The rural South has long been a tangle of contradictions and inequities. Kindnesses and loyalties run deep; so does tension. Old-fashioned values still preside, but they are slowly sinking into the swamps as young people flee to the cities, desperate for a living wage. Change may happen slower down here than it does in other parts, but if the southern 20th century has seen one overarching theme, perhaps it’s been the sluggish, painful giving up: of land, of traditions, of hope. Rural poverty is at a twenty-year peak, and black farm ownership has plummeted from 15 million acres at the turn of the century to 4 million today, from one million farmers to a minority of 50,000. “I think things are changing,” says Amadou Diop, his lilting voice optimistic. “The KKK still has a presence in the next town over, but now it has a black female mayor!”
Amadou started his walk into the woods in Senegal, where he was born and raised on a small farm. He studied agricultural science in Tunisia, then did his first master’s in animal science in Montpellier, France. After a few years back home running the family business, he came to the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama for a second master’s, this time in agricultural and resource economics. Along the way, he’s picked up Arabic, French, English, Spanish, Wolof, Pular, Mandingo and Serere. If only a few of those come in handy in the rural South, his other skills, luckily, seem to come in multiples too.
Amadou works for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that is one of the brightest lights in an otherwise dim forest. The Federation, born out of the civil rights movement, is a nonprofit that strives to help black farmers stay on their land by setting up cooperatives, teaching sustainable agriculture, promoting silvopasture (using the forest as a grazing ground), setting up credit unions, coaching marketing, running a youth development program and a work force development program (how to type, get a GED, build a resumé, take online classes, etc.) and about five thousand other things. The Federation has offices in four southern states and members—about 2,000—in thirteen.
Its origins lie in‘60s-era protests by black sharecroppers who leased acreage from white landowners that had been paid government subsidies not to grow cotton, which was threatening to flood the market. Having been denied their portion of the subsidy, some sharecroppers sued—but what ensued was, for many, worse: white landowners all over the South, pissed off and feeling threatened, kicked their tenants out en masse, regardless of their involvement in the lawsuits. Many left, migrating to cities north and west. But a few remained, teaming up with civil rights workers in the process, and pledged to buy land (with money received from the victorious lawsuit) and keep farming.
In Epes, Alabama, they secured 1200 acres of land, a first triumph. Thirty years hence, that land now boasts a natural-regeneration forest for demonstration purposes (as well as harvesting), hunting areas, a learning center, computer lab, auditorium, pastures, fish-breeding ponds, organic vegetable garden, lodging for students, and a low-income housing project closer to town. Every August the Federation stages a reunion where members share what they’re doing in their own states and attend workshops on subjects like goat-rearing, women in agriculture, and marketing vegetables. Federal agencies like the USDA, US Forestry Service, FSA (Farm Service Agency), and NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service) send representatives, and discussions between minority farmers and the institutions that they once viewed, quite justifiably, as the enemy, are fostered positively, and bear fruit.
Amadou, for his part, directs the Forestry Program. Much of southern land, now that no one’s left to work it (or was it the other way around?) is planted fencepost-to-fencepost with cheap, fast-growing loblolly pines that get clear-cut every ten or fifteen years. Agreements between farmers and loggers are routinely made on handshakes; handshakes after which a logger might cut trees out of a neighbor’s forest if the boundaries ‘weren’t clear enough,’ handshakes after which a logger might pay $50,000 but net $125,000. “A lot of farmers are unaware of their rights, or the value of their land, or other things they might do with it,” says Amadou, shaking his head forlornly. Many of the big logging companies are getting rid of their US land in favor of cheaper trees in South America. Farmers with small acreages, especially those who just want to thin out their forests rather than clear-cut, can’t find people willing to cut their trees, with loggers spouting the logging equivalent of Linda Evangelista’s famous “I don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” In short, brainstorming other roles for forested land has begun to look like a better and better idea. Amadou visits those who call the Federation requesting a consultant, and appraises their land, or teaches them ways they can add value to their forests.
Silvopasture, for instance. There is increasing demand for goat meat, especially for ethnic markets. Cows need grass to eat, but goats thrive on the variety of undergrowth in forests. Their voracious appetites for scrub keep the ground clear, so there’s no need to burn the underbrush that competes with the trees for resources, like conventional tree farming practices every few years. Their manure, likewise, nourishes the trees.
Amadou also provides technical assistance to people who are beginning to grow medicinal herbs like golden seal, ginseng, wild basil, and wild cohosh root for the health food sector, or those who have taken to incubating logs and growing shiitake mushrooms on them. “The aim is to be equally sustainable in terms of the people, the environment, and economics,” Amadou explains. “Don’t just export your wood; keep the profit in the community. Create a local industry like floor- or furniture-making, get a portable sawmill.” He believes that even if growing hardwood takes longer, the benefits are multifaceted: the biodiversity in a hardwood forest is outstanding, and hardwood—hogwood, oak, and nut trees, for instance—fetch a better price. “Pine forests for pulpwood are fast, easy money, which is why people have chosen that option, but we’re not just appealing to sentiment when we recommend hardwood forests for lumber instead—they make financial sense, too. The quail, deer and raccoon come back, and recreation is a growing sector, so people can offer hunting, hiking, or horseback riding on their land, another added income possibility.” Amadou’s grants for the forestry program average $100-150,000. Similar state programs would run in the millions, but Amadou has no choice but to make the money stretch.
Amadou also runs the youth development program, although the money’s about to run out for that, too. Every year, about 10-15 local young teenagers spend the summer learning about soil, growing vegetables, and selling them at the farmer’s market. “The first weekend, they sold nothing,” says Amadou. “They were very upset. I said, ‘Develop your social skills! Market your produce!’ We talked about it. Eventually, they sold out.”
Although the Federation aims to help black farmers, they make
themselves available to everyone. “If you’re a small farmer, you’re
struggling whether you’re black or white,” Amadou points out. Step by
tiny step, the Federation hopes, against escalating odds, to change
In October and November 2006, I meandered circuitously between San Francisco to Miami under the auspices of Minnesota-based nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, interviewing farmers, ecologists, musicians and activists for a book on youth revitalizing rural landscapes all across America. Hero-bosses Jan Joannides and Brett Olsen have allowed me to post my interviews here, but look for them in the Youth Renewing the Countryside book, due out in the spring of 2008.