Parity and Supply Management though a Racial Equity Lens

Ben BurkettFarmer Voices on Parity, Racial Equity

Mid-May 2020, during a “farmer’s rain”—meaning: steady, strong and gentle on the crops—Mr. Burkett took time away from his fields to reflect on updating parity, fair prices, and supply management for racial equity and Black farmer support.

When I was growing up, we had an allotment system for cotton and peanuts and tobacco. Some called it price control, some called it acreage control. Some say it was designed to do supply management. But I never did look at it that way. I guess my father and they looked at it that way. A small farmer has a share of the farming in general. I remember one year we—my dad and me—planted his allotment. Because he had to plow up some cotton one time. That’s when they used to come out and measure by hand with chains (laughs). The Farm Service Agency—the FSHA office back then—they send people out there. They had—they called them ‘chains.’ A chain one length was three feet: a yard. And they would actually measure the field, the acres. Let’s say your allotment was 50 acres, and you planted 52 acres, you had to plow up that two acres. The sense was that the Black farmer always had to plow up something (laughs). But, I remember some of the white farmers had to plow up some too sometimes.

But you had a fairly sure price for it. Whereas now, you don’t know what you are going to get for something when you plant it. There’s more crop insurance now. It is supposed to be the same principle: now they tell you to take out crop insurance to ensure your production—at 75% or whatever premium you want to pay.

But alternatively, the government could just keep that money and pay the farmer a fair price—what it costs to grow a bushel of corn. But then insurance companies and the lawyers, brokers and all the middlemen can’t make money. So the farmer has to take out federal crop insurance, and the federal government is going to pay 50-65% of the premium. But, it’s the same system that has been benefitting the largest landowners and operators. If a producer with a huge operation with 5-6,000 acres files a claim, he’s going to get a bunch of money. And he can afford to take out 85% insurance on his crops.

A family farm struggles alone. He’s never going to take out 65-70% insurance.

Did the system fail back then? When it came to our Black farmers. There were no Black farmers on our County Committees or other State Committees. The first Black farmer to be on a State Committee here in Mississippi was in 1972. And the State Committees had been around since 1932. That’s forty years. Wardell Gray’s still living; he’s 104, 105 years old. And on the County Committee [laughs]. My father was on the rural housing side of the Farmers Home Administration (FHA) in the early 1970s.

The whole system is designed to help those with the most land. I’ll give you an example. In the Mississippi Delta, you have farmers farming their cotton base acreage. When payment time comes, you get paid on your base. So you have this Black farmer with a base set at 485 acres right here. And you step across the fence, and the white farmer’s base is set at 985 acres. But when the County Committee was qualifying those yields, all of them are white. And the payments are calculated on the size of the base acreage. We tried for the longest time to get that changed so you could build a base. And you can now, but it takes 3-5 years to build a base. So the system has always been skewed. But you can’t let that take your ability to keep going forward.

But I liked it from the standpoint of control of supply: there won’t be overproduction, but there won’t be underproduction.

And the dairy farmer—that’s what put them all out of business. There’s no way you can produce all of this milk, and nobody to drink it all [laughs]. So a dairy farm of 80-90 cow herd can’t make it. They say we got a milk price support, but that figure is below the cost of production. Now, how is that support?! [laughs]

As for allotments, I wasn’t quite old enough to know how well they worked in detail, in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, my father and I went into the FSA office to take his name off as the operator and put my name on it. And then they did away with all the allotments. It might have been ’69 or ’70. Before, you could sell your allotment to another farmer or sell it back to the government. Or you could rent them to another farm. A lot of people sold them. I think my daddy rented his out one year, but we planted cotton up until the end, until the allotment system went away.

Though the allotment system had racist discrimination, it did provide some fairness to farmers. You knew you had a secure market no matter what, and you had a fairly good base price there. But all the pricing now is insecure—cotton, wheat, other crops I know about. Sugar might be a little better. Corn—what they are quoting now is way below the cost of production.

The floor price—what you can forfeit to the government in storage. I don’t even know why they still keep records of it [laughs]. You got to go report your acreage, how much you planted, every year, in order to stay in the system.

When the allotment system ended, there was not enough advocacy for its continuity. Black farmers just accepted what was what and went on. I wasn’t keeping up on it, and I didn’t hear of more organizing around this. There might have been some farmers out writing letters and calling Congress. I didn’t hear of more protesting until ’79 when we had the farm crisis. Fred Scott from Sunflower County, MS, went with the tractorcades to DC in ’79 He took his tractor on a trailer all the way to DC! We fundraised the money for his gas and food and all that stuff. 88 was a year bill for debt relief.

Now in our region, we always had good contracts for produce, too. We had a cucumber contract from 1945 until when they signed NAFTA (1994)—for Vlasic and Rainbow pickles, Adkins Pickle. We had contracts with the pepper industry in Louisiana for the long red cayenne they make Tabasco hot sauce out of. We had okra contracts, for processing. We had a contract for black-eyed peas. Cotton was the main cash crop, and corn. But south Mississippi was known for vegetables—and still is. But all that’s gone too now. I attribute that to the industrial food system. And this Covid-19 is proving how vulnerable that system is because you’ve got farmers plowing up and throwing away food, killing hogs and pouring out milk, and you’ve got the people wanting—saying that they can’t get nothing. I was talking to my neighbor and saying this is all messed up [laughs].

This history of allotments, of price floors, of cooperatives is not known outside the farm community. And the farm community is small, and getting smaller every day. That’s the reason you don’t have Main Streets in these little towns. Because we bought a lot of stuff, us locals. But now you’ve got one or two big suppliers. The one in my town, has been around 70-80 years, and it’s closing up. Sold farm supplies. A family-owned outfit.

I got my first time coming into the Federation, and got involved with the tobacco farmers in Georgia and SC, before the buyout when they still had acre allotments. I went to where they bid on the tobacco, on the big hedgehog all wrapped up (that’s what they call the bundles of 300 – 400 pounds of tobacco), in South Georgia. I got in on that in the end. I stayed with Mr. Willie Head Senior. He did nothing but farming. He had about a 10 acre allotment. They heated their tobacco, not like they did in Kentucky drying in the barn; they had that butane gas to get that heat up in there [laughs]. So, I got to sit on that and talk with him and other tobacco farmers over there. And they had a lot of peanuts over there too, the African American farmers. Back then, when they had the quota system, they’d get $700-800/ton. I talked to them a week or two ago and the price has flattened to $450-500. It’s all on contract now. Maybe $600 on a forward contract. They don’t even know what they’re going to get now. So I am saying, how do they expect a farmer to keep up as the price went down and the costs of production went up. So, they say, the way you keep up, is by increasing production. Back then you wouldn’t give them but one ton of peanuts. But now with technology, you get 2, 2.5, 3 tons. So that’s how you’re supposed to keep up. That sounds fair, but there’s only so much you can get out of one acre [laughs]. Every year, you’ve got to get more yield out of that same acre. But, there’s a limit [laughs].

But how do you get us all in one corner—small farmers, mid-size farmers? I’m in the middle of this somewhere—it’s a struggle. You either have to go up in size or go back to small. You can’t farm in the middle. Bring to the powers that be—Congress, the President, at the federal level—get them to see the cracks in this system. It’s proved itself. You’ve got to close the big processing plants—and one plant has 10-15% of the beef—that one plant can break the system.

Why can’t we go back to a local plan of a food system? Instead of one plant that processes 10-15% of the beef, have 20-30 smaller plants that together can process 15% of the chicken, beef, pork. Same thing with grain. It used to be that every other town in Mississippi had a grain elevator where you can go sell your grain. There’s not a one left in the interior of Mississippi. They’re all on the river or on the coast of Mobile. So in order to get your grain to a point of sale, you’ve got to have a truck to carry at least a thousand bushels. I grow grain and forest in Perry County, and the closest elevator is in Mobile, about 80-90 miles away. So, you can’t go down there with 200 bushels. You’ve got to have a tandem truck that can haul at least a thousand bushels. Just about everyone hauls on 18 wheelers. I am blessed my nephew is in the trucking business, but everyone’s not blessed like that. But we used to have an elevator that was four miles away, I could almost drive the combine over there [laughs].

And the same thing in the poultry business. You’ve got all these factory egg houses, but everyone wants the good, local brown eggs now. But you’ve just got a few people who have a hundred hens.

There’s a law here in Mississippi that you can only slaughter 999 hens on a farm. We got that changed because it wasn’t fair. These processors didn’t want you to raise eggs. There used to be mobile processors; they’d process 1200, then go on to the next farm. Or you could build your own.

We’ve got to work at the federal level, but we’ve also got to work in our states too. We’ve got to try to decentralize. The Agricultural Commissioner said this too. It might be a good time for me to write him a letter [laughs]. A lot of people can’t get to the store anyhow. To go to Walmart you have to stand in line. They have restarted a farmers’ market in Gulfport, Mississippi. Cause of the virus we did not start till late June and it ran through Thanksgiving. All this season markets were slower. Only 10 customers at a time and they could not touch anything. Hand sanitizer on every table.

But this is all showing the crack in the system, and this might be a good time for us to get in, to get our train of thought to Congress members, and Senators, and other farm organizations. Like the Farm Bureau, which I am a second generation member—maybe not by choice, but for insurance. They’re almost like the enemy to these issues of fair prices, but I see a crack in there too [laughs]. They’ve seen the light.

As for the Farm Bill, the issue of fair prices relates to the Commodities Title but also the Miscellaneous Title—with its Farmer Outreach & Training Opportunities for socially disadvantaged farmers and its Local Agricultural Marketing Programs (LAMP). I see it going both ways. I don’t see the big acreage changing from commodity crops, like cotton, soybeans, corn, wheat, rye, peanuts, sugar beets—I don’t see the large acreage going away; they’re always going to be there. Now you could decentralize it by saying anything over a thousand acres doesn’t qualify for a payment. But they’ve always got ways around that. Large landowners have ten farms under ten different names. So you’ve got to work on that quota system. You put more money toward local initiatives, farmers’ markets, SNAP. We need to invest in all these programs, but I would focus more on LAMP and SNAP programs—maybe 60-40 [laughs].

And there has to be some support for the next generation of farmers. And for those who are transitioning out, like myself, there has to be some way to pass land from one generation to the next without the tax man eating you up.

But we have to understand that all this commodity crop overproduction came about when Secretary Butz and others told us to plant fencerow to fencerow, that the world was our market; that has not proved to be true [laughs]. Now you got Brazil, China, and everyone else; they know how to farm too.

So, those big companies like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Continental Grain: they can exploit everybody. They can use what they’re getting in Brazil against us; us against Mexico, growing their own corn—which I’ve never figured out, sending corn to Mexico [laughs]. I said what is this? I’ve seen some corn in Mexico—ears as long as my arm [laughs]. Traditional corn, now they can’t sell it. But the companies make their money by moving commodity crops all around.

I served in La Via Campesina International Working Commission on Transnational Companies and Agribusiness. We went to Africa, Europe, and even here in Mississippi where Delta Pine & Land (DP&L) is, one of the biggest agribusiness and timber companies—the biggest producer of cotton seeds in the world. I was in Zimbabwe, South Africa, in the cotton fields, and that company DP&L is just changing it around to LP&D, same company, exploiting cotton farmers around the world. We had to wage a campaign against them, together, internationally. They’re on the television saying they feed the world—that they feed the world. They’ve been using that same slogan for years [laughs]. We’ve got to get better, because the consumer’s got to play a part in this. We’ve got to convince them to buy local. The transnational companies say that they are buying local—and they are pitting farmers all over the globe against each other. They just co-opted what we are saying [laughs]. That’s what I like about La Via Campesina: they try to bring the whole world into this work and movement.

We’ve got to get our local people, our local politicians. My little town, I don’t see why they won’t let us have farmers’ markets. We can keep people six feet apart. In New Orleans, they had it roped off, all the way around. Like Walmart, they only let ten in at a time. With sanitizer, and gloves, and masks. We can make it work.

A restaurant is one of my biggest customers – he had 12 restaurants. They buy yellow squash, eggplant, sweet potatoes. This year way less than in the past. Eggplant - 20 to 40 pounds while last year it was 200 pounds. All closed for a while, then 50% capacity – only three are open now.

The USDA Farm to Family Food Box program: we in the Federation got a small amount: $8-900K. And in my little town, the biggest company, Merchant, a food service company, they got $11 million. They have a bill on their wall for the day they sold a $1 million in one day, back in 1965 [laughs]. So, the whole thing is still in their favor: the big outfits.

Something can be done right now out of all this Covid-19 money. And more of that should have gone to the mid-size farms, the small farmers: some direct support to them too, like everybody else. But then a lot of our Black farmers are 60-70 years old, and they live below the radar. They don’t have their Schedule F and their tax paperwork; they’re operating without that anyway. But still, there ought to be a way to get some support and outreach and assistance to them. Because they are feeding a lot of people. We’ve got to bring that home to the powers that be. They need support just like the restaurants and the airlines. The Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses restaurant chain got $20 million in the first go-around. Money for airlines, but nothing for row crop and vegetable farmers and black farmers who do not have a paper trail since they deal in cash. And they don’t file taxes, and if they do, they aren’t putting their farm income there. The second round did include farmers.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to get my farm in on this second round of payments. You have to go through the bank. But the farmers that really need these funds are not assisted at all.

But I do think we have a good opportunity, to come together, even by zoom, to pull together this history of fair prices and the struggle—and need--for fair prices. The NFFC sponsored research on prices and they found that the USDA has paid Black farmers far less than white farmers, farms that grow cotton, corn, rice. The USDA claimed it was justified because the white farmers had higher net worth, higher education, better access [more complete paperwork, more base acres]. These farmers were far better off than the average farmers in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Very good study: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, places that received payments over so many years. Black farmers want the subsidies to be more fair.

But we can’t give up. It’s a good opportunity for us to make a move—in the crack of the system breaking. Everybody knows it. What are we going to do? Go to Washington; get a good document to present, showing them what we can do and what’s already happened. And make a deal on it. They’re going to start talking about the Farm Bill in the next year or so. This whole pandemic shows the crisis in the system. When there are only three or four processors of pork. We need more local processors – then you would not have that problem. This is an opportunity for small farmers and farmers of color to advance the idea of local production and processing in hope that the new administration will embrace this vision.