Delta Black Farmer Oral History

James Littleton, Jr.  OH# 369

Interviewed by Eleanor Green January 19, 2007


EG:    Today is January 19, 2007.  I am Eleanor Green and I am here with James Littleton for the Delta Black Farmers Project.


EG:    Okay, can you tell me your full name?


JL:              James Littleton, Jr.


EG:    And when were you born?


JL:              5/29/46.


EG:    Were you born here, or where were you born?


JL:              Yazoo County.  Benton, Mississippi.


EG:    Benton, Mississippi.  Were your parents farmers?


JL:              Yes.


EG:    What were their names?


JL:              James and Dorothy Littleton.


EG:    That’s the Jr.


JL:              That’ s right.


EG:    What kind of things did they farm?


JL:              Basically soybeans and cotton and vegetable farming – produce.


EG:    Did you have siblings on the farm?


JL:              I had – I am the oldest of ten brothers and sisters.


EG:    Are you the only one that went into farming or have any –


JL:              The only one.


EG:    The only one out of ten.  What kind of things did you do on the farm growing up?


JL:              Basically herded cattle, milked cow.  In those days you didn’t have tractors for a lot of years and so you plowed mules and manual labor, chopped cotton and picked cotton by hand.


EG:    How much cotton could you pick at one time?


JL:              A couple of hundred pounds a day.  (inaudible)


EG:    How much land did your family have?


JL:              In those days, they were basically a small farmer, fifty to sixty acres.


EG:    Did they own or rent the land?


JL:              Basically they rented it.


EG:    Did your family always rent the land?  I mean, how did they come to be farmers?


JL:              Most of it they worked – back in those days they had large plantation systems and they basically rented from the system.


EG:    Okay.  And that was in Yazoo County?


JL:              Yes Yazoo County.


EG:    Benton, Mississippi.  Is that land still being farmed do you know?


JL:              It is still being farmed.  But it is basically much larger plots, larger operations.  The smaller individual farmers have been (inaudible).


EG:    And how much land do you have here – where are we exactly?  Out from Mound Bayou.


JL:              We are just west of Winstonville.


EG:    How much land do you farm here?


JL:              I farm about eleven hundred acres of rented property and (inaudible).


EG:    So you own some of it and you rent some of it?


JL:              We have two plots that we own and (inaudible).


EG:    And so your son farms with you?


JL:              He’s a (inaudible).


EG:    That’s nice.  What kinds of things do ya’ll grow?


JL:              Cotton and soybeans  We mainly grow cotton and soybeans and wheat.



EG:    Do you know the history of this land here?


JL:              In terms of productivity, it is probably some of the better farmland in the Mississippi Delta – in the Mississippi area.


EG:    Do you know if this farm was ever used for sharecropping or tenant farming?


JL:              Not in recent years.  Several years ago some of the land was (inaudible) that my wife’s grandfather may have sharecropped.


EG:    How has technology changed what you produce and what you have produced over time?


JL:              Basically it has – technology has allowed to farm a much wider range of property in terms of chemicals and seeds and how they are technically resistant to certain diseases.  In particular the cotton industry lets you plant more cotton.  It is expensive but at the same time it cuts down on – the most revolutionary change that I have witnessed is that you need less labor.  I currently employ two full time workers: tractor drivers and machine drivers (inaudible).


EG:    How did you end up here?


JL:              My wife – this is her family home.  The land belonged to her parents were getting old so we decided to move back here in 1984.


EG:    Did you farm there before you moved here?


JL:              Yes I did.


EG:    So has farming been your only career?


JL:              No I – until recently I retired.  I just got into it full time.  I became the full time manager.  In previous years was on a part time basis where I had other people working and managing it.


EG:    What did you do before you retired?


JL:              I beg your pardon?


EG:    What did you do before you retired?


JL:              I taught school for thirty-two years.  Public school (inaudible).


EG:    I haven’t met a farmer yet that just farmed.  Where or how do you sell your cotton and soybeans?


JL:              My cotton is marketed through cotton buyers – mainly large cotton buyers in places like Greenwood.


EG:    Do you have to take it there or do they come and pick it up from you?


JL:              No, the cotton is picked up out in the fields in terms of module bales, which contains fourteen or fifteen bales.  The gin company picks it up with a truck and it is ginned and is then transferred to Staplecotton Association.  That’s the warehouse for this area.  And it remains there for a fee until you decide what you are going to do with it.  At that time you pay the fee off and you settle.


EG:    How you sell your cotton changed over the years?


JL:              Well you have to watch the market and it has brought me more attentive to the market because at times the market is at less rates and we have to be able to find when the market is peaked in order to be able to book your cotton or your crops.  To try to get it at a high price.  Because like at harvesting system the market may come down so you tend to have to be very attentive to the market situation, and realize what you have to have out of the crop in order to get a fairly decent price that you can (inaudible).


EG:    Are there any original buildings on the land?


JL:              Most of them have been torn down.  We have one house that was built back in the mid ‘60’s.  This house on this property was built in ’88.  Most of the rest have been torn down.


EG:    Did the family build their own structures do you know here?  Did ya’ll build them yourselves or did someone else – in ’88 when you had some construction?


JL:              I had a contractor to build this house and so the one down there but I’m sure (inaudible).


EG:    What would you say is the value of the land to your family?  Not like the monetary but what it means to your family to be on the land?


JL:              It’s a dream come true.  It’s a land that we would never be interested in selling.  It has remained in the family down through generations, the grandchildren.  We have stipulations – it is just passed down.  It’s never to be sold.


EG:    So you don’t see a time when the family would ever not have the land?


JL:              No.


EG:    Has the family utilized any federal programs, such as FSA, USDA, or other programs over the years to keep the farm, and to keep it running, and the programs where you put it back into wildlife for a while or that kind of thing?


JL:              No.


EG:    Did the civil rights movement and the years that followed affect the atmosphere on your farm or in your community?


JL:              I think in my experience in the 1970’s and through the ‘80’s in terms of minorities and the atmosphere of where (inaudible) and (inaudible) operation.  In 1996 the federal government was sued by black farmers because of past discrimination and settlements were made but I don’t think the atmosphere has basically changed in terms of minority (inaudible) and funded by the federal government (inaudible).  It changed that for awhile.  Right now they focus on (inaudible).  I think in order (inaudible) in past discrimination (inaudible) needs to be reconstructed so that the minorities (inaudible) and past histories of discrimination.


EG:    Is this the year they are rewriting it?


JL:              2007.  (Inaudible) right now they have talked about extending it but (inaudible).  I think some of those things – farm bill is still for large operations.  (Inaudible) presently constructed small individual operated farms are on the way out.  Because the programs are geared now toward large operations which tend to (inaudible).  And that’s all over the United States.


EG:    This morning on (inaudible) a story about a dairy farmer in Walthall County.  They said that in 1980 there were 300 and in 1990 there were about 105 and now they have 30.


JL:              Right.  So that’s the gradual death of the small individual farmers.  They are gradually being (inaudible) and unless we get programs to help keep these small individual farmers (inaudible) I see in a few years where most of them (inaudible).  That’s the trend (inaudible).

EG:    I understand that there is some effort to rework the farm bill to include more of the small farmers but I’m not sure how much.


JL:              There has been talk but it is going to be interesting.  (inaudible) farm bill only large farmers.  10% – 90% of the subsidies go to large farmers.  And the small farmers are only getting about 10%.  And that is (inaudible).  That the larger farmers are getting the bulk of the federal subsidies.  Even the President of the United States said he would like to see an even playing field in terms of appropriations and in these subsidies everyone could get their fair share.


EG:    Some of the other farmers that were interviewed that mentioned, – you may not know this is you weren’t here, that during the height of the civil rights movement people would pass through needing a safe place to stay would stay on farms to do different activities with voter registration.


JL:              Yes.  That did happen here in this area and also in my area, so I’m aware of all the things that occurred.  The most particular travel in this immediate area is because of the fact that it is predominantly black and they felt this was a safe haven.  And many of them probably stayed you know and they probably moved here after they saw it and wanted a safe haven.  Back in the civil rights era this little area that they came (inaudible) and wanted to come in and not be bothered with (inaudible) space and that’s what happened.


EG:    So you do think that probably played an important role in the moving of the civil rights movement on the different farms.  As a whole.


JL:              I think as a whole maybe so.  But they situation – the trend has been of late and if you go back and look at the history, back in the civil rights era you had blacks that had a large area of farm land around the Mound Bayou region.  Today most of that land has been eliminated into the hands of larger farmers, mainly whites who have purchased it.  The trend has been that they have purchased the land up so we really, I think is in a declining movement in terms of black land ownership in this area.  What has happened maybe the children of these generations have moved away and they tend to either forget it or they tend to sell it for little or nothing because they don’t want to be bothered with it.  They have moved to the northern areas and you know and it is not a where you have a generation of children staying around this area so this is why it has been a large percentage of land lost from black ownership in this area.


EG:    There has probably been a lot lost to unfair treatment (inaudible) loans.


JL:              Well, USDA played their role to a great extent where back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, and I experienced this in my time, they just refused to give us equal playing field and made blacks delay so badly that your crop would need to be planted at a certain time and you didn’t get your loan until June or July, so in essence, they were putting you out of business anyway.  So those were some things that need to – USDA played their fair role of these things, and we certainly don’t want to return to (inaudible).  There’s things that are going on now that needs to be corrected.  Until they are corrected then you are going to see a continuous trend of eliminating the rest of the black farmers.  I don’t see (inaudible).


EG:    Small farmers as a whole are suffering as well.


JL:              Well that is correct.  But when we have problems in the agricultural industry, we tend to be the first to be hit by it.  That is the problem.


EG:    What would you say is the most memorable event growing up on the farm?


JL:              Well my most memorable moment was the fact that when I grew up, I grew up early farming and certain chores that I had to do.  Because I was the oldest, number one, and I often tell people that I have been working a long time.  I remember back in the mid ‘50’s we, my father would have to in order to support the family, he would gather the crop and he would tend to have to go to Louisiana and work on the sugar cane farm.  That was to supplement the family income.  And I was about eight years old, I was a small child.  And we, my brother and I, who was about two years younger, would have to get up at five o’clock in the morning and milk two cows and then bring the milk back home and then we would have to go to school.  And I look at people and the kids today and I look at myself and I say “There’s no way they would be here, they probably wouldn’t have made it; it would have been cold.”  But a morning like this it wouldn’t have made any difference.  The work had to be done.


EG:    Right.  Cows need to be milked no matter what the weather is.


JL:              We would get them up in the afternoon and the morning time we would milk them and bring them back out. You know.  People in the community said they had never seen two young fellows do the work that we did.  In those days we had to cut wood and get wood to the house and do all that.  Say I was eight or nine years old, ten at best.  So I don’t see how.  So it was a very memorable

things that I had to do coming up in order to survive.


EG:    What did you teach when you taught school?


JL:              I taught various subjects.  I got a BS in elementary education and received a masters’ degree in elementary education administration supervision and I went on to complete 30 hours above a masters degree in elementary education.  So mainly I taught at the elementary level.  My dream was basically to be an administrator.  It wasn’t until the latter years that I got the experience to deal in administration.  I taught science and social studies.  Social Studies was my most favorite subject.  I love history and I loved teaching it.


EG:    Me too.  Where did you go to school for your BS and your masters?


JL:               Well I got my BS at Mississippi Valley State and I received my masters’ degree in administration specialist in Jackson.


EG:    That’s the end of the official questions, but if you have anything else you want to add or if you have any questions.


JL:              No, I just like to say thank you for coming and interviewing me and allowing me to express my views.  I thank you.  As far as the farming industry, I currently serve as a minority on the Farm Service Agency.  I don’t have a complete voting on that but I am there to see that hopefully that we do get our people planned around and service and things.


EG:    Is that for Bolivar County.


JL:              Bolivar County.


EG:    I was at a meeting this summer with USDA at your partners’ meeting and the USDA meeting with small farmers.  This is the third time this has happened.  There were a lot of folks from Mississippi (inaudible). It is the community based, you know, small farmers and USDA and community based people bringing their own people and taking their own notes so that they have their own records.  And I was there for that, and it seems to me their folks are getting louder.


JL:              It has to, because if they don’t, because as I said earlier, we’re all on the way out.  There would be non-existent within the next (inaudible).  If we don’t get some programs to change this.  Because we are working on years of catching up.  And it’s going to be – and to give you a prime example, this has been a dry year.  Many larger farmers over the last years people have been able to level their lands, they have been able to dig wells, to irrigate their crops, and because of passing out of certain government programs that should have been done, it comes back to smaller farmers in years like this, we have had a tremendous drought and it is due to lack of rain.  So basically because of this, as I said earlier, the smaller farmers is the first one it hurts simply because they don’t have the resources in order to survive in years like this.  So I think in order to change this thing around, we need to be put on a even playing field.

And those programs were available to level land and get the land resources, we didn’t know about it or either we were denied.  Much of this land has been leveled and they are able to irrigate it and they are able to get a good price, you understand.  But they were not receptive of some of the programs that they saw back in the early years to prepare us for these type years.  So the results we are now beginning to see some of the past discriminations are still being handed down to us.  Until this is addressed and put on an equal playing field then – it has been addressed but now whether these things will be corrected is the problem.  We have addressed a lot of issues, but the problem now is will they be corrected you understand.  And I have had personal experience over the years with.  If you’ve been dealing with this the last thirty years then you have a lot of personal experience in dealing with it.  And that’s why a lot of white farmers (inaudible)  – some of them were denied.  Some of them were denied and I don’t personally think that was handled properly.  Because there were people who were denied who really deserved some compensation – which wasn’t very much, not in the year 2000.


EG:    One person said he would have been happier if he had just gotten the loan in the first place.


JL:              That’s right.


EG:    He would have been better off.


JL:              He probably would have done more with it than $50.000 cause this day and time, we are talking about thousands and thousands of dollars in operation to run a size operation – even my size.


EG:    You’ve got the machinery and stuff.


JL:              Machinery – the cost (inaudible) and chemicals.  Technology has changed and made it easier for the farmer, but it also makes it more expensive for you to operate.  So consequently you have more money in it and you hope you are better off with the cost of machinery and things.  And the problem is we are pretty well in terms of price wise, we are getting the same price for our products which makes it so bad.  In other cotton this year, you look at the price of it today, and it is in the same range that it was in the 1950’s.  So in essence, how in the world can you pay – get that price when in terms of operation, you are paying 2007 prices in terms of the chemicals and machinery.  So I think the biggest problem is we need, not so much government subsidy, but you have to have the subsidy because of the small, I mean, the price differential, what you’re getting for your product.  So if they take that away, then in actuality they are taking your farm away and making it impossible for you to farm.


EG:    Do you think all the farmers in this area, once their cotton is picked and at the place, do they all get a pretty good place for their cotton, I mean, compared to each other.


JL:              Well, yeah, because the prices being as they are, you have one choice and that is to put it into government loans.  The price is never going up which is standard you know.  So price wise, it is not set by local buyers, it is set by what’s the national trend.


EG:    I see.


JL:              So we have no say-so over these prices.  For example, corn (inaudible) corn is at a high price now.  A few people will be able to grow corn because for one thing, it needs irrigation you see.  And if you are not prepared you cannot really take advantage of certain crops you know.  Cotton is a dry land type crop.  You can probably grow cotton and hope you get rain.  But corn, very few people will be able to take advantages of the high prices.  Right now there is a tremendous increase in grain.  Hopefully and I say events pretty well control the market.  Cotton probably will go up eventually and this is the hopes of many cotton farmers that they will get a better price come next year as a result of a lot of this land being put into grain.  One crop tends to affect the price of another.


EG:    How do our soybeans – do they do pretty well these days?


JL:              Soybeans just need rain, particularly this dry land.  But soybeans, there has been a tremendous jump in soybeans in the past few months.  Grain seems to be the way these things are going to be going.


EG:    One of the newest forms of soybeans, well it’s not really a new form, but new in popularity, so the edible (inaudible), you know you just eat it out of the pod.  My kid loves them.  That’s her favorite.


JL:              Yeah.  I hadn’t raised any but I heard about it you know.  Course I guess one of the biggest things is that you will be able to find new uses for soybeans.  And as technology develops new means of consuming these products, what has happened to corn and the ethanol plants, then that will help a whole lot.


EG:    Right.


JL:              So I think the future in this is the process of producing grain, rather than cotton I think.  Cotton unless if China doesn’t affect this market then – a few years ago we had a pretty good market because of the situation with China.  China had large productions then (inaudible) increase in American markets.


EG:    So you are going to have to watch not only the American market but the other markets.


JL:              It’s a world situation that affects what we do you know, particularly in the cotton industry.


EG:    I meant to ask you, do you have any animals?


JL:              No.


EG:    Oh yeah, the co-op, the sweep potato co-op in Mound Bayou, were you associated with that?


JL:              At one time.  I was one of the early organizers.


EG:    Can you tell me how it started?


JL:              Well, basically it started with a group of farmers.  And the idea at the time was when we first started, we started off with a small (inaudible)  and really because we didn’t get any early help with USDA or other people or the entities to help this get off the ground, then it never to me really got off the way we projected it.  $75,000 that a group of us borrowed and is still being paid off wasn’t enough to even get started.  And the first year that I grew sweet potatoes one year was that we were unable, and I guess one of the things that hasn’t been successful is the fact that we have not been able to establish a market.  It would have been a success story if we had a market to market these products.  So the first year we were caught with the problem of no storage space and we had fairly decent potatoes but had no storage space and no market.  Certain promises were made but not carried out after the potatoes were harvested and sold.  There have been a few who have kept this going.  And I really feel admiration and hopefully that one day it will be a success story.  But right now we need to establish a concrete market.  Those areas in the state where large potato growers are (inaudible) are more or less control this market, and they are not likely to, unless we see some new markets, then I see this as a struggle.


EG:    I met someone from Indianola who said they buy their sweet potatoes from someone in Louisiana and they’d love to buy them from Mississippi, but they have to be dried to use them in their product.  So it would seem like if you had a way to dry them.


JL:              Well, if you had the necessary equipment.  It is a great deal of money, a one-time money thing to get into sweet potatoes.  What I mean by that is the equipment to process them and get them ready for market.  Now once those things which we failed to address when we started this idea and it has been a continuous struggle.  If those things had been addressed and we had gotten the funding then I think this area would have been very much a success story.

And you would have had rural people in the process of growing.  It is a easy crop to grow.  It is more in terms of dollars and cents in terms of what you put in and what you get out of it.  But the problem is that it takes one-time monies in order to establish a facility to deal with this in order to get them to the market.  And that has been our problem.  To get them to the market where people will be able to sell them.


EG:    When did it begin do you know?


JL:              I believe it was 1996.  It was ’96 for sure.  It was quite a few farmers but in that particular year the government had not established any type of program to protect in terms of failure and in terms of giving us protection in times of drought.  In fact they didn’t establish it until a year or two later.  The farmers were paid for you know like (inaudible) sort of like a insurance crop, insurance on produce.  But at the time that we first grew them I’m sure a lot of farmers at the very beginning they either didn’t know or wasn’t told that they had to pay a fee of $100.00 in order to be protected by the (inaudible) program.  It was established later for certain programs, so now we do have some what of a safety net involved to help in case of bad years to protect the produce growers.


EG:    We grew sweet potatoes one year and it wasn’t not very hard and we had tons, but the next year a little bug came on them and we had nothing.  And we only had like ten 250 foot rows, so…


JL:              Right.  If you use the same potatoes over and over sometimes to bed out or they will establish their (inaudible) so that is one of the problems that you run into.  You have to change your potatoes, you cannot use them over and over to reseed.  They have to be changed over a period of time, otherwise you will establish that disease.


EG:    Is there anybody you would recommend we interview?


JL:              In terms of sweet potato growers, Mr. Louis Sanders.  And you can get up with him.  He’s a long time farmer.  Roger Morris, they’ve been long time farmers around in this area.


EG:    And almost everyone has mentioned them. Maybe when we have….


JL:              Those are the people that I know have been in this area for awhile.  They probably have been farming full time longer than I have.  I just recently started full time farming after you know large acreage after I retired.


EG:    That’s what my husband would love to do.


JL:              You have to be able to manage it.  It is hard and I said I wasn’t going to get into it too large until I was able to be a daily – manager on a daily basis.


EG:    As I said before we started the interview, we are going to have an exhibit at the archives museum on campus, and we are looking for photographs or farm tools or anything that could be loaned to the museum for the exhibit.  So if you have any of those that would be…


JL:              Okay.  I will look around.


EG:    Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.  We appreciate it.


JL:              Thank you.


Tape ends.