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Black farmers find profit in trucking southern produce to Midwest buyers

(Monday, Aug. 16, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Kari Lydersen, Washington Post:
HARVEY, Ill. -- It took Bernard Thomas 19 hours to get here from his home in Bartow, Ga. It didn't help that a tire blew out and a nasty thunderstorm erupted on the way.

But despite the tough trip, Thomas plans to keep coming to this suburb south of Chicago almost every weekend for the rest of the summer, to sell his load of organic melons, tomatoes, peaches and corn. He is a pioneer of sorts, the first in a program that hopes to bring more southern black farmers north to sell their produce at higher prices.

Though the transportation costs for the farmers are high, Thomas is banking on the popularity of home-grown southern produce and the higher market prices in the Midwest to make his effort worthwhile.

"You can make so much more up here. In the South you can't charge near as much for anything because people don't have as much" money, Thomas said. "This is a long way, but it's worth the drive."

Things are tough for many family farmers, but for black farmers in the South they are even tougher. Not only do they face competition from huge corporate farms and rising taxes, but many say they continue to be affected by a long legacy of discrimination in receiving government subsidies and loans from banks.

Minority farm ownership is down. In 1920 there were about 900,000 black farmers in the South, according to historical records kept by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The Agriculture Department's 2002 agricultural census found only 29,090 black farmers in the entire country.

"It does show a dramatic decline," said Ginger Harris, a statistician with the National Agricultural Statistics Service. "The number of farmers in general has declined, but black farmers have declined even more. In 1920 they made up about 15 percent of all farmers; today they make up only 1.2 percent."

As with family farms everywhere, children are deciding not to take over their aging parents' farms, opting instead for more lucrative and flexible occupations.

"Now there's no way you can earn a living on what used to be a reasonable-sized piece of land," said George Naylor, an Iowa farmer and president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "And I'm sure it's worse for [black farmers in the South]. They tend to have smaller farms, and they're spread out more. And the prices down there are a really big problem."

That is why Bob Storman decided to bring southern black farmers up to Harvey.

"Most of us here in the southern suburbs originally came from farming families," Storman said. "We miss being able to get fresh southern fruit and vegetables like this. So this gives the farmers a way to make some money, and it gives the residents here a taste of the things they remember."

On a hot, humid Saturday in late July, Thomas's pickup and flatbed trailer were parked in a hotel lot. He was surrounded by buyers, some who had driven an hour or more to get a taste of real southern watermelon and sweet corn. Many of the customers were born into farming families in the South and missed the produce they remember from their youth.

"We raised vegetables, cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, our own chickens and hogs," said Willie Mae Alexander, 83, an Arkansas native who drove from Gary, Ind., with Clara Brown Smith, 61. "Most African American families who came here from Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas did have farms. We're used to the farm life."

"They should get sugar cane. You can't find sugar cane in Chicago," added Shelby Rowe, 64, who is originally from a Mississippi farming family and now works installing air conditioning units. "And it's hard to find good lemons, pecans and blackberries. If they bring those things up from the South, people will come."

Thomas, 33, has worked on his family's farm since he was 6. Along with his 58-year-old father and four other men, he farms about 200 acres. They sell their goods to the Georgia state prison system and a few other private contractors.

Kathy Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, notes that Thomas's choice to take up direct marketing, bringing the produce straight to customers rather than selling it to a middleman, is a route many farmers are taking.

"When they sell things wholesale, they're getting such a tiny percent of what the consumer pays, that they see there is money in direct marketing," she said. "Even if it means they have to truck food up 1,000 miles and sell it. Ideally, they could find local markets to sell their produce directly."

Leon Crump, a South Carolina farmer and state director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, has participated in programs similar to the Harvey market, driving hundreds of miles to Philadelphia, New York or other cities every week to sell produce from his and neighbors' farms. He said their program with a church in Baltimore ran smoothly for several years, and their profits were worth the transportation costs.

"People like the idea that we're picking something fresh in the South and we can be in their town the next morning," he said. "Northern folks are just not used to tree-ripened and vine-ripened stuff, compared to something that was picked green and shipped."

Thomas figures he only broke even over the weekend in Harvey, considering his travel costs, which were partly reimbursed by the city and township.

He expects to earn more in coming weeks as word of his produce spreads. He said several other farmers he knows are planning to make the trek with him or give him some of their produce to sell. Alexander and Smith said they will be back, with friends.

"They said they'll have greens and crowder peas next week," Smith said. "I'll be waiting."

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A3651-2004Aug15.html