Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Holmes County Vegetable Farmers

I had the opportunity to spend some time in Holmes County in July, getting to know a group of African-American farmers. The article below is about my experiences there, particularly with Calvin Head, the director of the West Holmes Community Development Organization. The article is a little long, but well worth the read.

Lexington Mayor Robin McCrory stands with Rev. Tom Collins (left), Calvin Head (right) and two youth members of the WHCDO vegetable farming initiative. This image was taken at the first farmers’ market Friday in Lexington on July 9. Mayor McCrory said she’d seen a cross-section of Holmes County citizens at the market that morning. She also said their hope was to open the market earlier in the summer, but their new civic center had been occupied by the Red Cross since mid-April when deadly tornados devastated much of the county.

Calvin Head’s cell phone rings constantly as he steps into the driver’s seat of a white passenger van. As director of the West Holmes Community Development Organization (WHCDO), Head wears many hats, most often at the same time.

Today he is taking me on a tour of the 12 minority-owned vegetable farms in west Holmes County that are participating in the WHCDO farm initiative. Yesterday, he signed off on a federal housing grant and tomorrow he’s heading up a meeting of the community water board. Since 1996, Head has been leading an effort to bring food, jobs, education, housing and hope to the 14 unincorporated villages that make up the poverty stricken region.

“Holmes County has the highest retention of minority-owned land in the country,” says Head as he starts the van. “Because, remember, this was 100 percent owned by blacks after the resettlement deal came in; the 40 acres and a mule concept. The Milestone Cooperative was the farm initiative that started in 1942 and it was a spin off from the Farm Security Administration project. I started as an Americorp Vista and my job was to reorganize the cooperative and get more farmers back into the process.

Head says that in the late 1990s, the new generations of Holmes County residents were not interested in agriculture as their forefathers had been. They began to rent their land to the large landowners in the area as a way to make profit. As part of reorganizing the cooperative, Head took on the task of showing locals that their biggest resource in reaching financial stability was their legacy to the land. He now has 12 farmers on board (ranging in age from 19 to 75) in the vegetable garden process.

“The vegetable gardening initiative is the nucleus of the process,” says Head of the initiatives at the WHCDO. “It is how we generate a lot of our resources and it is where we want to go in the future in terms of wealth creation, to have a place here in the western part of the county that we can bring fresh produce to, to distribute to different entities and industries within and surrounding this county.”

The biggest obstacle now facing the WHCDO is not convincing farmers to grow vegetables, it is getting their storage facility outfitted with the right equipment. Head says once a storage facility is open, more farmers will be willing to participate. According to Head, opening a storage facility will allow them to supply larger markets (the WHCDO has been approached by both Wal-Mart and the local school district) and encourage other farmers to join the vegetable gardening initiative.

“If we can get the storage facility open, with all the markets we have identified, they will see that there is an actual outlet that they can literally take their stuff to; then it will be an incentive for them to grow produce and be a part of the vegetable growing process. So like I say, getting this facility, where they can actually drop their stuff off and see it moving, I think that is going to be the thing that makes them get involved more.”

One of the WHCDO’s biggest markets for fresh produce is through the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. The US Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, generally known as WIC, provides supplemental food (among other services) at no cost to low-income mothers and children. Head says Holmes County has the highest voucher redemption rate in the state for the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, and young people are learning more about healthy eating to boot.

“Most of the people who participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition program, particularly the WIC recipients, they are probably on average 25 to 40 years old. The first year we started, about five or six years ago, they didn’t want to eat the greens and squash and sweet potatoes. They wanted bananas and grapes and apples and things like that. But now they have come around, and I have noticed that they are buying more peas and more greens and more sweet potatoes and more corn and more tomatoes. So, yeah, even the younger generation is understanding that the fast food industry is not the way to go all the time.”

The WHCDO has also seen success through the vegetable gardening initiative by implementing a youth farming and business program. Over 22 young people, roughly between the ages of 15 and 25, have been employed by the WHCDO where they rise early to help the farmers in their fields or meet after the morning’s labor to help distribute the day’s harvest. A youth mentor works with the new participants to help train them for both harvesting and market distribution and pricing.

“The young people have something to do [through this program] to earn money during the summer months and even after school,” says Head. “They participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition program like are now. The young people provide a labor force for the farmers who are used to equipment doing all the work. But the fact is that vegetable production is such a labor-intense process that you have to have some labor as part of the growing process.”

Starting August 1, the WHCDO will take on another USDA initiative to provide senior citizens with fresh produce. The initiative will be implemented through vouchers, the same as the WIC program, but will also place a higher demand for vegetables during the hottest month of the year.

Head says such conditions make the need for a storage facility and refrigeration unit all the more imperative. Although demand is high, the hot weather stresses vegetable growth and makes it difficult to keep the gardens irrigated. The farmers also have less time in the fields as heat index advisories are issued daily. To top it off, Mother Nature is calling for the fields to be plowed and fall crops to be planted.

Head’s cell phone continues to ring and as we drive back to the WHCDO office, his optimism remains high despite the challenges he faces with the hot weather, high demand and limited resources. As he puts the van in park, he lists the benefits that the vegetable growing program has already put into action.

“Getting other farmers to participate, seeing them earn extra money for diversifying, seeing young people and regular people in the community work and earn money so they don’t have to be a burden on their parents, these are the benefits I’m seeing,” says Head.
“We are able to show people the benefits of eating healthy, local-grown produce versus what we are eating that comes from other places. We are trying to grow the community from the inside out by using the resources we have in the community to benefit the people in the community.”

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mary Margaret,

    Thank you for an excellent article/blog!! I am currently a nutrition student in California, and will be dietitian in a year or so. I am coincidentally doing a presentation on the life and health of MS, and was thrilled to find your article here.

    I am interested in finding more about the life/culture and history of the MS Delta region, specifically for Holmes County. I read your profile as well and your thesis sounds so interesting since I have never visited MS myself and do not know enough about the history there...

    Would you be able to forward me any information regarding the history of the MS Delta region? I would be so grateful if I can better understand what compounds the health/obesity issues concerning the people in this region so that I can further my research regarding the most effective way to better public's health.

    Thank you so much,
    Kind regards,
    Sara M.