The Burkett family has been putting down roots in the soil of Petal, Mississippi for one hundred and twenty-one years. “I can remember delivering watermelons to the market in New Orleans when I was just a little fella,” says lifetime farmer and farmer advocate Ben Burkett. On a family farm that was once fluffy-white with cotton, Ben now grows sixteen varieties of vegetables ranging from okra to sweet peas as well as organic herbs. You can still find him selling melons at the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans and the Hattiesburg Market in Mississippi.
Like most farmers, Ben wears many hats. He is also the director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, which is an arm of long-time Farm Aid funded group Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Born from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Federation works in sixteen states across the southeast, with particular focus on Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, to increase the income and enhance community development in some of the poorest parts of the south.
For farmers, this includes to outreach and education programs that help create and support credit unions and farmer owned cooperatives. Regardless of size or scope, all cooperatives share certain elements in common. Membership is voluntary and democratic. The goal of a cooperative business is to meet the common economic, social and cultural needs of its members – a concept that was very important to the founders of the Federation.
Federation staff provide training and technical assistance to seventy-five farmer cooperatives, like the one that Ben Burkett belongs to in Mississippi, the Indian Springs Farmers Association. “There are a lot of benefits to belonging to a co-op,” explains Ben. “The market is more regular and there is camaraderie. Every time I go there, I learn something new [from the other farmers]. There is a sense of fellowship.”
In good times, fellowship creates stable market opportunities and farmer-to-farmer learning. In times of disaster, this kind of community can help keep farmers on their land. Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast in August of 2005 and hundreds of farms, including Ben’s, were severely damaged. In one year, Ben Burkett got his farm up and running and helped hundreds of other farmers and rural residents on their own road to recovery. With the help of Farm Aid and many other contributors, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives was a major force in getting assistance and support to people affected by the disaster.
Last week, on his way to an annual meeting of the Federation, Ben carried letters from rural residents of Mississippi, asking for legal support and basic assistance from Ralph Paige, the Executive Director of the Federation.
“I still spend about sixty percent of my time on Katrina relief,” says Ben in a matter of fact way. With farmers needing assistance getting back on their feet and some farmers markets struggling to attract customers, the staff of the Federation have their hands full. Ben and his colleagues are working with three new co-ops in Louisiana to help farmers and fishermen gain access to new markets. The response has been powerful. “We had a meeting the other day to talk about the new co-op and the church hall filled up completely,” exclaimed Ben.
Strengthening existing co-ops and developing new ones has been a cornerstone of the Federation’s work to promote recovery and rural development across the south. The size and type of co-op depends on the needs and goals of the farmer members. Ben’s co-op sells to distributors like Red Tomato, which brings watermelons to Boston, MA and Gulf Coast Produce that supplies casinos in Mississippi with locally grown produce.
Since the co-op deals in large amounts of raw product, significant infrastructure is needed for processing. Federation staff helped members of the cooperative develop grant proposals that eventually secured most of the funding they needed to build the half million dollar processing facility. Today, the co-op’s produce is washed, bagged and stored with great efficiency.
Other co-ops with smaller-scale growers have organized themselves to pool produce and staff time in order to sell at farmers markets. This is the model that a fledgling co-op in Louisiana is using with the help of the Federation as part of a Hurricane Katrina/Rita recovery program.
Switching hats again, this week Ben will speak to a group of graduate students studying cooperative economic development – something that no doubt will provide an enlightening moment in the classroom. With only a few hours in the day to spare, Ben Burket spends his time learning from the people around him, growing quality food for local markets and ensuring that any farmer within reach has the means to stay on their land so that they can, in turn, offer their own contributions to this vibrant food and farm community.