This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 2/3, "Our Promised Land." Find more from that issue here.
I don't believe farmers have as much ulcers as business people 'cause their life isn't quite as fast. But I'll say there will be more as time goes on. 'Cause farming is changing more. It's more a business now . . . It's not the labor . . . it's the management end of it.
Pierce Walker, farmer, from interview with Studs Terkel in Working.
In 1974, Jim Pierce, director of the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF), and Charles Dixon, farm manager of the NSF's Frank Graham Training Center, share a vision similar to that of sharecropper organizers two generations before: ways have to be found to change the powerless state of tenants and small farmers in the South. Pierce stands in the tradition of the founders of NSF — Norman Thomas, Frank Porter Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt, and A. Philip Randolph. Dixon left his small tobacco farm in Halifax County, Virginia, in 1971 just as Clay East, H.L. Mitchell, and others abandoned their tenant plots and fledgling businesses in the Arkansas Delta for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in 1934. While the STFU organized in the depression decade, the small farmers of the 1970's struggle in a technological era whose blessings of efficiency have become a nightmare of cybernetics.
Alternatives for small farmers in the South maybe even fewer today than in the 1930's. The overt violence of those times has subsided, but the intimidation of guns has been replaced by the power of soaring property taxes, oligopolistic marketing, vertical integration, automation, and corporate ownership of farmland. In the summer of 1972, the National Sharecroppers Fund embarked on a bold new course. With the purchase of 500 acres of abandoned land in Anson County, North Carolina, the NSF set out to build a demonstration farm and training center for cooperative farm managers and small farmers.
In two years, this farm has produced acres of organically grown vegetables and a small herd of cattle and has acquired a vegetable grading facility. At the same time, a training center has begun to take form: funds have been secured, a multi-purpose building has been constructed, local support and a technical staff have been developed. The vision of the Graham Center represents one contemporary manifestation of southern agrarian radicalism; the present reality is a small and youthful project that must compete with complex economic and social forces.
Angry southern farmers formed a vanguard of resistance as post-Civil War industrialization transformed the agrarian South into a land of railroads, coal mines, and textile villages. During Reconstruction, the Grange called for regulation of the railroads, control of interest rates, and cooperatives. As agricultural conditions worsened in the 1880's, the Farmers' Alliance demanded government ownership of transportation facilities and unlimited coinage of silver. Forming a political coalition with the Knights of Labor, the Alliance asserted significant power in local and statewide elections. The Populists in the 1890's and the agrarian Socialists before World War I continued this tradition of struggle for cooperative ventures and political programs which would give small farmers more control over their lives.
The poverty of the depression years revived this radicalism in the rural South. In 1 931, black farmers in Alabama organized a Sharecroppers' Union and in 1934, black and white tenants in the Arkansas delta launched the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. When the STFU strikes began and outside support was needed, Norman Thomas and his liberal allies initiated National Sharecroppers Week. This event was held annually from 1937 until 1943 to raise money for the STFU and publicize its struggles. In 1943, the National Sharecroppers Fund became a year-round permanent organization.
For over thirty years, the Sharecroppers Fund and its offshoot, the Rural Advancement Fund, have supported tenant farmers and migrants with money, technical expertise, research, manpower, lobbying, and institutional credibility. Never a membership organization, it has maintained a valuable network of liberal financial and political supporters but has operated with various degrees of activism and with inconsistent success. Its basic purposes have persisted: to encourage tenant farmers to stay on the land; to develop techniques and skills as farmers fought to remain on small parcels; and to teach cooperative methods of buying supplies, raising crops, and marketing produce. The strategies through which these goals have been pursued have evolved to meet the changing realities of the rural South. And these changes have been dramatic.
In 1927, at the time of the first Sharecroppers Week, 31.3 million people or 24.3 percent of the country's population lived on farms. By 1971, only 9.4 million or 4.6 percent of the nation's 206 million people lived on farms. In the Southern states, the 6.8 million employed on farms in 1935 plummetted to 1.8 million by 1971. While the number of farms decreased from 3.2 million in 1 935 to 1.2 million in 1971, the average farm size doubled and in some cases tripled.
Such dramatic demographic shifts reveal the overwhelming societal forces with which small farmers have had to contend and within which the NSF has had to develop. Building on the successes of Sharecroppers Week, throughout the forties the NSF continued to publicize the plight of southern tenancy and raise funds for various groups. During the 1950's the NSF provided financial resources for the sustained organizing campaign of the National Agricultural Workers Union among the sugar cane workers in Louisiana; organized a major conference in 1958 from which emerged the National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor; and pursued an aggressive lobbying effort in Washington for minimum wage bills, migrants' needs, and housing assistance to the rural poor.
Growing rapidly in the 1960's, the NSF suffered from overfunding and institutionalization. Inundated by large grants from the Department of Labor to begin the Southern Rural Training Project and from OEO for the Southern Rural Project, the NSF contributed to the illusion of the "Great Society" that social service delivery systems and short-term manpower training programs could serve as engines of real social change. Local leadership was developed and cooperatives were begun, but grantsmanship created an overstaffed New York office and overly dependent, transient co-ops. Frustrated by programs which were defined as much by federal guidelines as by indigenous leadership and by the lack of commitment to sustained projects, the Fund revised its priorities. It began to concentrate its energies on cooperative projects in Halifax County, Virginia, and in Burke County, Georgia. At the same time, the large federal grants were terminated, and in one case a large chunk of money was actually returned — unheard of in OEO circles.
The Halifax County Co-op now includes about 300 farmers who have shifted from tobacco on their small, isolated farms to vegetable crops which are marketed jointly. The co-op dates from 1967, when black farmers in the area began negotiating with the local CAP agency. Charles Dixon, who owned and operated one of those tobacco farms, remembers distinctly that "the farmers got their co-op together when the white power structure of the county began to oppose us.” The farmers knew, he explains, that they were doing something that might make a difference when the white forces felt so threatened. In Burke County, the East Georgia Farmers Co-op began to replace single family plots with cooperative vegetable farming in 1972, and a cooperative filling station has also produced income for the participating farmers. During these critical initial stages of growth, the Sharecroppers Fund has contributed funds, technical assistance, and equipment to the Halifax and Burke County farmers. Problems remain as scattered farmers try to buy and sell through a central location, share limited machinery, and market organic vegetables independently of the corporate chains. But a growing sense of stability offers hopeful signs of success.
By 1972, the Fund had survived over thirty years, but its direction seemed unclear. The efforts at Halifax and Burke Counties were encouraging but limited by the small number of farmers affected and by their restricted buying and marketing capabilities. As the need for a central training center became clearer, Jim Pierce, hired as director of the NSF in 1970, gained firmer control over the diffuse efforts of the Fund. Excited by the possibilities of a rural center, Pierce located a philanthropist enthusiastic about organic farming, and in August, 1972, the 500-acre farm was purchased outright.
The farm is eight miles south of Wadesboro, North Carolina, on land that lacked high humus content or high yields. As one NSF board member cautioned, "We should buy poor land because that's what small farmers own.” Volunteers and NSF staff began to transform overgrown fields that had not been cultivated for over twenty years into an operating organic farm. By the spring of 1 973, a land use plan for the farm had been developed, a special organic fertilizer formula using Norwegian seaweed prepared with the help of Clemson and North Carolina State Universities and fields laid out. Vegetables and grains, a small herd of beef cattle, and a well-stocked pond gave life to these plans and new buildings. And an interracial staff of two local farmers and two NSF field workers was located on the farm.
The overwhelming demands of making a farm function in such a short time took priority over long range planning. Even immediate needs like an adequate marketing plan for the first year's crop went unmet. While the Halifax and Burke farmers sought to ship their crops to food co-ops on the east coast, the produce on the Graham Farm was never successfully marketed. Without a canning or freezing facility, vegetables were sold locally and marketed in nearby cities, and some never left the fields.
But growing pains were expected, and the demonstration farm made progress in its second year. The farm staff became more committed to the venture: Charles Dixon left Halifax County to become the resident farm manager, and the two farmers from Anson County, Bennie Gaddy and Leonard Dutton, became firm believers in organic farming. Small terraces improved the lay-out of the fields and the 1974 planting increased to 50-60 acres of organic vegetables and grains. The farm itself is the most tangible product of the idea of the Graham Center. But demonstrating that organic crops can be produced on poor soil represents only one aspect of this multidimensional facility.
An intense, chain-smoking paragon of focused energy, Jim Pierce has been the driving force behind the farm's conception. Steeped in the struggles of the southern labor movement, he has organized for the International Union of Electrical Workers, served as regional coordinator for the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO, and as regional director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Plagued with doubts about the institutionalization of a movement and the long-term value of union victories, Pierce rechanneled his commitments in 1970, He became convinced that new options were needed for rural people seemingly destined to become a part of the industrial work force.
For example, an official at the General Electric plant in Hickory, North Carolina, a plant with a strong IUE local union, has offered Pierce positions for Graham Center trainees who would learn a particular skill at nearby Anson County Technical School. While federal manpower training programs would view this as an opportunity, Pierce fears the subtle dangers of training people for unstable labor markets. From his long-time friendship with this G.E. official and his intimate knowledge of the local union's history, Pierce recognizes that fluctuating volumes of work and increasing automation at the plant cause displacement of the most recently-hired workers. Moreover, uprooting a person with his family from a rural environment to a more urban-oriented work cycle causes complex and often destructive cultural and personal changes.
Within this transition in philosophy, Pierce maintains the distinctive style of a labor organizer. Fast paced days, long and numerous telephone calls, and mediation at all levels of the organization contrast sharply with the slower paced rhythms of the farm's setting. Motivated by the possibility of what the farm could be, Pierce's pragmatic and anxious day-to-day patterns reveal the uncertain future of the embryonic Graham Center.
During the brief two-year history of the Graham Center, specific training strategies and fund-raising plans have been vigorously debated and rapidly refined. Three members of the NSF's Board, rural sociologist Arthur Raper, Ben Poage of the Commission on Religion in Applalchia and Bob Browne of the Black Economic Research Center, formed a Graham Center Steering Committee. In conjunction with Pierce and the NSF's research director, Pat Mullen, they explored possible uses of the Center. Could the Center train migrant workers to be co-op managers, or teach small farmers organic farming skills, or encourage displaced black farmers to stay on the land rather than join the industrial worforce? Also, what kind of facilities, staff, and funding were needed? Seed money of over $1,000,000 was sought from the Department of Labor for a one-year pilot training program but was eventually refused in the spring of 1973, when Republican controls intruded on program guidelines. In early 1974, an HEW planning grant stalled early in the bureaucratic pipeline. Finally, in the spring of 1974, foundation support was obtained which provided the Graham Center with the means to launch its initial program.
When trainees arrived at the farm during June of this year, plans for the training aspects of the Center became a reality. Combining local resources with regional contacts, Pierce nurtured commitments from such local agencies as the Anson County Technical Institute, the Employment Security Commission, Soil and Conservation Department, and the Agricultural Extension Service. In addition, he received support and cooperation from groups throughout the South such as the Delta Ministry and Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Association. As the training program expands, it ideally will incorporate three groups of people: four or five trainees will come to the farm each year to learn every aspect of co-op management; a larger group of small farmers will go through a one-crop cycle; and a group of young people who participate in the center's activities, will be encouraged to stay on farms in their areas.
Providing adequate skills for a successful co-op manager is not an easy task. Pierce feels the Center will be capable of teaching skills ranging from organic farming to record keeping, marketing to canning/freezing operations, fundraising to a technical skill taught in conjunction with AnsonTech, such as brick laying or carpentry. Because farmers know their problems and weaknesses better than any program guidelines, the sequence and method of instruction must evolve slowly through the first year, determined by the trainees as much as by the staff. The goal is to provide a farmer planting five to ten acres with the knowledge of organic farming and access to a market so that he can stay on his small plot. His income could then be supplemented with work in small construction during the winter months.
The task of combining this training scenario with the needs of a maturing demonstration farm represents an ambitious program of staggering dimensions. The trainees for cooperative managers must be carefully screened to be sure that they are committed to returning to their local areas to provide leadership to the area farmers. After producing organic crops on marginal land, a reliable and profitable marketing system must be developed to accomodate the yield of the farm and other cooperatives brough into their “organic" network. A responsible follow-up system must be developed for the trainees so that the learned skills are useful in an economically viable setting. The need for a canning and freezing facility and other improvements on the farm require long-range projections and adequate financing. And innovative fund-raising techniques for the training progran and for the farm's operations (until it can support itself) must be developed.
The long-term capacities of this youthful project of the Sharecroppers Fund can only be anticipated. During the first two years, mistakes have been made in planning as well as in operations, but the training has now actually begun. Serious questions remain about the viability of the Graham Center's vision. Combining technical training in small construction with farming is demanding on the participants and may not be economically viable to the post-trainee. The need for more land for small farmers to work cooperatively means competing in a skyrocketing land market, often with prohibitive down payments and property taxes. Attracting technical staff who can both train small farmers and develop sound marketing systems that circumvent corporate controls will prove difficult. And the ability of the Graham Center to survive financially without compromising its program and to expand so as to train more than a handful of farmers remains problematic.
Despite these obstacles, the Graham Center represents a significant attempt to develop alternatives for small farmers in the South. Examining such a project at its initial stages provokes less an analysis of its success or failure than a discussion of its history and its possible future. Success will not come easily, for large corporate powers have invaded the food industry at every point of production and distribution. But the Graham Center's creative model of support provides exciting possibilities for one of the most vulnerable victims of the omnipresent conglomerates — the small farmer.
In 1963, the year Mississippi State faced Loyola in the NCAA, Bill Finger was playing high school basketball in Jackson. He is now a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC, and at work on a book about the players of those historic teams. (1979)
Bill Finger is a writer in Raleigh, NC. (1978)
Bill Finger is the labor editor of Southern Exposure. (1976)
Bill Finger is the Director of the Institute for Southern Studies Textiles Project. He has worked for the North Carolina AFL-CIO and the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. (1976)