Oral History Interview with Ben F. Burkett
Delta Black Farmer Oral History Project
Interviewed by Eleanor Green Jan. 23, 2007
Transcribed by W. Ray
EG: Okay. I am Eleanor Green and I am here with Ben Burkett and it is January 23, 2007 and the interview is for the Delta Black Farmer Project. I have questions that we formulated but feel free to add anything that is not on my questions. Alright. The first one is pretty easy. Can you tell me your full name?
BB: Ben F. Burkett.
EG: What is the F?
BB: Frank. F-R-A-N-K.
EG: Tell me when you were born?
BB: August 8, 1951 at Hattiesburg, MS.
EG: Can you tell me about your parents? Were they from Hattiesburg?
BB: Well, they say Hattiesburg, but they actually lived about twenty miles out in the country from Hattiesburg. Both of my parents lived were from that vicinity of the rural area. On my mother’s side I do know that they been in there since about 1866. I haven’t did much research on my father’s side, only my mother’s side
EG: 1866. Did your family – did you grow up with your family owning land?
EG: Did ya’ll have a farm?
BB: We farmed.
EG: Do you know how and when your family acquired the land?
BB: My mother’s grandfather – it would be my great-grandfather four generations ago acquired a homestead of the 164 acres through the Homestead Act in 1886. And that was basically Indian territory until a treaty was signed deeding the land to the federal government. The Homestead Certificate is filed at the Land Office in Washington, D.C. There was not a courthouse in the town at the time.
EG: There was a courthouse you had to file in D.C.
BB: Um hm.
EG: And the land is still being farmed?
BB: Still being farmed and each generation added to it so it is now about 255 acres of farm land.
EG: Do you farm all of the land?
BB: Just two heirs left. Myself and my niece, my sister’s daughter.
EG: What do you grow on the land?
BB: I grow vegetable crops and cantelope and I am starting out a goat herd. In the past cotton was my main crop until the ‘80’s and I grew soybeans, corn, wheat, all of the traditional row crops. But now I am in vegetable (inaudible).
EG: How did you come to leave cotton?
BB: Well what happened my area of cotton which is a good crop under the farm program in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s you could sell your acreage – your right to plant cotton. And most of the people in south Mississippi sold their rights to the farmers in the Delta. They cotton based. Cotton left that area. But in the last five years they made a return. I consider myself a hill farmer. You know Mississippi got a Delta farmer and a hill farmer. Cotton is being returned back to the (inaudible) hills.
EG: You didn’t mention watermelons.
BB: Watermelons is one of my mainline crops. Watermelon (Inaudible).
EG: How has technology changed in what and how you’ve produced things over time?
BB: Well it changed but at the same time it has remained the same. In order to have a good farm crop. You got to have good seed, good land and the weather is something you can’t control so you got to have good seed to have a crop. I guess the biggest thing that technology – equipment technology. What would normally take ten people to do something, with modern equipment you can be doing it with two people. Same quality definite change. I am not a proponent of genetic engineering of seed but that technology is out there now. A lot of farmers use like cottons, row cropping just in the vegetable industry. So we’ve got much better quality seed I would say and the technology of computers and better equipment have really changed the dynamics of farming.
EG: Do you know if your family farmed elsewhere before they came to the Petal area?
BB: That I haven’t been able to see, I have only been able to go back to the 1870’s and 1886. You are talking about just twenty years after the Civil War. So I am wondering how did my great-grandfather would know enough about (inaudible) to acquire a homestead? Or (inaudible).
EE: That’s a good question.
BB: It really is. That’s another research case.
EE: What is the value of the land to you and your family – not the monetary value, but what does the land mean to you?
BB: It is our livelihood. It is our life. I mean that land has been 120 years in our family. Definitely I want to pass it on to the next generation and hope the next generation will pass it on although the area is being pressured by the Town of Hattiesburg to build subdivisions out that way. Definitely the land is more valuable than money to me and my family. We have done had several offers to buy it. That not even (inaudible) question.
EE: So you have it set up to keep it in the family for generations to come?
BB: Well yes and no. All we can do is try to train the next generation the value of holding on to it and passing it on.
EE: Your daughter works on the farm with you. Is she learning the value?
BB: I hope so. I believe she’s caught on to it.
EE: Have you used assistance such as FSA programs and USDA programs to keep the farm going?
BB: I remember distinctly in 1968 my father went down to the, then it was the ASCS office. He took his name off and put my name on as the farm operator.
EE: What is ASCS?
BB: Before it was FSA it was the Agriculture and Stabilization Conservation Service Office. Then in the ‘80’s it changed to FSA. It was ASCS Agriculture Stabilization Conservation Service Office. So I been involved in one way or another since 1968 in some type of program (inaudible).
EE: What is your educational background?
BB: I graduated from the (inaudible) which was the high school at the time of segregation. The only kind of school in Forrest County for black people. I went on to Alcorn State University where I studied agriculture. I graduated from there in 1973. I returned back to the farm after graduation and I basically have been farming ever since. Even now I work some for the Cooperation Association. Most of my income depends on farming.
EE: How did you become to be associated with the Association of Southern Cooperatives and the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives?
BB: Well all of our local cooperatives (inaudible) association in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s and we didn’t know anything about any of those organizations. We had been to a meeting in Jackson or somewhere and Mr. Melvin Smith was one of the speakers and he explained to us about the benefit of being in an association. And I think (inaudible) became a member of the Association there in ’82 and have been a member there ever since. My involvement as a Staff Person (inaudible) first, but I came out of the Cooperative itself. (Inaudible) That is how you get to be an employee by being a member of the local cooperative.
EE: Now are you an employee of the federation or MAC?
EE: Your position – director – MAC?
BB: State Coordinator.
EE: State Coordinator?
BB: Right. Mississippi Association of (inaudible). That’s an appointed position. Executive Director (inaudible).
EE: How long have ya’ll been working with farmers in the Delta?
BB: Mississippi Association (inaudible) and Southern Cooperative can go back to 1968, or maybe a little before. I know from 1968 on to the present the Federation of Southern Cooperative (inaudible) have been involved with farmers here in the Delta. That’s almost forty years.
EE: What kind of things have they done with farmers in the Delta?
BB: My earliest recollection is the North Bolivar Farmers Cooperative outside Mound Bayou. The Federation has kept organized and sponsored that cooperative. At one time they had a full time staff person assigned just to that part of the Delta. Several of the founding members of the Federation signed a charter federation from the Delta (inaudible) Mound Bayou. L.C. Dorsey signed the charter for the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives as well as other farmers in Tallahatchie County, F. Bailey out of Holmes County, all of them people are incorporated in both organizations so the Association (inaudible).
EE: What can you tell me about the railroad and a lot of people in the Delta acquired their land?
BB: From my understanding, this has been told to me by several farmers. In order for Illinois Central Railroad to build a railroad here in the Delta they acquired large tracts of land to build it and they built the railroad and opened up the trade here in the Delta. They said the railroad was coming through in sections which is 640 acres. The railroad track only took up the right-of-way, but the government gave them the whole section. (inaudible)
And a lot of the individuals that was working for the railroad (inaudible) had an inside track on when some land was going to be sold…
EE: I see.
BB: … so that’s the way some of them acquired some of their property.
EE: Which railroad was it?
BB: Illinois Central was one of the major ones out of Chicago, but they had several of them, they called spur lines they called GM&O, and I can’t think of all the rest of them, but they was local, but the mail line was Illinois Central. But the Illinois Central went to Greenville and Columbus. Other railroads that went into the interior of the Mississippi Delta. And that was the way by working for the railroad and farming that they acquired the land.
EE: How would you say that cotton has changed for black farmers in the Delta over the years and what role did subsidies play?
BB: I said it to you a while ago. Cotton, for all of us my age and older through college meant a good living. Cotton was the backbone in Mississippi and even today I think cotton is like third money crop in the State of Mississippi. I stopped raising cotton for basically two reasons: The size of the thing. If you ain’t got two or three hundred acres to plant cotton you can’t produce cotton. And the subsidy part has always played a part ever since I have been involved I think since 1958. Because the price and supply. We had the ability to produce too much cotton some years. In order for them to keep the price stable that’s how the subsidy came in. They parity it or subsidy it or (inaudible) is what they call it now but it all comes down to stabilize the price. And a lot of people say it should not happen or should, but I’m basically in favor of it (inaudible). The way it’s delivered to small farmers or big farmers that could be changed. They need to make it more equitable between small farmers, black farmers, white farmers, needs to be more sheltered. But without it you just couldn’t hardly raise cotton. (Inaudible) make a fair profit out of it. Cotton is a very expensive crop to grow. Takes $300-$400 per acre before you ever harvest. If you plant 200 acres of cotton you’ve got a hundred thousand dollars out there in the field. So as a farmer, I need some kind of assurance that I can get a return on my expenses. That’s the way I look at the program. Definitely the place – not where cotton price is high enough $8 or $9 dollars a pound then you wouldn’t need the support from the government. Basically people look at it as money coming out of the U.S. Treasury, but in reality it’s not. Because the way it is set up now the cotton is at a certain price then the government will only pay out a certain amount. The (inaudible) the price stays fairly stable (inaudible) and that’s the way farmers, and I’m talking from experience, when we say we don’t know how much cotton we are going to plant this time of the year. We know how much our subsidy payment is going to be then we can take that to the bank and get our operating money for our seed and supplies. It’s complicated for people that don’t understand it (inaudible) that’s farming knows how necessary it is to have the insurance or that are assured that I’m going to receive something. You know farming is a big gamble. I can plant seeds in the ground who knows there might be a hail storm coming. There might be a hurricane coming and destroy the crop. We need some type of insurance to assure that you are going to at least get your expenses back.
EE: How many African American cotton farmers would you say there are in the United States?
BB: According to the Census of 2002 there was a little less than five hundred in the whole United States.
EE: How many in Mississippi?
BB: A hundred and fifty-six I believe but I disputed those numbers. I’m going to say – I’m going to say it’s, I’m guessing it’s closer (inaudible). Most of them are not counted in the Census.
EE: How many do you think there are in the Delta?
BB: All of them are in the Delta in Mississippi.. Maybe one – maybe three outside this Delta area is growing cotton. And most of those are concentrated in Washington, Coahoma, Bolivar in the heart of the cotton growing area.
EE: How did race affect black farmers in Mississippi and the Mississippi Delta?
BB: Now that’s the question that has always been around. Race has always been a factor in this. A lot of people will deny it but it’s there. It has been, is today, and probably will for a lot of years to come. I had the opportunity to serve eight years on the State FSA board. If a farmer would come in with their appeal. I noticed that you could have two farmers side by side growing cotton. One got a base of 900 pounds to the acre, and the black farmer would have 485. I wondered why it would have such a disparity? Well when they was giving out these bases long years ago there wasn’t any African Americans or black farmers in the room. The bases were given out. I can’t understand how neighbors with the same land with the two variations in base. That would determine how much the federal payment would be. You can image the thousands of dollars that have been lost over the last forty or fifty years on just on that one factor.
EE: The base is not the same for every farm?
BB: The base is not the same for every farm. I know of farmers in this Delta that were twelve hundred pound base. See I was serving on that committee. But most black farmers – I think the highest black farmer I’ve seen was 650. Now they say those bases is, I can’t hardly say that word, is quantified, cannot be changed.
EE: Can’t be changed.
BB: Can’t be changed. The only place it can be changed is for Congress to go back and change the law. Cause these base have been here now for seventy-five, eighty-five….
EE: What is it based on?
BB: On your farming history. How much cotton you produced on a five year average. You dropped the low, dropped the high, the three…
EE: Did yours change over time? No.
BB: It can’t be changed. Really in these farm bills there needs to be some mechanism that would allow a farmer to go back in and re-establish their base. Definitely now you are getting more cotton per acre thirty years ago. That’s just one of the factors of race, definitely the financials, getting loans, obtaining loans, terms of credit, over the years there has always been a struggle for black farmers. Even when you get a loan your interest rate will always be a little higher than (inaudible). And over the years it takes a toll. Because you are in a worse financial situation than the white. Also even in the market place when it comes time to sell your cotton. Cotton is graded on straight measure, fair measure. Over the years the black farmer’s cotton is always a little less quality and that made you get a little less money. That’s kind of changed now cause most of – well all of the cotton now is graded in one central place and nobody don’t know whose cotton that is. (Inaudible). Back when I was growing it was graded locally and that made a big difference.
EE: I think that most of the people that have been interviewed here they all harvest it and put it in modules..
EE: And then the modules get picked up by somebody and taken somewhere…
BB: To the gin.
EE: To the gin.
BB: (inaudible) and samples now I think. I think at least 90% of all the cotton is cotton samples is stationed here in the whole country. Samples…
EE: Did the civil rights movement and the years which followed affect the atmosphere on your farm and the farms that ya’ll have worked with?
BB: Well, I was just a little bit too young to really be active. From my understanding farmers played a big part in civil rights. Because they was – some of the places that the Freedom Riders had to stay in, the farmers let them stay in. And they used their land to sign many people’s bonds to get them out of jail. So land ownership paid a big part in civil rights. The land you know you could put up a property bond to get people out of jail. They’d lose their – many places here in the Delta as well as the hills.
EE: You mean by losing their land doing that?
BB: I’m quite sure some probably did, but I don’t know any.
EE: We’ve talked to several people who have said it was a place to stay, especially in the Mound Bayou area – that was a safe place.
BB: That was a safe place when the first NAACP came in Mound Bayou.
EE: What role would you say Farmers’ Markets play in farming today.
BB: For the small interests high value products, Farmers’ Markets are the perfect place to participate. They are springing up all over the place. Every town in Mississippi want to have a Farmer Market there. Actually there are more Farmer Markets than there is farmers I believe. But (inaudible) and myself and south Mississippi and they participate in Farmers Markets in New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, Hattiesburg, and the Gulf Coast. We have been active in Farmers Markets, selling in Farmers Markets now for fifteen years. It is a good source of income. Not all are small farmers. (inaudible) and want to be full time farmers and utilize two or three Farmers Markets and it’s a living but it’s hard – well, it’s not so much hard but it’s steady work. You have to constantly be planting, you got to constantly be harvesting. You got to have a variety of product and get it to the market. You dealing in a premium market place and you got to have a high quality fresh product and definitely the trend of organic production is increasing every year.
You can have a certified organic farm and sell in the Farmers Market and a new market has just been opened up this year in Jackson which is a fabulous facility. It serves the entire state of Mississippi. Products come into that market from all over the state of Mississippi. And here in the Delta I think Greenwood, Greenville, Memphis which is not too far away, Farmers’ Markets that they can utilize even with your commercial farmers.
EE: What role did your cooperative play in Katrina?
BB: Yeah in the (inaudible) Association our facility was badly damaged by the hurricane itself. And we were able to put it back together fairly – like in two or three days after the storm we was – we used our facility as a warehouse facility for products that was moving on to Biloxi or Gulfport. Although we had severe damage – I think the storm was on a Monday, we had our first truckload came in on that Thursday. Eighteen wheelers was bringing in but we used smaller trucks do it to Gulfport and Biloxi. (inaudible)
EE: What kind of things?
BB: It started off with food and water and clothing and in the end it was food, water, clothing, furniture, everything people needed, medicine supplies. A little of everything.
EE: Did you take truckloads of fresh produce down?
BB: Cooperative took what we could salvage out of our fields. (inaudible) Farms America, we delivered shelled peas, butterbeans, greens, whatever we could salvage and process. Get it shelled and bagged cause they were – about two or three weeks after the storm they really wanted fresh produce down there. And we played a part in that. Catholic Churche in Biloxi and other churches in Gulfport and Crooked Creek delivered product.
EE: Going back to growing up on the farm – what was the most memorable moment for you growing up on a farm?
BB: I can’t remember there was so many of them. Most memorable? It was so many of them. I can tell you the most memorable but it was shocking too at the same time. I was about eight or nine years old and we had this pig. My grandfather had. We had raised this pig (inaudible) some kind of hog. My grandfather said come go with me. He just called the pig up to him and then hit the pig in the head with a hammer.
EE: And it was dinner.
BB: I wasn’t expecting that. I never forgot that and I couldn’t have been over seven or eight years old. But one thing that it would teach you and you learned a lesson is that in this farming business you don’t get attached to nothing. A chicken or hog or a cow, a duck. A cow might be supper tomorrow.
EE: Did – I know that you have worked with the Association and stuff over the years but you said your main income is farming. Did your father just farm or did he have offsite…
BB: My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather was all full time farmers. I’ve been full time farmer since 1988. Probably end up back full time farming. (inaudible)
EE: I don’t think they ought to let you leave. Those are my official questions. What else would you like to tell me?
BB: I just have to say about here in the Delta is there has been a lot of progress made but we still have a long way to go for equitable between the races. And definitely that depending upon the economy without – you can have all these rights to vote and all these people to go to school together and everything else, but if you don’t have no economic base you really hadn’t achieved nothing. But at the Mississippi Association of Federation that has always been our prime objective in the cooperative movement was to create these types of opportunities for small, black people, other minorities, well white people have been part of it. I used to say (inaudible) to farm and make a living if you wanted to farm full time you should be able to do that and make a decent living. And if you wanted to work, or in a plant or at to school or whatever, you should be enough there to live comfortably. I don’t think we have made it quite there yet but there have been a lot of improvement.
EE: What do you think the stumbling blocks are?
BB: In a free enterprise capitalists that we have. It is capitalism. (inaudible) And that is what capitalism is all about. Just knowing the right people, knowing the place, what’s going on, what’s going to happen twenty years from now, what’s going to be thirty years from now. Too many of us have not been able to be a part of that decision making. That’s the reason why we are fighting so hard to see in the farm bill.
EE: What kind of things would you like to see in the new farm bill?
BB: We’d like to see – definitely we would like to see funding for the 2501 Program which would provide technical assistance to small and disadvantaged farmer. We would like to see the cost share program increased for small farmers who utilize – we can have money to utilize for property, conservation efforts, for irrigation, for (inaudible) small equipment that farmers need. And on the subsidy payment we would like to readdress that issue of bases, crop bases on row crops. Also money in there for the support of institutions, such as colleges, research for sustainable agriculture, and direct lending increases. You know most of the lending now is guaranteed. Government will guarantee to the local bank but that don’t work too well.
EE: So the government guarantees it but you have got to go to the local bank to get it.
BB: To get it.
EE: So you still have got to deal with whether the local people want to give it to you?
BB: That’s right and the paper work that is involved. So that is some of the things.
EE: Do you know anything about the Delta Cooperative Farm and Providence Cooperative Farm?
BB: Where is that located at?
EE: One was in Rochdale, MS and one was in Providence.
EE: Yeah. Well yeah. It was originally R-o-c-h-d-a-l-e originally I guess. We just found the document and we haven’t found anyone who knows about them.
BB: That was before my time I think. What is the date on some of that documents? I probably know somebody that knows something about it.
EE: It was written by Sam Cranklin, Jr. Professor of Meritus of (inaudible) Seminary. And it looks like it was in ’79 and somewhere around there. In the ‘70’s as it doesn’t actually have a date.
BB: It’s not before my time. (inaudible)
EE: Do you have anything else to say?
EE: Would you like to tell me why you haven’t cut your hair in six years?
BB: It is a one man protest against the War in Iraq. I’m totally against that war. And when the troops first went to Iraq I said I was not going to cut my hair until the all the American fighting forces returned from Iraq.
END OF DOCUMENT