MR BEN BURKETT
Ben Burkett’s family has been farming since 1889. Over the years, each generation bought more land and he now runs B&B Farms on 296 acres. He grows 15 different varieties of vegetables, as well as timber. He is active in local, regional, national and international organizations.
African American farmers in the Black belt would have lost a valuable advocate had Ben Burkett moved to Chicago after graduating from Alcorn State University as he had planned. But when his father fell ill, Ben, a fourth-generation farmer stayed in Petal, Mississippi to get the family’s cotton, cucumber, corn and beans to market. Forty years later, Ben has made his mark on his community and the world as a farmer, cooperative organizer, and advocate for southern Black farmers. Farming is never an easy profession but in rural Mississippi long ingrained discrimination denied Black farmers open markets for their crops, access to federal and state programs and even retention of their land. “We achieved the right to vote, but we still needed to achieve the right to survive,” said Ben. Seeking better prices for their watermelons, Ben organized neighboring farm families to sell their crop in Chicago. With the assistance of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Indian Springs Farmers Association was born.
While continuing to farm and serve as a local co-op leader, in 1978 Ben joined the staff of the Emergency Land Fund (ELF), a non-profit whose mission was to save and expand Black farms and assist Black farmers with heirs’ property issues. His role was to identify and work with other Black farmers and land owners to protect their landholdings. When the ELF merged with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1985, Ben’s role was expanded to include spreading the word about the cooperative business model and he began teaching diversified crop development for conservation and marketing purposes. Ben’s knack for connecting with rural communities in the South, his passion for farming, and unique ability to get things done made him a sought-after agricultural trainer.
Ben’s reputation as a farming and rural development expert garnered the attention of Mike Espy, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of Agriculture under the Clinton Administration. Espy appointed Ben to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Committee for Mississippi and was largely responsible for the inclusion of technical assistance funds that enabled more minority farmers to qualify for USDA farm assistance. Through his work with the FSA State Committee, Ben encountered and supported Lester Spell’s candidacy for Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce. Key to Spell’s election, Ben was appointed to the State Marketing Board where he served two terms and continues to be involved.
Ben’s political appointments and his service in various food advocacy organizations including the National Family Farm Coalition, La Via Campesina’s Food Sovereignty Commission, the Rural Coalition and the Community Food Security Coalition helped to raise the profile of the Federation and of agricultural and handicraft co-ops throughout the South. His expertise has taken him to Africa, South America and Southeast Asia where he shared his knowledge of small-scale agriculture and the power of cooperatives.
As a tireless promoter and advocate for the cooperative business model, Ben’s knack for connecting farmers globally and bringing them together for a common cause has made him a sought-after speaker, trainer, organizer and a true example of the cooperative spirit. Ben’s work was recognized with a leadership award from the James Beard Foundation in 2014. Ben Burkett was the President of the National Family Farm Coalition and he represents the NFFC on Via Campesina’s Food Sovereignty Commission. As if he has too much time on his hands, he is also the current director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, the local arm of The Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The Federation, an umbrella organization composed of 35 co-ops, representing 12,000 African American farm families from Texas to North Carolina, assists farmers in land retention and the development of economically self-sufficient communities. Member co-ops purchase supplies and receive marketing, financial and technical assistance through the Federation. Ben believes the co-op structure is the only way to survive in the rural south.
For more than 20 years, Ben has been a leader on many issues – the biggest of which is the Black Farmers Lawsuit, which compensated black farmers for years of institutional discrimination across the country. They started the lawsuit back in 1988, and were finally successful after three appeals. Ben could not believe it: “I never would have thought the government would have paid anybody any money. At the beginning, I would say, ‘you’re never getting a dime.’ But, I was wrong.”
The final settlement ended up allocating about 16,000 farmers nationwide about $50,000. But, Ben would have preferred the money was pooled and went into a trust to borrow against or to use to help new and beginning farmers. That would have allowed the money to help future generations and offer a layer of security to current farmers. Ben tells me that was how the Native Americans handled the case. “The lawsuit was about discrimination in the county office of the
USDA. I got a loan to buy my equipment, my seeder and fertilizer. I couldn’t write no checks. I had to write a check and somebody in the [USDA] office had to sign it. They were only doing black farmers like that, they weren’t doing the white farmers like that. Say, if I wanted to buy $5,000 worth of soya bean seed, I had to go find the seed that I’m getting from the Forest County co-op and he get an invoice. I go back up to the office and he write a check. They sign, I sign and then I have to take it back down to the store. I’m just one.
“A lot of farmers, they go in and get their loan approved. This happened to me too. My loan approved in February or March, but I didn’t get the money ‘til July the 15th. That be cutting time. Planting is over. It was several things like that, that brought the suit about. A lot of them went into the offices and they denied them, wouldn’t even give them the application. They say, ‘You can’t make no money farming, so. . .’ In the lawsuit, it had to happen to you between ’81 and ’96. It was happening before then and it is happening now–after the lawsuit. That’s just the price of doing business, I suppose.
“They pass some kind of rule in Washington, USDA, or Congress. Then it come to the state of Mississippi and the state said, they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to do it. The cost share program, and things, if they don’t want it, they don’t have to do it. We have a County Committee made up of five farmers–do the hiring, the firing, everything. Those fellows up in Washington talking about all that their going to do–they can’t fire nobody. Can’t fire a soul in the state of Mississippi.
“As long as it’s set up that way, we can’t change. Discrimination, morals, ways people think–you can’t policy or legislate that away. That’s just the way my heart is. All kinds of laws about discrimination, regardless of race, religion, creed or color. All the USDA rhetoric. But, it is much better. I remember the ‘60’s, I remember segregation and all of that. It is better. Not as good as we want it to be, but it ain’t as bad as it was.”
Ben Burkett has helped and inspired so many in his travels of the world. The impact that he and his organizations have made will never be forgotten.
Thanks Mr Ben.