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Community event sheds light on rural minority farmers

The alarming decline in the number of small farms is not just changing the way people who work them live. It also affects the welfare of everyone across the country. That was apparent during a community event featuring a discussion with Shirley Sherrod, who reflected on her more than 40 year career of working to improve the lives of the rural poor. Joining her were two Michigan agriculture professionals, who all followed an intriguing photography and video exhibit featuring the plight of black farmers in this country. The event was hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“You’ll see some areas of the country where some small farmers can really thrive, and you’ll see other areas where that doesn’t happen,” said Ms. Sherrod. “And you can tell exactly where the [farming support] programs are being implemented fairly.”

Much of her life’s work was spent developing land trusts and cooperatives, and helping small farmers keep their land and livelihoods. Among her career achievements, Ms. Sherrod was Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA, worked for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, served on the board of the Rural Development Leadership Network, and was a Kellogg National Leadership Fellow.

Highlighting some of the issues faced by small rural Michigan farmers and their families were Peg Kohring, Midwest Regional Director of The Conservation Fund, and Barbara James Norman, a third-generation, African American blueberry farmer from Covert, Mich.

“The only people who are going to go into [small] farming in the next generation are children from a successful farm,” said Ms. Norman. “If I’m working an off-farm job to keep insurance, pay bills and I’m not even making a profit off my products, then my children are not going to want to go into farming.”

The event’s photo exhibit and video, titled Distant Echoes: Black Farmers in America, served as a backdrop for the insightful conversation on the plight of African-American farmers, and the important role all small farmers play in our nation’s food system. Before the discussion, participants strolled the hallways of the Kellogg Foundation to view featured prints from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture, and taken by photojournalist John Francis Ficara.

“No African-American farmer in Michigan has ever gotten into the Natural Resources Conservation Service Program,” said Ms. Koring on the subject of discrimination. “If you’re interested in [politics], that’s one thing to push – to make it possible for racially disadvantaged people to get a chance.”

African Americans and minorities aren’t alone in their struggle to keep small farms thriving. Small farms in general are in danger of extinction, and their demise not only erases a way of life for those who work the land, it drastically reduces the public’s choices when it comes to having fresh, locally grown food available in communities.

The conversation also included what future of the next generation of farmers might look like. When asked how young people can be encouraged to go into farming despite the struggle faced by small farmers today, Ms. Sherrod suggested they consider creating more “value-added” approaches. One example was moving a sweet potato farmer, to become a sweet potato farmer who also makes and sells sweet potato pies at market; or expanding the role of a peanut farmer, to one who also makes and sells peanut butter. Says Sherrod, “We have to then work with you in the cities, because if we do these value-added projects, then we need a market [to sell them at a fair price].”

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