The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund held its fifty-fourth Annual Meeting, on a virtual basis over three days, August 19-21, 2021. The Federation started in 1967 by cooperatives and credit unions that were developed during the Civil Rights Movement is now the premier organization representing 75 cooperatives and 10,000 remaining Black farmers in the South. On Thursday evening, the Federation honored Marian Wright Edelman, emeritus director of the Children’s Defense Fund, with its Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award, for her service to low-income people, especially children. Edelman is also a long-time columnist in the Greene County Democrat. This was the twentieth time the Federation awarded its highest award, named for Estelle Witherspoon, former Manager of the Freedom Quilting Bee of Wilcox County and an original incorporator of the Federation. The award was accepted by Oleta Fitzgerald, a long-time colleague of Marian Wright Edelman. On Friday, the Federation hosted a panel of representatives of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on programs and benefits available to Black and family sized farmers, like those in the Federation’s membership. The panel was highlighted by its first speaker, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack said he was working to “include more equity and diversity in the internal operations, staffing and programs of USDA. He introduced several Black and people of color, that he had selected to serve in leadership positions within USDA. The Secretary also announced the availability of $67 million in funding for an “Heirs Property Re-lending Program” which will assist families facing problems in clearing title to agricultural land, left by deceased relatives, who did not make wills. The Federation worked to get provisions for this program included in the 2018 Farm Bill but the Trump Administration failed to issue regulations to implement the program. The Secretary indicated that he expected the Federation, among others groups, to apply for these funds to implement a stronger program of heirs property assistance. The Secretary also spoke to the assistance for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers in Sections 1005 and 1006 of the American Rescue Plan. The $4 billion of debt relief promised in Section 1005 has been held-up by lawsuits filed by White farmers in 13 Federal Court districts, who charge that the program discriminates against them. Vilsack said USDA was fighting the lawsuits and would continue the moratorium on foreclosures until the legal matters were resolved. He also said that he was working to implement Section 1006 which will provide benefits to BIPOC farmers as Congress intended. Agency heads from Farm Services Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Forestry Service, Rural Development, APHIS, Agricultural Marketing Service and others also spoke about their programs, services and benefits tailored to BIPOC farmers. On Saturday, the Federation held a prayer breakfast followed by a business meeting. Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director, reported that despite many challenges the organization was financially stable, staffed and ready to assist its members in growing and having greater success as farmers, fishers and workers in the coming post-pandemic economy. The Federation also award six young people, affiliated with Federation member organizations with a $1,000 college scholarship, named for Anulet Pat Jackson, a former staff member. The scholarships have been funded on an annual basis for the past ten years by Sharing Inc. Pam Madzima, Alabama State Coordinator for the Federation, said, “We have awarded 75 young people scholarships through this program. Many have gone on to complete their studies and serve their communities.”
By: John Zippert, Co-Publisher, Special to the Greene County Democrat
Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation fisher from Seadrift, Texas enters the fourth week of a hunger strike to protest the dredging of the ship channel in Matagorda Bay, coastal Texas, about one hundred miles south and east of Houston. Wilson, a 72-year-old grandmother, is the San Antonio Bay and Estuarine Water keeper who has been an environmental guardian of the San Antonio, Matagorda and Lavaca Bay areas on the Texas Gulf Coast. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) has reactivated a plan to dredge the ship channel in Matagorda Bay to serve Max Midstream, a pipeline company that plans to build a crude oil export terminal at Port O’Connor at the eastern head of Matagorda Bay. The dredging will involve deepening the 26-mile channel by 8 feet and widening it by 150 feet, which involves dredging 14 million tons of mud from the seafloor. The dredging is complicated because it touches upon an EPA Superfund site, which was polluted with mercury by Alcoa in the past. The original USACOE Environmental Impact Statement, compiled in 2009 for a LNG export terminal project, that was not built, provided for placing the dredged materials to create new wetland marshes, islands and oyster reefs offshore. This is similar to dredging projects in Galveston Bay and other Texas coastal areas. The USACOE revised its plan to allow placing the dredged materials on the western side of the bay, covering a third of the existing oyster reefs, beaches used for recreation and generally impairing commercial and recreational fishing in the Matagorda Bay complex. The USACOE also accelerated the permitting process for the dredging at the request of Max Midstream and Texas politicians supporting export of the state’s fracked petroleum resources. Wilson said, “ I felt I had no choice but to start my hunger strike. I saw no way to stop this fast-tracking of the dredging of my beloved bays in Texas to provide for a crude oil export terminal, that some oil and gas people say is not even needed. I want to alert the community to the dangers of this dredging to health, fishing and recreation. I want the dredging to stop and President Biden to reinstate the ban on exporting oil that Trump lifted.” Wilson says that this is her eighth hunger strike. She participated in a 56-day strike, her longest, in Washington D. C. to try to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Wilson, was also a plaintiff in a 2019 case against the Formosa Plastic Corporation, for polluting Matagorda Bay with microscopic plastic pellets. This case resulted in a $50 million dollar settlement against Formosa to help restore and improve the environmental quality of Matagorda Bay. The settlement includes $20 million to support the development of a fishing cooperative to revive the traditional economy of the coastal area. “The U. S. Army Corps of Enginers have never been helpful to the environment unless we force them to pay attention to these issues. I am on this hunger strike to stop this harmful dredging of the bay. The state of Texas regularly gives tickets to fishers for harvesting oysters that are smaller than 3 inches but now it is planning to dump mud on and destroy 700 acres of oyster reefs. This expedited plan to dredge the bay will kill our efforts to develop this fishing cooperative,” said Wilson The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, based at its Rural Training and Research Center, in Epes, Alabama, has been contracted, as part of the legal settlement, to provide technical assistance in developing the commercial fishing cooperative. Cornelius Blanding, Federation Executive Director said, “We have been working with fishers in the Matagorda Bay area to develop a cooperative. This dredging, without suitable environmental protections, will imperil this important grassroots economic development and revitalization effort. We have reached out to our contacts in the Biden Administration to ask them to stop this dredging until a new EIS is developed and approved. We are especially concerned about the disturbance and dispersal of mercury in the bay as well as the destruction of oyster reefs and shrimp breeding estuaries ” A group of environmental organizations, connected with Earthworks, held a protest rally, together with kayaks in the bay, at the end of the Lavaca Bay Causeway, the site of Diane Wilson’s hunger strike, on Sunday, April 25th. This rally was held to call attention to her hunger strike and urge the USACOE and President Biden’s Administration to stop the dredging and the export of crude oil. Persons interested in supporting Diane Wilson’s hunger strike and campaign to stop the dredging and export of oil may contact her through: http://www.facebook.com/unreasonablewoman or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Black farm family pose in front of vegetable stand
Atlanta, GA- It was anticipated that the new Farm Bill would offer hope for improving farming economies into 2019 — especially after major 2018 farm losses from natural disasters and the trade war. However, the government shutdown now in its 19th day has had a chilling effect on economic outlook and optimism for the new year. Farmers waiting for direct payments, market assistance loans, market facilitation payments and disaster assistance program payments, particularly in a time of farm crisis, are being left high and dry. The unexpected disruption in government services means that farmers are looking for support and guidance from farm organizations like the Federation to help them stabilize their farms. The Federation’s Georgia Field Office which is typically busy providing technical assistance to farmers and helping with farm loan applications are getting phone calls from very worried farmers. Cornelius Key, the Federation’s Georgia State Coordinator, who is also a farmer and rancher says, “Small farmers that normally submit farm loan applications in December and January can’t submit loans at the moment. The shutdown will have a domino effect as it ultimately leads to a decreased harvest, greater farm debt, and loan defaults that could translate to land and farm losses.” As a leading non-profit cooperative association representing over 20,000 rural black farmers and landowners, cooperatives, credit unions, and community based economic development groups across the rural south, the Federation historically plays a pivotal advocacy role in bringing equity for black farmers and rural communities through many efforts. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one of the Federation’s major partners supplying resources through various agencies including Natural Resource and Conservation Service, Rural Development, Farm Service Agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “While the government is shutdown, we are unable to access needed resources as part of our contracts and agreements with the USDA agencies and continue to provide valuable education, outreach, and technical assistance to our membership. The shutdown also makes it difficult to fulfill the financial obligations the Federation has to its staff, partners and vendors. We would like the President and Congress to understand the crippling effect of this shutdown,” Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation said. No matter what side of the political fence one falls, farm and rural development advocates will agree that the shutdown will cause much harm if not resolved very soon. Ben Burkett, the Federation’s Mississippi State Coordinator, and a fourth-generation farmer states that ” The soybean farmers are anxiously awaiting delayed payments they were promised because of losses from the trade war. Farmers implementing conservation practices that allow them to manage their farms in the protection of air, water, and soil are delayed.” The overall sentiment is hopeful while weathering this storm. For an organization that is 51 years old, this isn’t the worst the Federation has endured; but that all depends on how long this shutdown lasts and the economic impact it has on farms and rural communities.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, entering its 52 st year, assists limited resource farmers, landowners, and cooperatives across the South with business planning, debt restructuring, marketing expertise, and a whole range of other services to ensure the retention of land ownership and cooperatives as a tool for social and economic justice. The overall mission is to reverse the trend of black land loss and be a catalyst for the development of self-supporting communities via cooperative economic development, land retention and advocacy. More information on the Federation can be found at http://www.federation.coop
Pictured above are members of the Paige family including wife Bernice, children Bernard and Kenyatta, and grandchildren on stage with Federation Executive Director, Cornelius Blanding and members of the organization’s Board of Directors. Cornelius Blanding discusses plans for cooperative development curriculum with President Quentin Ross of Alabama State University. The Rural Coalition presents a certificate to the Federation for its 50th anniversary. L to R Shirley Blakley, Chair of Federation Board, Lorette Picciano, Rural Coalition, John Zippert, Rural Coalition Board, Darnella Burkett Winston, Rural Coalition Board, Cornelius Blanding, Federation Executive Director.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund honored the memory of its longtime Executive Director, Ralph Paige, who served for thirty yeas from 1985-2015. He was awarded its Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday night in Birmingham at the beginning of the organization’s 51st Annual Meeting. Several speakers at the Witherspoon Award banquet celebrated Ralph Paige’s 46 years of work and service to the movement for Black farmers, land and cooperative development that symbolized the work of the Federation. Paige died recently at the age of 74. The Federation’s Board of Directors met Thursday in Birmingham to review the program direction and finances of the organization. Two Roundtables one on Cooperative Development and one on Land Retention were also held in Birmingham. Quentin Ross, President of Alabama State University in Montgomery spoke at the Cooperative Roundtable of working with the Federation on developing a cooperative education curriculum for the students at ASU including internships with Federation member cooperatives and credit unions. The Federation has developed and is in the process of implementing a similar program with Tuskegee University. On Friday and Saturday the site of the meeting shifted to the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center, near Epes, in Sumter County, Alabama. Friday’s program began with a panel of USDA program experts who both presented about their programs and answered questions from the audience of farmers and landowners. There was a lively interchange of views between USDA officials and their farmer stakeholders on issues of agricultural tariffs, program eligibility, focusing resources on new and beginning farmers and other relevant issues. State Senator Hank Sanders of Selma was the lunchtime speaker and among other remarks, he introduced his daughter, Malika Sanders Fortier, who is running to fill his position as State Senator for District 24 in the November 6 General Election. Several members of Federation related cooperatives gave five-minute testimonials on their experience working with the Federation and how it helped to improve their family income and quality of life. There were more educational workshops, demonstration farm and forestry tours and a fish fry, food tasting, auction and entertainment to close out the Friday activities. The program on Saturday began with a Prayer Breakfast at which Rev. Wendell Paris, a past staff member, spoke to the importance of the work of the Federation and the “sacred ground” that the Federation’s training center was built upon. A business meeting, report from the Board and Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director, state caucus discussions on program needs and direction, and the awarding of five $1,000 scholarships to high school graduates for their first year of college rounded out the program.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund will celebrate its 50th. Annual Meeting on August 17 to 19, 2017. The organization was founded in 1967, by 22 cooperatives and credit unions, arising from the Civil Rights Movement, serving low-income farmers and rural people in the South.
On Thursday evening, August 17, Attorney Mike Espy of Jackson, Mississippi will receive the 16th annual Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award at a fundraising banquet at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Interstate 495 in Birmingham. Estelle Witherspoon was the Manager of the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta, Alabama and a founding member of the Federation.
Mike Espy served as the first Black Congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction, from 1987 to 1993. In 1993, President Bill Clinton selected him to be the first African-American and the first Secretary of Agriculture from the Deep South. Today, Espy heads the Mississippi office of the law firm of Morgan and Morgan and was involved in the Pigford Black Farmer Discrimination lawsuits against USDA.
Espy has worked closely with the Federation in all of his professional pursuits. As a Mississippi Congressman he co-sponsored the “Minority Farers Rights Bill” and helped to get several of its major components, including the Section 2501 Outreach Program, into the 1990 Farm Bill. As Secretary of Agriculture, he worked closely with the Federation on the efforts to bring greater civil rights concern to the department. As a lawyer, he worked closely with the Federation and our members on the Pigford lawsuit.
On Friday and Saturday, August 18 and 19, the Federation’s Annual Meeting will shift to the organization’s Rural Training and Research Center, near Epes in Sumter County. Friday will be a day of workshops, presentations and celebration of the Federation’s half century of work and achievements on behalf of Black farmers and landowners. Friday evening there will be a fish-fry, wild game tasting and other dishes from the regional membership of the Federation.
On Saturday, the Federation will hold a prayer breakfast followed by the organization’s business meeting, which includes reports from the Board of Directors, Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director, and state caucuses of the membership.
Cornelius Blanding said, “For five decades, the Federation has served its membership of Black farmers and other low income rural people across the South. We have held true to our mission and worked at the grassroots level to transform people and communities, many times in the face of racial hostility and economic exploitation, to win a better future with social and economic justice for our membership. I am proud to be part of the continuing legacy of the Federation and hope to lead it into the next half century of progress.”
Persons interested in attending the Estelle Witherspoon Awards Banquet and the 50th Annual Meeting should go to the organization’s website at http://www.federation.coop to register. Information is also available from the Federation’s offices in Atlanta (404/765-0991) and Epes, Alabama (205/652-9676).