A Time to Cast Away Stones
By Kathryn J. Waller
Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, pp. 10-11
It seemed an unlikely situation. I was driving to a farmer’s rally in Conway, S.C., to hear speeches from local politicians, mostly white, building up to the keynote address by political activist Jesse Jackson. It was spring of 1986, and no one yet (except Jesse) was thinking of the presidential race. The farmers were thinking of survival: meeting daily the threat of failure and destitution. But anyone who really farms, who wakes up in darkness and labors hard until after the sun is gone, is not apt to lie down and become an easy victim, not if there’s any way to stay on your feet. These “at risk” farmers were standing up, standing together, and plowing new ground-not in their fields, but in kitchens and church basements, and in the halls of legislatures and the U.S. Congress.
For most urban Americans the greatest impact of the farm crisis, so far, has been exposure to a lot more Willie Nelson music than they might have ordinarily heard. Many people do not yet see the larger implications of land loss for the nation’s economy, and for democracy itself. Most have never had any direct contact with grassroots farmers, the ones facing the wrong edge of the scythe.
In the crowded parking lot of Conway’s National Guard Armory I found Betty Bailey. She’d given up an overdue vacation to help this fledgling group, the United Farmers Organization (UFO), pull the rally together. It showed in her face. Exhausted, the large turnout kept her smiling, and last minute details kept her moving. Inside the armory were hundreds of farmers–men and women, black and white, mostly older but some in their twenties and thirties, and more filing in the door all the time. At a table inside, Linda Clapp, a dairy farmer and former UFO president, was greeting friends, and selling hats and T-shirts.
I was apprehensive. Not about the T-shirts but about how the rally would go over. Eight years of working in the rural South had taught me that attitudes hadn’t changed much since the volatile heyday of the civil rights movement. I couldn’t help but wonder how these grizzled white Carolina farmers would respond when Jesse Jackson took the stage.
And take the stage he did. Took the whole room. Took the audience in the palm of his hand. “Let’s be sure we understand each other,” Jesse said. “It’s not black loss or white loss. We all have a stake in holding on to the land. If the black farmer goes out in the morning, the white farmer follows in the afternoon!” Black and white men and women were on their feet cheering and holding hands in song and prayer. In that room I could see old walls beginning to fall. Family farmers are discovering that no matter what their skin color, they are together a new kind of American minority–an economic minority.
The small part I’ve played in helping the United Farmers Organization grow has since shown me that what I saw at that rally goes far beyond a South Carolina armory. All farmers have problems, but all farmers’ problems are not the same. Black farmers, for instance, have struggled for generations with the issues of land loss and access to credit that many white farmers have only seen since the start of this decade.
The divisions are more than black and white. Row crop farmers have interests separate from dairy farmers. Peach growers don’t really have time to worry about the needs of poultry producers; people with tobacco allotment and a small hog operation are not overly concerned about the beef industry.
But by focusing first on the common needs of family farmers as an economic minority, the diverse needs of these various groups become a common agenda, breaching barriers rather reinforcing them. This is what is happening among Carolina farmers in the UFO. Row crop farmers call their legislators advocating a bill to protect poultry growers’ rights. White farmers support a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in FmHA lending practices. When UFO tobacco farmers won a court decision allowing access to their co-op’s books it was a victory for all commodity growers.
A year later and another farmers’ meeting: George Ammons, a black North Carolina turkey farmer who was 1987 UFO vice president, is at the podium. “Black farmers have been in a continuous crisis for the past fifty years. Blacks are losing land at an annual rate of 500,000 acres. There are only 181 black farmers under the age of twenty-five in the United States. If this current trend continues, blacks will be a landless people within the next ten years.” It is not news. The statistics have been reported before. What is different is that here white farmers share the stage, and these views. When George leaves the microphone, Tom Trantham, a white South Carolina dairy farmer and current UFO president, steps up and says “I’ve been working with George in the UFO for over two years now and I am proud to call him my brother.”
Time after time the UFO has sent delegations of black and white farmers to meet with political officials, to show the strength of unity. Each time the UFO has presented testimony about farm problems and recommended remedies, the particular problems of discrimination and the startling rate of black land loss has been stressed. Often a UFO spokesperson who is white raises the issue of black land loss, and the UFO’s proposed solutions. Other times a UFO spokesperson who is black will list that issue among
the many pressing concerns shared by all farmers.
It’s a pattern that’s repeating and growing stronger in the Carolinas, as the UFO grows. Now with some 1,500 members, the UFO counts a rising number of victories, small and large, all the result of cooperative effort between traditionally independent people, people of different ethnic backgrounds and different farming backgrounds. From advocacy–including major input to the farmers’ rights portion of the new farm credit legislation–to the start-up of purchasing co-ops, to halting foreclosure sales, farmers are discovering that united they have a fighting chance to stand their ground.
A black farmer, Leon Spaulding, stands at the edge of a crowd gathered for the court-ordered auction of his land, his house, and his farm equipment. UFO members, black and white, distribute one-page leaflets among the crowd telling Leon’s story. Bold print at the top of the page urges “Don’t Bid On Your Neighbor’s Farm.” The result: few bids are offered; one small piece of land is sold. The buyer is so ashamed he later offers to sell the land back to Spaulding, financing it himself at low interest.
When drought, the worst on record, struck the Southeast in l986 thousands of farmers learned the value of the UFO’s solidarity.
What began as an offer of help from one farmer in Iowa to one South Carolina farmer grew into a massive relief program, bringing many tons of hay and thousands of bushels of seed for replanting to financially strapped Southeastern farmers. North Carolina agriculture officials were derisive of the idea that farmers could initiate and implement distribution, but working side-by-side farmers of the UFO got the job done. When the dust cleared over 3,500 farmers, most with small holdings, had received substantial aid. The program was more timely, and of greater benefit to small farmers, than any drought-relief effort of the government.
Kathryn J. Waller is executive director of the Rural Advancement Fund.