Rural Advancement Fund Celebrates 50 Years of Farm Advocacy
By Robert Amberg
Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 11-15
This year the Rural Advancement Fund/National Sharecroppers Fund celebrates its fiftieth anniversary as an advocate for family farms and rural communities. Initially formed as an annual “National Sharecroppers Week,” cosponsored by the Workers Defense League and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, the formal organization began without a paid staff and served as the non-profit, funding arm for the fledgling Southern Tenant Farmers Union. National Sharecroppers Week evolved into the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF) in 1943 and in 1966 created the non-profit Rural Advancement Fund to receive donations from supporters. Through the years RAF/NSF has grown in both scope and influence to become an award-winning organization with an international program and a staff of twenty-three that continues to argue forcefully for the rights of small farmers around the world.
In 1937, though, NSF’s focus was the South. While the nation as a whole was still mired in the depths of the Great Depression, the South and its predominantly rural population were faring worse than most. Agriculture was being revolutionized by mechanization, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and big business, with the result that millions of sharecroppers, tenant farmers and farmworkers were displaced or forced to work for less-than-minimal pay. The estimated annual income for sharecropper families of the period was only $300, and the substandard living conditions contributed to diseases like pellagra, hookworm, syphilis and malaria. Educational opportunities for sharecroppers were nonexistent and the illiteracy rate was the highest of any occupational group in America.
Norman Thomas, a six-time socialist candidate for president and a long-term supporter of the National Sharecroppers Fund, speaking on a CBS radio broadcast for National Sharecroppers Week, described the situation: “We are speaking tonight in behalf of a group which conservatively estimated amount to 7 or 8 percent of our entire national population. We have life at its lowest economic level in America. They work, black and white alike, under armed riding bosses. In large areas they, especially the colored workers, have no right which the bosses are bound to respect. At best they are charged ten cents on the dollar at the plantation commissary for the credit advanced thousands of them, and they end every season in debt to the landlord, which means in practice that they are tied to his land. Other more direct forms of peonage–let’s call it slavery–are fairly general.”
Against this backdrop of misery and exploitation, eighteen men–black and white–met in July 1934, in a schoolhouse in Tyronza, Arkansas, to form the STFU. They were led by H. L. Mitchell [See Southern Changes, March 1987] and Clay East, admirers of Thomas. The union’s goal was to work collectively for better working conditions and greater benefits for farmworkers hard hit by the labor-reducing Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.
While the goals seemed simple, the union had the weight of history and culture against it. The union was interracial when Jim Crow was still law. Further, STFU’s constituency worked outside the typical industrial setting and often viewed themselves as independent producers. Finally, the union’s leaders, Mitchell, East, J.R. Butler and Isaac Shaw were Southerners who had been heavily influenced by and eventually gravitated to socialism, the kind of socialism that had incubated in the immigrant ghettos of the urban Northeast and been practiced by many of this country’s industrial labor unions.
By 1936 the union had a Southwide membership of over two thousand and a continual shortage of cash. In an effort to ease the cash crunch, Sidney Hertzberg, a young staff member of the Workers Defense League who had worked with STFU during the summer, came up with the idea of a National Sharecroppers Week. From 1937 to 1944, this educational and fundraising event was held annually in New York. The week of manuscript and print auctions, concerts and plays eventually included as sponsors such celebrities as Fiorello LaGuardia, John Steinbeck, Margaret Bourke-White, Eleanor Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair and A. Philip Randolph.
World War 11 slowed the organizing efforts of STFU and by 1943 it was obvious that an ongoing committee to raise funds year round was necessary. The Fund would regard STFU as its primary responsibility and take over the running of National Sharecroppers Week. But, as reflected in the minutes of the first meeting of the National Sharecroppers Fund, the incorporators took a step toward moving the organization in a direction independent of STFU when they said that “gifts should be given rather to functional groups and pressure groups working in the general field of improvement and eventual abolition of the sharecropper system.” This step eventually transformed NSF from a labor organization to a farm-rural-international organization.
BY WAR’S END, THE changes in agriculture begun during the thirties had radically altered the lives of small farmers and farmworkers. Many abandoned their native South in search of industrial jobs in the North. Others, lucky enough to own land, stuck it out in the face of increasing competition from their better-equipped and
better-financed neighbors. Still others, landless and without marketable skills, became a new class of farmworkers whose work was restricted to the planting and harvesting of crops. NSF chose to work with the last two groups–the small farmers who had opted to stay and the migrant farmworkers who had little choice.
In 1950 NSF established the National Committee on Agricultural Life and Labor. NCALL pressured state and federal governments by distributing information and focusing the collective efforts of over forty individual organizations working with rural issues. The establishment of NCALL signalled a more direct role in politics for NSF and a recognition that the problems of farmworkers are sometimes solved away from the fields.
NSF was guided in this period of transition and growth by Fay Bennett and Frank Porter Graham. Bennett became executive secretary of NSF in 1952, a post she held for eighteen years (she continues to serve on RAF/N8F’s Board). She saw NSF in the role of an umbrella organization, and with Graham, a former U.S. Senator and President of the University of North Carolina who served as chairman of the board of directors, moved NSF in that direction.
While NSF had broadened its range of political activities, it continued funding like-minded organizations working directly with rural people. In 1953, NSF sponsored the formation of the Migrant Children’s Fund, an organization devoted to addressing the health and educational needs of migrant families, and throughout the fifties NSF supported organizing efforts by the National Agricultural Workers Union (formerly STFU).
In 1962, the year of NSF’s 25th Anniversary, NSF sponsored the Bricks Conference, a three-day meeting on rural affairs which was widely attended by government officials, ministers, farmers and community leaders and represented another change in direction for NSF. In the past NSF had worked in opposition to most government agencies, but now, because of the influx of federal monies and FSF’s reputation as an advocate for rural people, the organization was asked to work with government.
SHORTLY AFTER THE BRICKS Conference NSF began work on the first of many contracts with the U.S. Department of Labor and the Office for Economic Opportunity. Offices were opened in Atlanta and Knoxville and programs implemented on illiteracy, job training and placement for displaced farm workers, the construction of self-help housing and the formation of rural cooperatives. With funds generated by NSF’s new tax-exempt subsidiary, the Rural Advancement Fund (RAF), NSF set up day-care and
education centers, housing programs and a rural credit union. A Washington office was opened during this period to increase NSF’s lobbying efforts and to take better advantage of new federal programs.
The late sixties and early seventies brought new internal changes to RAF/NSF with the departure of Fay Bennett and the death of Frank Porter Graham. Jim Pierce, a labor and civil rights activist, took over as executive director and began building a rural demonstration and training center. The Graham Center, located in Anson County, N.C., opened in 1974 based on the idea that “creative approaches to the farm problem could make good and profitable use of marginal land and resources.”
THE GRAHAM CENTER’S free training program was aimed towards small farmers and their families and offered comprehensive training in all aspects of practical small farm operation and management. Courses in soil management, biological pest control, marketing, and crop and livestock production were supplemented by courses putting agriculture in a social and historical context. The Graham Center also housed a resource center which offered research and public speaking on rural, political and economic issues to church, university and farm groups.
The Graham Center’s approach to problem-solving–bringing farmers to one site for conferences and demonstrations–represented a real change in tactics for RAF/NSF. In the past the organization had always gone out to the farmers and their problems, meeting them on their own ground. Now, the situation was reversed and many members of the staff and board were uncomfortable with the change. In addition, federal money had begun to dry up and the Graham Center was proving to be a constant drain on capital and resources rather than the self-sufficient model it was chartered to be.
This fiscal and identity crisis precipitated the phasing out of training programs at the Graham Center in 19814 Kathryn Waller, executive director since the late 1970s, moved RAF/NSF back to its roots by instituting a traditional, grassroots organizing effort in the mold of STFU. Waller, along with program director Cary Fowler, also charted new territory for RAF/NSF by instituting an international program to address Third World problems and the worldwide loss of plant genetic diversity.
Beginning in 1982, RAF sent representatives into the field in North Carolina and South Carolina. The goal was to organize farmers into a cohesive, multi-racial, farmer-led unit that could address issues affecting farmers and rural communities. The United Farmers Organization (UFO) is now a 1,500-member organization active on a number of fronts. UFO operates toll-free hotlines with volunteers trained by RAF to offer advice to farmers facing foreclosures. UFO’s legislative committee, with other farm groups, recently won a victory when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Agricultural Reform Bill to ensure the rights of borrowers. Benny Bunting, Chairman of UFO’s legislative committee, said, “This takes a giant step towards the preservation of family farms. It also sends a message to FCS and FmHA of Congressional intent to help the farmers; maybe now, a little compassion will be forced on them.” In the winter of 1987, UFO and other farm groups distributed $2.5 million worth of donated seed corn to farmers suffering the effects of the 1986 drought in North and South Carolina. Most of these farmers would not have been able to plant without this gift of seed.
Seed is the foundation of Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI). While the struggle for worldwide genetic conservation appears to be only distantly related the struggle facing farmers in the American South, the mandate is clear. As RAF program director Cary Fowler
says, “The type of seeds we have available to plant into the ground have a lot to do with the kind of agricultural systems that we’ll have as well.”
RAFI works globally for plant genetic conservation and the control of this invaluable natural resource by its rightful owners. Most of the world’s plant genetic diversity exists in the Third World. It is the critical raw material needed by U.S.-based multinational seed and pharmaceutical companies in the production of new varieties. Thus, those who control this genetic diversity control the very future of agriculture.
RAFI advises governmental and non-governmental agencies on how best to preserve their genetic resources, argues on behalf of Third World countries at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, and assists in the development and dissemination of innovative seed-saving strategies through publications like The Community Seed Bank Kit.
RAFI is also involved in the rapidly growing field of biotechnology and its effects on agriculture. RAFI publishes Communique which serves as an early-warning signal for Third World countries of impending changes that could radically affect their agricultural economies.
In the 1980s, RAF/NSF has also moved to diversify its efforts in rural communities. Volunteers trained by RAF monitor courtroom procedures for the poor and disfranchised in Robeson County, North Carolina. Robeson County has a long history of racial injustice and its present district attorney has successfully prosecuted more capital murder cases than any prosecutor in the United States. RAF staff members in Robeson County have built community coalitions that seek a public defender for the county, a citizen’s review board for the county’s legal system and equal justice for poor people.
In this decade, RAF also instituted a voter registration project in eastern North Carolina. This effort produced an increased turnout of 30-40 percent in some key precincts in the last election which, in turn, helped elect a number of minority candidates to local and statewide office.
As RAF/NSF celebrates its fiftieth year of service to family farmers and rural communities one appropriately recalls words from STFU’s Ceremony of the Land:
“In man’s greed for gold, he has destroyed the fruitful ness of the earth In his lust for power and dominion he has brought misery upon us all. The land cries out against those who waste it. Thy children cry out against those who abuse and oppress them. Speed now the day when the plains and the hills and all the wealth thereof shall be the people’s own and free men shall not live as tenants of men on the earth…”
Robert Amberg is communications director and photographer for the Rural Advancement Fund. A book-length history of RAF/NSF by Tevere MacFadyen will be published this winter.