazine: How many people does the Federation represent?

Ralph Paige: Right now, we are talking about 25,000 farmers and rural people organizing in over 75 cooperatives. In 1920 African American farmers owned 15 million acres of land and over one million people derived a living from farming. Most of them were sharecroppers and farm laborers. Today, there's only 2.5 million acres of land left owned by African Americans with only 23,000 black farmers.

In Motion Magazine: In which states?

Ralph Paige: That's across the entire Southeast: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, S. Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, N. Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia.

In Motion Magazine: You have a center in Eps, Alabama. What do you do there?

Ralph Paige: Our rural training center is in Eps, Alabama, which is central to our membership in the southeast. It is located on 1365 acres of land. We run our program operations and training programs there. Our training includes co-operative development, credit union training, housing and rural development, and management training. We have a series of training sessions scheduled through the year. We also have a demonstration farm and demonstration research activities ongoing. the center is open to be used by other rural people (for more info people can contact Gus Towns at 205.652-9676.)

In Motion Magazine: What is the Rural Coalition then?

Ralph Paige: The Rural Coalition is a coalition of over 50 rural community-based organizations that work on concerns such as environmental justice, and economic issues for poor people. The membership includes Hispanic groups, migrant and seasonal workers, small farmers, Native American groups, environmental groups, and others.

In Motion Magazine: What is the Socially Disadvantaged Outreach Program that the Republicans are trying to do away with?

Ralph Paige: The Socially Disadvantaged Outreach Program - what they call the SDA program - came about as part of the 1990 Farm Bill and was created to provide technical assistance for socially disadvantaged farmers including African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and women. The program is designed to provide technical support such as training, developing loan plans, debt restructuring, marketing, coopertive development and other activities that could keep socially disadvantaged farmers on the land providing a living from farming.

In 1990 we had authorization in the Farm Bill for $10 million to provide assistance with the Socially Disadvantaged Program (called in the Farm Bill 2501) and under that bill we were able to get funding for the last two years of approximately $3 million. But the new Congress, lead by Newt Gingrich and the chairman of the Agricultural Committee Mr. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and other people such as Dick Armey (R-Texas) have found this program to be very expendable, just as they have all programs that help minorities and low-income people. The have moved to de-fund this program. Currently there is only a million dollars in the budget for this purpose, when there's plenty of money in for large corporate farmers. It seems as if it's a systematic move to keep Black farmers and all family farmers out of business.

In Motion Magazine: What do you think the impact will be if they do away with it?

Ralph Paige: I think the impact will be the complete demise of Black farmers if funding for this program is not put back in the farm bill. It will be sytematic and in keeping with the findings of the 1982 Civil Rights Commission Report that predicted by the year 2000 there would not be any Black farmers or landowners in this country. Of course that was a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the government because nothing is being done.

As I mentioned earlier, at the turn of the century, our forefathers had gained over 15 million acres of land, and today it's less than 3 million acres of land left in the Black community. Black farmers have now dwindled down to under 23,000. At the turn of the century over a million Black folk derived a living from farming, either as farmers or sharecroppers or they just worked on land-that number has shrunken considerably now. The question is whether African Americans, Black Americans will be able to own any land in this country. It looks like to me that we're not supposed to be landowners. We're going to lose our rural communities, we're going to lose the people who have been in production.

I think it will be devastating if the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not provide the assistance necessary to keep us on the farms. They have given more attention to the Spotted Owl and other endangered species than they have African American farmers. I have appealed to Secretary Dan Glickman to make sure that any legislation that's passed would include resources for African American farmers and other family farmers. At least give us the same respect as they give other endangered species. After all we have been instrumental in making farming what it is today with our labor.

In Motion Magazine: Where does the land go?

Ralph Paige: It certainly does not go to other Black folk. We don't buy it nor do we have the credit to buy it. Usually when the land is sold, it's sold to a large white farmers or corporations. In many cases it is seized by the federal government if it's a government loan that is being foreclosed on.

In Motion Magazine: These attitudes seems to fit into the whole anti-affirmative action mood that the Republicans are creating.

Ralph Paige: It definitely seems that way. It seems like the movement to leave out the technical support for minority farmers is a part of the anti-affirmative action movement. Mr. Roberts, Mr. Gingrich and the new Congress don't want to provide the type of assistance that would help keep Black farmers in production and owning land. There seems to be a movement to make large corporations in control of farming production and marketing - in complete control of agriculture in this country. There's a move with concentration of livestock such as the hog industry to completely kill small family farmers both Black and white - to keep them out of this industry. Hopefully there will be in the farm bill anti-concentration legislation that will protect small farmers, especially those who are livestock producers.

In Motion Magazine: What about the Farm Bill?

Ralph Paige: The "Freedom to Farm Act" is I think devastating. It's nothing more than a welfare program that would pay large corporate farmers to grow fence-row to fence-row. It does not have a safety-net in this bill that would protect family farmers for the long-run. It has decreasing payments that will fade out in seven years. The small famers who have small acreage and small alotments will be the ones who are hurt most because their payments will be very small and would fade out quickly. for instance the Peanut Program should not be tampered with because it does keep farmers on the land and many poor people in rural communities especially in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina derive a living from the Peanut Program. Either they are working in plants or they are farm laborers, or they grow peanuts.

There are other issues we are faced with such as de-coupling. the House bill will de-couple payments for production. On major crops, cotton, grain payments will be replaced by declining transitional payments completely by the year 2000. Also there's no real conservation programs in there.

Finally I'm joining with other organizations to call on President Clinton and Secretary Glickman to use all their power, to veto this bill if it is not corrected to include a safety net for family farmers. the bill that the house has passed is very weak and now it's up to the President to look out for family farmers since Congress does not have them on their agenda

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives can be reached in Atlanta at (404) 765-0991.

Published in In Motion Magazine, March 5, 1996