May 19, 2006
Interviewed by Eleanor Green and Emily Weaver
Transcribed by W. Ray
EG: My name is Eleanor Green and I am here with Cornelius Toole on May 19, 2006 at 8:45 in the morning and we are interviewing him for the Delta Black Farmers’ History Project.
EG: Can you tell me your full name?
CT: Cornelius Toole, Sr.
EG: Can you tell me when you were born?
EG: 11/08/58. That’s my mother’s birthday, but a different year.
EG: Where were you born?
CT: Mound Bayou.
EG: You were born in Mound Bayou?
CT: Um Hmm.
EG: Can you tell me about your parents, what were their names?
CT: My mother’s name was Alene (inaudible) Toole. My daddy’s name was (inaudible) Toole.
EG: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
CT: Five brothers and five sisters.
EG: Are any of them farming?
EG: Are any of them still in the area?
EG: How much land did or does your family own?
CT: My family only had half an acre. Yeah. Half an acre.
EG: Did your parents farm?
CT: They were sharecroppers.
EG: Do you know when they started sharecropping?
CT: They started beginning back in the ‘40’s.
EG: The land that we are standing on, is this where your family always had their half acre?
CT: No. This is some land that I bought.
EG: How much do you have here?
CT: Nine and a half acres.
EG: Is this still in Mound Bayou?
EG: How long have you been farming the land?
CT: I’ve been farming ever since about ’86.
EG: What did you start out growing?
CT: Basic stuff that we use in this area. Beans, a lot of beans, okra, (inaudible).
EG: So you have always been a vegetable farmer.
EG: Do you know any of the history of this land that you own? What was here before?
CT: Soybeans. This land was once owned by Mr. Seaberry. He is deceased. He worked this land before I got it. I bought it from a lawyer in Clarksdale. I think he bought it for taxes or something like that.
EG: So you have grown peas and butterbeans and that type, did you say turnips?
CT: Well, all types of greens. Turnips, mustard, collards. You know different, common greens we use in this area.
EG: Has the technology that you have used in your growing changed over time?
CT: Oh yes. We are learning. As a matter of fact, I go to seminars all the time to learn new things about growing vegetables. But its mostly, I guess the thing that keeps us going is the passion for growing.
EG: What changes have you had to make to make the farm work over time?
CT: Well, in some of our techniques, we finding out that we need to incorporate things like greenhouses and drip systems and stuff like that. That we normally would not have in this area. We normally would just ut seeds in the ground and just depend on you know Mother Nature and the weather for the outcome. But we are learning that in a lot of things you have got to get into a more controlled environment. So what we are doing now, some of the stuff that we grow we be growing in a greenhouse. And we will be using instead overhead sprinklers we will be using a drip system because some vegetables do better when you put water over the top.
EG: When did your family come to the Delta?
CT: Well we were all basically born in this area. My family was from a little place called Hushpuckena which is right down the road here. Some of the brothers and sisters left but they stayed here.
EG: Did they farm there or did they just have the half acre?
CT: Well we have always had gardens. Even when we were sharecropping they would always allow you enough space to grow a garden, so we have always grown vegetables and raised livestock, cows, hogs and chickens and stuff like that from the beginning. My dad was a (inaudible) from the Depression that happened. I think from that point he decided that he, you know, if he would use the land and even if there was a depression and you are cut off from the other parts of the world, or if money is not any good, you can still eat if you grow stuff. And so from that we always would grow our own vegetables and stuff.
EG: Do you know if there were ever any buildings on this land or if it ever had a farmhouse?
CT: I don’t think so. I think it has just basically been a field here because their home place was right across the bayou here.
EG: How important, what is the value of the land to you?
CT: What is the value?
EG: Not like the monetary value, but what does the land mean to you?
CT: Well it really helps us to feel a little more secure in knowing that we can grow vegetables and stuff and not have to depend on vegetables being trucked in. And then another thing, most of the vegetables and stuff, farmers have to use genetic stuff to boost the yield on vegetables. It is not really the same as using (inaudible) or organic seeds. And so we really want to get back to, you know, organic, or as close as we can to that. And we want to get away from chemical free vegetables. We want to really get back to chemical free vegetables.
EG: So you try to be chemical free and organic as you can?
CT: Well we are transitioning now. You know I am using some chemicals. But within about three years hopefully we will be totally free, cause it’s a system. You know that is a system just like the chemical grown stuff, it is a system. So we are trying to change and get into the system of chemical free vegetables.
EG: How many children do you have?
CT: I’ve got four.
EG: Are any of them interested in continuing farming?
CT: No, I don’t think so.
EG: Do you see a time when the land will no longer be in your family?
CT: No, what we plan to do is to set up some systems where you won’t have to necessarily want to be a farmer to, you know, keep your land. If we can set up some, you know, if we can develop our farms where it is a system, where people, labor can come in and do things, then basically, you know, the family can basically manage the process. I think in that way I think it will stay in the family and the boys to get them to actually come out and dig and plant and do all that. Unless there is a disaster where you can’t do anything else by technology. I doubt it.
EG: Have you utilized any assistance to continue farming, such as co-ops or USDA programs or like learning seminars?
CT: Oh yes.
EG: What kinds of seminars have you gone to?
CT: Well we have been to a lot of workshops on growing things, stuff, and you know all kinds of technical help with that. Showing you techniques and stuff like that. We go to at least three or four every year.
EG: What organizations do you work with to go to the workshops?
CT: Well we have been doing some stuff through, we’ve did some stuff with (inaudible). We’ve done some stuff with (inaudible). Those are the two main ones.
EG: Have you worked with Growing Power?
CT: Well we have attended some workshops at Growing Power but they were sponsored through Mega or (inaudible) or something like that.
EG: Can you tell me what Mega stands for?
EG: We will ask her.
CT: Yeah, I mean I can get the information. I have so much information. I just, I just those (inaudible).
EG: How would you say race has affected your farm?
EG: Or has it affected it?
CT: You talking about being black?
CT: Oh, how has that affected my farm? Well I don’t really know. I mean you know, I mean, I don’t know, I don’t think it really had any direct affect on it. Well you know, I mean, we, I don’t think it really had any direct affect on it. You know, the system is the way it is, you know, and you just have to do what you have to do. Not directly I don’t think.
EG: Did the Civil Rights Movement in the years that followed affect the atmosphere in the area and farming?
CT: Well, you know, the Movement helped a lot of things. Because you know, by making people aware of some of the affects of, you know, relationships between whites and blacks. You know, because sometimes people do things that they don’t know. Sometimes they do things because they know and they feel like that for economic power they should do it like this sin order that they can have control. And I think it made people more aware of the fact that we were all, you know, humans and deserved more and maybe better treatment in some areas. So you know, it enlightened people on what and how people feel about things. And people that are sensitive they, you know, try to change things.
EG: Do you have a memorable moment working on your land? When something happened, special memories? A really good growing year?
CT: It has been a learning experience. I mean, it was a pretty good year last year considering some of the other years. It has all really been a challenge because we are in the developmental stage with it because we went from just growing vegetables to have some to eat, to actually trying to do it commercially, to actually growing vegetables for sale. And that’s a pretty big transition so we are just in the growing stages of that.
EG: How has the opening of the Cleveland Farmers’ Market affected your farming?
CT: Well it helps for an outlet because there have been times that I have had just fields of greens and fields of stuff and really didn’t have a market and the Farmers’ Market, it kind of, what it do it kind of helps, you know, it gives us a market and that way we can kind of get into it and develop some things so that hopefully we can develop bigger markets than just the local market. It’s kind of like a stepping stone.
EG: What about the Department of Agriculture, the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program?
CT: Oh yeah. That’s has been a big help because that kind of helped us to have a market too. Because doing the vouchers kind of gives us an outlet too. So it has been a help.
EG: That is the last official question. Oh, but Emily has a question. If someone asked you to characterize yourself….
EW What types of words, what words would you use?
EG: What words would you use to characterize yourself?
CT: Characterize me?
CT: Oh, I don’t really know. I guess, kind of versatile. You know I do a lot of different things. So I guess that would be the word.
EG: What is your work other than farming?
CT: Oh I do a lot of things. I do wood crafting. I am the organist at my church. Father, husband, I do electric stuff, metal type stuff, I design things. I do a lot of different things. So that is why I say versatile.
EG: Well is there anything else you would like to add about the growing in the Delta?
CT: Well I think this initiative is worth doing because based on the statistics our food that we eat has to travel about fifteen hundred miles. A lot of it for us to even get our meals. And if we had a problem with, you know, transporting or were cut off we really would not have any food to eat.
Unless someone was actually growing food in this area. And I think for that reason alone we need to develop this initiative and get some food growing in the Delta. Because we have, you know, some of the richest soil in the world but we don’t really grow that many vegetables in the area. And so for that reason alone I think we need to develop in those areas and we need to find out the affects of the sun and rain and all that and how it is going to affect vegetables and make the necessary adjustments to actually grow vegetables in this area. And with this area being a chemical area too where they spray their conventional crops we need to find ways to actually co-exist with vegetables because a lot of time the drifts and stuff affect our vegetables.
EG: Can you tell me about the NRCS project you are working with?
CT: Well NRCS has got an initiative going where they cost sharing irrigation equipment for farmers and they make it possible for the small farmers with less than a hundred acres to be able to have irrigation. That includes drip systems, sprinkler systems, wells, floods, and just whatever. And without that, a lot of what’s happening now would not have happened that fast, possibly would not have happened at all. But through this project with NRCS most of the small vegetable farmers in this area in Bolivar County will have irrigation.
EG: About how many are you working with?
CT: Well it’s about twenty something farmers that’s growing vegetables in this area. And we got about twenty, between nineteen and twenty-one people that have signed up this year. So we will be working with them this year to put in wells and to put in drip systems.
EG: Is there anything that you would like to add?
CT: No. Not really.
EG: Well thank you so much for your time.
CT: I hope it worked out all right.
EG: Can I take a couple of pictures of you with your vegetables?
EW I was moving around when ya’ll started so I may have missed this, but where did your inspiration for becoming a farmer come from, did you always want to be a farmer?
CT: Well actually we grew up on the farm so it has just been a passion. I have been growing stuff since I was a little boy. We’ve planted trees and different things like that so it has just been a passion. Growing things has been a passion and it is just something that we have always done.
EW We seem to export so much more than we keep here in the Delta as farmers.
CT: Oh yeah.
EW And when you say farmer here in the Delta and farmer in the Midwest it means two totally different things.
CT: Oh yeah definitely. No we have soybeans and cotton and rice, stuff like that. But we depend on other people for our vegetables.
EG: Is the corn you?
CT: Yeah. Yeah. All this is me. Everything. All of this area to the treeline.
EW Eleanor is talking about corn.
CT: I stumbled across something this year. I got some of this little old bitty corn.
EW Little bitty corn?
CT: Yeah. Is it off?
CT: I’m going to take you – as a matter of fact we’ve got lettuce there, and we got onions, and those are your watermelons. We can walk down here and I will show you English peas.
EW I don’t want to step on any of your growing stuff.
EG: Walk over here and we’re okay. It’s going to be a little wobbly but I am going to get it.
CT: Those are the English peas.
EG: Those are the ones you can just pick and eat.
CT: Yeah you can put them in stir fry and stuff like that.
EG: We had them last night with olive oil and garlic.
EW What is that in the middle running in the black line?
CT: Oh those are butterbeans and cabbage.
EW Which one make the pretty flowers?
EW The yellow flowers.
CT: Oh that’s squash.
EG: That looks like a volunteer squash.
CT: Actually it was a seed we planted and then we had to…oh here is one. It’s a bunch of them on here. This is what the English pea and these here are really fat. They are ready to pick. English peas are ready to pick.
EG: Sounds like we need to open the Farmers’ Market this weekend.
CT: And then I got brussell sprouts, they are going to put on brussell sprouts here in a minute. Let me take you over to the sweet corn. In about another week or so they will be ready. We got okra coming up. Now this is sweet corn. I think by the time the market opens up we will be pulling sweet corn. That’s some of the sweet corn there. We got, we got (inaudible) fish, we got rabbits, we got chickens.
EG: Do you have eggs, or they the other kind of chickens, the eating kind?
CT: We got meat chickens and layers.
EG: Where do you keep them?
EG: Where do you keep the chickens and the (inaudible)?
CT: Dorothy got some, got them up, we are making provisions for them.
CT: ………….and we are going to have to use a little more control with it so we can (inaudible). And sometimes it goes dormant because we don’t have the rain and different stuff. These are the snap beans that we planted and then I planted some more because by the time these peak out these here will start and I will (inaudible) of plants. I have three other spots that we will be planting so I am just going to keep it growing like that. And this right here is just a regular field corn.
EW When you say we, are you referring to (inaudible)
CT: Well, you can’t do everything by yourself. So when I say we, I am maybe referring to, you know, my workers, or whatever help that I am going to have. Just like the Farmers’ Market, it is a joint effort, community effort.
EW And you have just pride, its something to be proud of.
EG: What do you do with the field corn?
CT: Well, people eat it and I can feed it to my livestock.
EG: So you have a cow, I didn’t know you had a cow.
EW They see you they think it is time to eat.
EG: What do you do with the cows, are they eating cows?
CT: Yeah, those are beef cows.
EW Don’t say that too loud around (inaudible)
CT: We going to have some of all that.
EG: I am down to my last two steaks. I am going to have to buy me another cow.
CT: (inaudible) and if they want a cow they can buy a steer or something.
EW My goodness.
CT: Now those are going to be purple hull peas there and that’s another four rows of sweet corn that is going to come up.
EW Those look like footprints. Did you plant them by hand?
CT: Yeah with a little hand (inaudible).
EG: Do you have a tractor or did you use a tiller?
CT: That’s my tractor there. We use a combination of tillers, tractors, hand tools.
EG: From the school?
CT: From the school.
EG: These are Hays Cooper peppers started by the students?
CT: Yeah. I think I got some peppers from them this time.
EG: I think we need to know about them earlier.
EW My husband bought some peppers and tomatoes.
CT: Now that’s the squash with all the blooms you were talking about.
EG: Do you have people that to come to the farm to the buy since the market is not open yet?
EW Hold our hand out like that so I take your picture? One-two-three. Okay thanks.
CT: Well what we can’t sell we just give it to people cause some of these people really don’t have food.
EW: And we get so caught up going to McDonald’s and fast food and we don’t have vitamins and our vegetables are good when you think about it.
CT: And what’s bad the young people, a lot of them has not been trained to eat this kind of stuff, they won’t eat.
EW And that is so good.
EG: Emily that is defeating the purpose. Olive Oil buddy, you need to learn that. Have you ever thought of doing a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture? Do you know about those?
CT: Yeah, I have heard about it. I don’t know. I will probably end up doing something like that. I may already be doing it and just don’t know it.
EG: Well you would have a customer here.
CT: I guess it is in the developmental stage cause I am going to be growing (inaudible). But, see how this wash is. I mean it is coming on.
EW Oh yeah. How big are they going to get?
CT: Oh they will get big. They will get real big. They picked it yesterday. See like squash and okra you have to pick it every other day. I got three long rows of okra. It’s small. You know it’s small but I will be picking okra in about three weeks.
EW You know how to market that?
CT: Yeah. Within a day or two….
EG: You have to watch it every day?
CT: You have to watch it. You got to pick them every other day at least at least.
EG: You don’t pick them one day and that is what happens?
CT: That’s what happens.
EG: Can you still eat it?
CT: I don’t. You probably could but I don’t, I wouldn’t, you know.
EW My sister says the smaller ones …
EG: They are good in stir fry.
CT: The longer they stay on the stronger they get. So they probably have a real strong taste to them.
EW Would be good in a soup.
ET: In a matter of a few days they get like this.
(Tape Cuts Off)
END OF DOCUMENT