Loretta Palmer Oral History Interview
September 26, 2006
Transcribed by S. Leonard
Interviewed by Sarah Leonard
SL: This is Sarah Leonard, it’s September 26, 2006 and I’m interviewing Loretta Palmer at her home in Lexington, Mississippi. Could you tell me your full name?
LP: My name is Loretta Blair Palmer.
SL: And can you tell me about when you were born?
LP: I was born (whispers: do I have to tell my age?) I was born in a small Mississippi town called Shaw, Mississippi, which is below Cleveland, and I was born in the late Fifties (laughs) and I was raised up, well I picked cotton, I started picking cotton when I was like six years old until I was eleven. We moved to Memphis when I was eleven. I had a chance to chop cotton one year when I was eleven. So those were my early experiences. But I was born in a rural community.
SL: Why did y’all move to Memphis?
LP: My brother and I are a second set of children. My older sisters and brothers left Mississippi as soon as they were like eighteen, nineteen, because they said they were sick and tired of the cotton fields. And so my mother just thought we would be better off in Memphis and she was getting to be a little older and she just was kinda tired of the fields, cotton fields. ‘Cause we lived kinda in I guess what you would call a plantation, if you stayed on this place you had to work, somebody in the house had to work. And our other sisters and brothers were off to college and it was just myself and my brother – my brother’s a year younger than I am. And so my mom just felt we’d be better in Memphis, and so my older sister was able to negotiate and get a house for us in Memphis.
SL: So you all moved up to Memphis then?
LP: Mmm-hmmm, when I was eleven.
SL: When you were in Shaw, picking the cotton, were you all…did you go to school a couple months of the year and then when they needed you in the fields…
LP: My older sisters and brothers did, but by the time the Sixties came along we started school every year in September and we would be out like in May. But my older sisters and brothers, you know, they had to do the cotton first and stuff like that. They had a whole lot more rural experience than I did. I had a rural experience, but when they were little they rode in wagons (laughs). My older sister’s eighteen years older than I am, so yeah. They had a lot more rural experience than I did, mmm-hmmm.
SL: Can you tell me about your parents?
LP: Um, my parents, they started off as sharecroppers. My dad drove tractors and I don’t know what’s the term for the person that drives the other workers to the cotton fields, that was one of his jobs, he would drive the other workers to the cotton fields. Now my mother and my dad separated when I was six, and so I don’t remember a whole lot but I know that’s the type of work he did. He did tractors and he drove other workers to the cotton field. And my mother was an organic gardener before we ever heard of the word organic. When we picked greens or beets or whatever we always had to throw the leaves and stuff back in the garden. She would tell us, “That’s gonna feed the garden,” we’re like, oh, Mama, where’d you get all this stuff from? (laughs) And as years went by and organics came out, I’m like wow, my mama was doing that before this even came about. And she was a very, very good gardener. Actually my mom left my dad when I was six and we moved to Ruleville, Mississippi, which is still close to Cleveland, and so that’s where I have most of my memories. I started school there in Ruleville when I was six and we lived on Highway 49 W, there on another I guess you could call plantation, and I picked cotton and chopped cotton there. But I remember people would come to my mother for food out of her garden. She would just have plenty and people would come, she would give them tomatoes, okras, sweet potatoes and stuff like that. She was always a very good gardener. She used chemicals very sparingly. Sometimes she would use a little of that Seven Dust when the worms were real bad, but other than that she had her own type of compost that she would use. You know, there were corn fields behind our house, soybean fields in front of us and we had to catch the truck and go to the cotton fields (laughs). But it was real nice in those days because, you know, all your neighbors went to the fields with you and it was like a whole family and as a little girl I was always really meticulous, and when I was picking cotton I would try to pick everything clean and try not to get the, you know, the hulls and stuff in there, and a lot of times some of them would come and help me, you know, “You goin’ too slow, you goin’ too slow, c’mon, pick it up,” and they would come and help me and all that. But especially when I started chopping cotton, oh boy (laughs) everybody would just go off and leave me way, way behind because I’m tryin’ to chop all the grass away around each plant. So it was a real nice family atmosphere you know with the community working together and it was a whole lot different than what I would call modern society, ‘cause I remember if neighbors were sick my mother would go wash for them, cook for them and all that, and don’t talk about paying me for doing this, you’re my neighbor, I’ve got to help you. And that’s the kind of community I was raised up in, really close knit. If somebody was having a baby all the adults go and wash for her, cook for her and all that kinda stuff. I think about now, you know, if you sick and somebody gotta come do something you better have your money ready first, you know (laughs). So that’s the kind of little community I came from, and the sense of community was very strong and helping one another and everything. Other than that, I remember when my sisters and them would come from up North with the pretty clothes. I was pretty much well dressed coming up because I had the older sisters and would send me clothes from up North and all that, so I had pretty little dresses and we had nice toys, my brother and I had nice toys. I remember my sisters’ boyfriends would give us toys. When I was cleaning up the junk out there I ran across a doll bed I had gotten, I think I was nine. One of my sisters’ boyfriends had given me this nice doll bed, I had tried to keep it but part of it has kinda gotten away from me, but I was trying to keep it as a keepsake. But other than that, my mother didn’t really believe in celebrating Christmas very much, she had said it was a pagan holiday and so the toys we’d get would come from our sisters and brothers and stuff. And my mother had also started reading up on health foods and so if my brother and I wanted cookies or candy, we had to slip and buy it (laughs). You know, she would buy snacks like Ritz crackers, graham crackers, popcorn, we could eat ice cream and the healthy kinda snacks. But if she found potato chips or Twinkies – I used to love Twinkies – she would hide them, and I can remember coming across them months later, they would turn hard (laughs), black, so something my mother would’ve gotten from us and hid, you know. But now I appreciate it very much that, you know, she taught us health foods and all that. Yeah.
SL: How do you think your mother became interested or aware of organics and health foods and things like that?
LP: Just after my brother and I were born, she had started to read this man’s literature, this man’s name was Herbert W. Armstrong. His organization was called the Worldwide Church of God, and he would send out these free magazines, the magazines were called the Plain Truth. And so they were free and so Mom had subscribed to them. And I think that was her first learning about what’s healthy. She stopped eating pork, my other sisters and brothers ate bacon, pork chops and all that, but when we came along, she had learned not to do that. ‘Cause I can remember when my sisters and them would come down, they would bring bacon, oh wow, we got some bacon! Yeah, she had learned that, ‘cause I would hear my other sisters and brothers talk about how their dad would take them to the store and buy potato chips and ice cream sandwiches and all that, but my mom was really, really strict when it came to junk food. I mean, my brother and I had to be good at hiding stuff (laughs). So I think that was her initial…now my mother was the type of person that always read. She said she got that from her dad. My mother’s dad was born in 1868 right here in Lexington, and so he had brothers and sisters that were actually born in slavery. But she said that he would pick up – he taught himself to read – and that he would pick up just anything and just read, he didn’t care what it was, he just read. And so I guess she took that after him, because even when we were coming up my mom would lay out in the bed, books on this side of the bed, books on that side of the bed (laughs) and “Go bring my grape juice!” She loved her grape juice and raisins and prunes. “Go bring my…” and lay out there in the bed, and we’d go get her stuff while she read. So she read a whole lot, especially religious books and health books. So by the time we came along she had just learned a lot and a lot of things we didn’t do. As a matter of fact, when I was eighteen and I left to go to college, I first went and stayed with a friend of ours in Texas, and this lady was just bacon, bacon, bacon. And she would not only was it bacon she’d use, she’d put the grease in the cornbread, she put it in her greens, she put it in her peas, and here I am just eating, you know, just eating. And I was working, I had gotten a job with her niece – her niece and I were good friends, and we were working at a nursing home as nursing assistants. I get up one morning after I had been there a couple of weeks, get up there get ready to go to work, and the room was just going around and around and I called my mom and went, “Mama, what’s wrong with me? I’m so dizzy!” I had told her about how she cooked with all the bacon, she said, “It’s all the pork fat and stuff,” she said, “You gotta stop eating that stuff, you ain’t used to it!” So I guess I did, ‘cause I had to stay at home off from work a couple a days, I couldn’t even stand up (laughs) from eating I guess so much of the bacon fat. I wasn’t used to it. So when I moved here, I moved here in ’93, and my aunt was into pork and stuff – this was my aunt’s house. And she had high blood pressure, was taking pills and she would send me to the store for the – what’s that fat they put in greens? Fat back, for the fat back and stuff. “I can’t cook no greens then.” My mama would use vegetable oil, that’s what I would cook greens with. “No, no, no, I got to have my pork belly,” whatever they call it. And I would go up there and get the fat. So finally after a couple of months I says, “Aunt Lela, you got this high blood pressure, you taking these pills,” I said, “I’m just gon’ stop buying.” So I started buying her turkey bacon and I would buy the smoked turkey wings to put in her greens and they would still taste good, cook ‘em down and the turkey wings and stuff. So eventually she learned to eat a little better and eventually she didn’t have to take her blood pressure pills, her blood pressure went down. People think it doesn’t make any difference but it really does, what you eat. They say you are what you eat (laughs). Yeah. So I graduated from high school in Memphis, I went to a really good high school – the best high school they had there in Memphis, integrated high school, and my sister was teaching there. And then I went to Texas and there I went to a religious college, and there I learned a little bit more about health foods. It was the same man’s college that my mother had first started reading the magazines about and all that. The only difference was they taught that you could drink wine, my mother said (laughs) you can’t drink wine. So when I went to that college, all my roommates had a little wine, mostly dinner wine like Morgan David, that kind of stuff, and they kept wine, so I learned to drink a little wine. And I took Hebrew, ‘cause it was a religious college they had some Biblical languages. I took two semesters of Hebrew. I kept changing my major. When I came back home in Memphis I went to the college there, I think it’s called University of Memphis now, back then it was Memphis State, and I had German and I had four semesters of German there. Then I kept changing my major, I went to Boston and lived a while, and from there I went – I had saved up some money – I was the type of person that didn’t do a lot with my money, so I decided to travel. And I went overseas, and I had had a friend from high school that had went to Russia and had lived with the Russians for a year, she had lived with the peasants and all that and she said they just kinda took care of her and you know, she just kinda did a study while she was there. And so I decided I’d go overseas to like the Micronesian Islands, and I stayed there about nine months (laughs) living with the natives and the outer islands around where I was, the women didn’t even wear blouses or anything, and sometimes they would wear grass skirts and all that. And the women had to walk behind the men (laughs). That was back in the late Seventies. Things are probably different now over there. But that was quite an experience for me. And then I didn’t finish college until I came back here in ’93, then I went back to college in ’98 and I got my BS in biology at Mississippi Valley State, so I finally finished college (laughs).
SL: Can you tell me a little bit about your siblings?
LP: Okay, um, the sister I’m next to is ten years older than I am. She lives in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her husband is a retired professor from Coahoma Junior College, he taught botany. And she started off teaching math – she has a master’s degree in math – but then she taught for a couple years and then she decided she’d just stay at home and raise her children after she started having children. So now she’s…well, all her kids are grown now too (laughs). But they are really into super, super health foods. They go to the health foods store in Memphis, to the Wild Oats health food store there. And she calls me, brags about how much she spent for this (laughs) and how much she spent for that. And she called me while I was at work to tell me she had some goat milk yogurt that she had bought at the Wild Oats. And they’re on this diet called the Maker’s Diet and it calls for raw goat milk products. They’re both retired now and her children, her baby, their youngest son is in college now, so. Then the one after her passed about four years ago from lung cancer. They say she and I looked more alike, and actually she and I had always been the closest. When I was coming up she would be the one that sent me stuff all of the time. I remember when I was in junior high school she sent me this coat, it wasn’t real fur but it looked just like a fur coat (laughs) and kids thought I had a fur coat (laughs) so I that was really fun. And I remember another time she sent me, I think it was for my sixteenth birthday, I had told her I wanted to be a news reporter so she had sent me a nice tape recorder and so every day I’d be on the tape recorder telling the news, pretending I was a news reporter and all that. So she, she was a teacher and she taught – she lived in Detroit and she taught like the people from the Middle East coming over trying to learn English, so that’s what she taught, ‘cause there were several of them at her funeral. And then the sister that’s next to her lives in Chicago, she’s a health food person too. My sister that passed wasn’t into health foods at all, I often wondered did that make a difference ‘cause pretty much all the rest of us are into some kind of health foods, but she, you know, just opened up some cans and fixed dinner and didn’t care, you know. The one in Chicago, my sister Esther, is very much into health food stores. As a matter of fact, she’s on that Maker’s Diet also. She goes to health food stores up there, she goes to Muslim restaurants up there. And then my brother, my oldest brother, he’s just not into…he doesn’t go to the health food store, but he’s pretty much pretty healthy. He’s retired as a draftsman, he worked at the federal building for the Army Corps of Engineers. And I remember when I was going to college and I needed bus fare, I’d just swing by his office and get my bus fare (laughs) and all that. And then my sister that’s after him is the one that’s still in Michigan, and she’s into health food, they raise pretty much everything they eat. She never really just had a public job. Her husband is retired from General Motors, and they do a lot of farming, sell a lot of products off of their farm. I think they have gotten rid of their chickens, but at one time they had a lot of chickens and they have an apple orchard. And then my older sister lives in Memphis and she was the one that bought our house for us, that’s how we were able to leave Mississippi, and she has one son of her own. He teaches now at the same college I used to go to, he teaches Black History. And she’s pretty much into health foods because she’s having a lot of health problems and so she’s pretty much into health foods. That’s who my mom stays with now, my mom stays with her. Now she taught English until her son was about six or seven years old, so she taught English for about oh, twenty-some years, because when I was in school she was teaching English, ‘cause I remember they assigned me to her room when I was in eleventh grade, I was like, I am not being in her room (laughs). And yeah, so they’ve all done very well for themselves and they fuss at me and they tell me I could do better (laughs) but we didn’t have the same father. My mother had six children and that husband died and then she married my dad and she had my brother and I. But you know, we were all raised up by the same mom so we all consider ourselves sisters and brothers (laughs). And my brother in Memphis that’s retired, he does painting, house painting and roofing, stuff like that, mmm-hmmm. And my younger brother lives in California, he’s security guard. He was in the Navy for eight years – that’s how he got out to California – and he just got addicted to California, so we can’t get him from California, and we’ve tried. He’ll come, stay a couple months and then he’s gone back to California. But he calls every week, so he’s…he’s not really into health foods, but he’s had some health issues and so he’s really trying to, he’s stopped drinking and he’s trying to eat pretty healthy because…I tell him, I fuss at him all the time, and one while he was just eating out all of the time, you know, because he works, sometimes he works a lot overtime, and I told him, “Well it’s easier to come in and just fix a salad, just keep salad food in the house,” and all that. So he’s finally listening, yeah.
SL: How did you get back into farming?
LP: My daughter’s fifteen, and just before she was born, a few years before she was born, it seems like the food was just making me sick, like I was just getting sick and I didn’t want to go to the doctor and the doctor say, “You’ve got cancer, you’ve got six months to live,” and all that. So I started raising my own garden. My mother would still have a garden in her backyard back there. Yeah, we had a garden even when we moved to Memphis, we still had a garden. You know, when we moved to Memphis we lived in a real nice neighborhood, nice black middle class neighborhood, people had built their own houses, and we were the only people with a garden. People called us country, they said you can take the people out of the country but you can’t take the country out of ‘em (laughs). And then oh, about say three years later, we would see one neighbor get her a little garden and then the next year it’d be a couple more having them a little garden. So we were an inspiration to the rest of the neighbors to do a little gardening. And so as I moved out on my own and I got like apartments, I remember the apartment I moved into when she was a year old, it was a little old narrow strip of land, it might’ve been as wide as this table right along the side of my apartment. I planted some greens and lettuces and stuff right along there. It was a very little space, but I had enough to just plant a little bit and I just felt better if I just had a little bit of something growing. So at that time – I worked for quite a few years in Memphis at different secretarial positions at schools, and so when she was born I was working at an elementary school as a secretary and she would be in a day care center but she would just get sick all of the time and the doctor told me that it was more than likely from being around the other children. So I decided that I would just take off for a little while at the end of the school year and I took off, I had planned to go back in January and then they told me the situation with my aunt, that she was fixing to be put in a nursing home and they were gonna take the house and all that, and they asked would I come down and help take care of her and they would pay me to stay here and help take care of her. I said, well, I’ll be in the country. I’ll be close to the country (laughs). So I came on down, I remember when I first moved here, I moved here in July and I started gardening. My aunt would get up and I’d be out in the garden, she’d be looking for me, “Where are you? It’s time for my breakfast,” (laughs). I said, “I’ll be in in a little bit.” Yeah, I started gardening back there, ‘cause they used to garden back here too, my aunt and my uncle. My aunt was my mom’s oldest sister and at one time they used to be pretty wealthy. This one time her husband owned like a thousand acres of land and back in their day, now they had their own cotton fields and they had people working for them and everything, and so they did very well. My aunt was very good with managing money and everything, and she was very, very frugal. I remember when we would come to visit her, she’d be sitting up in the house with a coat on in the wintertime (laughs). “Why you won’t turn the heat on?” “Oh, it’s warm enough, it’s warm enough.” And we’d come in and we’d cut the TV, “Don’t cut that TV on, you’re gonna waste the electricity!” (laughs) So they were able to amass quite a bit of money because she was a very, very frugal person. She never had children. And then as she got older, by the time I got here people had kinda swindled her out of her land, her other pieces of land that she had, and she didn’t have very much money in the bank left. By her not having any children really to see about her then, she was just kinda taken advantage of even by her own relatives. So I stayed here and I took care of her until she passed in ’97 and then my uncle told me I could just stay on. I like it here okay, it’s just that I’m not in the country enough. I want at least five acres of land or something where I could put my animals, my chickens and my goats, and one day I do plan to buy me a little piece of land. So that’s why I moved when they said I could move here and take care of my aunt. I said, well, I’ll be almost in the country. That’s how I ended up here. Before then I remember when I was working there in Memphis I would get this literature, I had subscribed to this thing that would tell you about vacant land in and around Tennessee and I was looking at some parcels that you know, farmland stuff, but I never did act on that so I ended up here. It’s okay, but you know, we have drugs on this street, gangs on this street, all that, which I was so surprised to find that kinda stuff in Mississippi, but it’s here, it’s just everywhere I guess. Yeah, but overall I like it here.
SL: How much land do you have right now?
LP: Um, I have about three-fourths of an acre, and my aunt’s friend where I garden now has two acres that I’m at liberty to use. And when my husband and I were together they had eighty acres and we did some gardening up there too. And I remember we did white potatoes up there, okra and tomatoes up at his place. So he’s trying to get my goats from me, he thinks I don’t know what to do with goats and they should be over there at his place (laughs).
SL: So you have like two and three-quarter acres that you can use?
SL: And then you have your backyard too?
LP: Well, my aunt’s friend has like two acres and then I have about three-quarters altogether. This is a whole entire lot here that really if I wanted to build a house there I could, that’s considered a lot. And I’m going to put a large greenhouse there on that vacant spot and I’ll just use the back back there for my chickens and goats.
SL: Okay. How and when did you acquire this land?
LP: In 1993 when my aunt passed. It’s not legally mine, but I’m allowed to live here as long as I pay the taxes on the house.
SL: And when did you aunt have the land?
LP: She moved here from the country in 1959, she moved to this spot. They moved from their farm, I think at that time they had like 600 acres of land around their house in the country which, it’s about three miles from here where they were. And they moved here. So she didn’t really leave a will, so my uncle was just kinda in charge of things and he just said for me to stay on here but be sure to keep the taxes (laughs).
SL: What happened to the 600 acres?
LP: Nobody really knows. When I was raised up, we would come down here a couple times a year to see my aunt and I just always thought of her as my wealthy aunt, and I was just surprised when I came here to find that there was no money and nobody can tell a true story. Some people say it was the relatives on her husband’s side that swindled her out of the land, and then somebody say that it was others, so I don’t know really what happened, because by the time I got here my aunt really kinda had Alzheimer’s and she couldn’t really talk straight. You’d ask her things she’d say one thing this time, next time it’s something else. So I don’t know. My sister that’s in Clarksdale, her husband had become the power of attorney so the little money she had left they were over that. But I don’t know what happened, but I wish I had known about that before all that came about. And when you have to mention it to people they all have a different story, so I just don’t worry about it anymore.
SL: What have you produced on your land?
LP: Um, prior to my obtaining goats I did at that end of the land I had a large strawberry patch. I did strawberries, and then I had all the other Southern vegetables: corn, tomatoes, peas, butter beans, okra, collard greens, turnip greens, squash, all of that. And I did a lot of lettuces on this side, in the back of this side of the yard over there. At my other farm where my aunt’s friend’s, I’m doing greens and hopefully I can do some broccoli and cauliflower this year also. I’d like to grow some broccoli. And hopefully I can sell to the Rainbow, sell some broccoli and cauliflower to the Rainbow, I don’t know yet.
SL: And then what about your animals?
LP: I have three dairy goats. One I have had a year and two months. The other two come from the mountains in Georgia, it’s about a nine hour drive from here, and I still milk those two. They are Alpine Nubian, that’s the type, and the younger one is mixed with LaMancha also. And the produce very nice, creamy milk and it makes very good goat cheese and I also make ice cream, I make buttermilk, I make cream cheese, I make feta cheese and I’m experimenting with some blue cheese too to see how I can do with blue cheese. So I use the cream cheese like for the frosting on a carrot cake and I’ve made a cheesecake and so I’m enjoying it. People are asking me, “Why you don’t get rid of these goats? They too much trouble!” but I can’t drink the cow’s milk, you know, the milk in the store, so I’m just enjoying the goat milk, I like the goat’s milk.
SL: You mentioned that you used to have chickens, too?
LP: Yes, I had three chickens and I was getting like four eggs a day. I first got my first chicken in March, and so for a good four months I didn’t have to buy eggs and that was a very wonderful experience to just go out there and collect eggs. And the taste difference was just so wholesome. So I’ve got to get my fences fixed again and then I’ll try my chickens again.
SL: And can you tell me about your greenhouse that you’ve got?
LP: Okay, it is let me see, what’s the dimensions of the greenhouse? I think it’s ten feet by sixteen feet, and I built it last year in the early spring. I squared it off myself and put the framework, built the framework myself and drilled the pipes in the ground that the PVC pipes have to fit over. I hammered those into the ground. I had been to several workshops at Dorothy Grady’s place. There is an organization called Growing Power in Milwaukee and they had come down a couple of times and did workshops on building a greenhouse and I was very observant and thinking like, I might could do this myself. It’s not as large as theirs, I think hers is like 48 by 24, something like that, a very large greenhouse. But I was able to do mines on a small scale and I think I did a really nice job. You know, it serves its purpose, so I’ve enjoyed it very much. And now we’re getting ready to put up a Heifer Project greenhouse on the side here and that one will probably be about a 40 by 20.
SL: And is that going to be for the Holmes County group?
LP: It will be, I will use part of it and then the youth in the group will use part of it.
SL: Okay. How has technology changed over time for the farming and gardening that you do?
LP: Um, well, I am a really basic person. I do use a tiller, our group has a Troybuilt tiller, and then I’m also able to use the Internet. I am a member of an organization called Local Harvest that I was able to sign up with over the Internet and I’ve had customers through them because I’m able to get on the Internet like that, and so that makes a difference. And then you can find out so much on the Internet about farming this and this kind of farming, so I wasn’t able to go to the SAWG conference that was held last month but I was able to go to the computer and download some of the workshops and stuff. I had really wanted to attend the workshops they were having on alternative energy and so I was able to download those and see what all they had to offer and everything. I’ve had a lot of chemistry and a lot of biology and I would like to really get into this how they make the biodiesel (laughs) and see how that’s done because you know, on the Internet you can see where you can order these machines and stuff for like a couple hundred dollars to actually make your own. So maybe one day I’ll try that. There is another man in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Louis Sanders, and he and I attended one of those biodiesel workshops when we were at SAWG in Louisville, Kentucky this year. So maybe he knows a little bit about that and he and I can get together one day or something. We planned to do some work with the group, Bolivar County Heifer Project too, because they’re doing chickens and I was supposed to be up there October the 14th to a workshop that’s being put on about chickens and I’m thinking I might could put fifty chickens back here if I build the right kind of pen. And Dorothy Grady and them are gonna order chickens on the 16th of October so there’s a couple more of us here that would like to join in with them and the chickens because they say since they have to kinda like go through our way to deliver the chickens then we may as well have some too. And when they come through here they can pick up ours. And so this is with this group down near DeKalb, Mississippi, that’s almost to the Alabama state line going that way. So when they go to deliver theirs they would just come here, like if I got fifty and then another lady in the group actually wants two hundred and there’s another lady that wants fifty so there would be like three hundred that they could pick up from here.
SL: For like pastured poultry chicken?
LP: Uh-huh, pastured poultry, mmm-hmmm. And so that’ll be my first time trying that. We’re supposed to buy these Cornish Cross Hens and Dorothy knows all about them so we’ll do what she says (laughs). You know, she’s got chickens now and she’s got eggs. She keeps telling me, “If you come up here I’ll give you a couple of mine,” but really I just can’t take that risk right now of them getting destroyed again, that just hurt my feelings so bad (laughs). You know, I had gotten used to it, I hadn’t really been around farm animals since I was a little girl. When I was a little girl we had chickens. But I had gotten so used to the chickens, and it was amazing how the chickens and goats got along. The first goat I had, the one with the horns, my husband built her a little old house, the little v-shaped house right there by the gate. But the chickens liked the house too, and so she would just get to one side and the chickens, if they laid eggs in there she would just be so careful (laughs) and wouldn’t get on the eggs. I said wow, this is really amazing. But I enjoyed watching them get along and interact with each other and the chickens, they were just (makes chicken noise), like what in the world are they (laughs). Oh yeah, they were a lot of fun. But I’m still very thankful that I still have the goats because the dogs had really become a problem and I was really blessed to still be able to keep them. As soon as I can get my fences fixed up really good I’ll feel more secure ‘cause I turn everything off at night so I can listen for dogs in the meantime, and if I hear at least one I’m up by the bed, I don’t care what time it is, I’m running out there trying to see are they messing with the goats. So I’m really kinda in a hurry now to get, I got a couple of group members that are gonna help me sometimes. Since I’m the one begging for help I have to wait (laughs) on them to when they get free time to come and help me, and then I will feel a lot better about them and their safety.
SL: Can you tell me about the different groups that you’re a part of and maybe what, how they’ve helped you or what you’ve learned from being a part of these groups?
LP: Okay, I’m a member of our local Heifer Project group sponsored by Heifer Project International (change tape) spent $1200 on each one of them, so we got a good fussin’ at, but they were the prettiest cows I ever saw in my life, big old nice, healthy cows. And we all met up out there to help get the cows loaded up to send people, so that was like a real nice community event there for all of us to be there together and working with the cows. They had to be tagged and everything. So that was a real nice experience. And I’m the only one in the group so far that has goats. There is another member that’s trying to repair his fences so that he can get, he wants meat goats. And when I really get out in the country like I want to I will probably get some more goats. I remember watching the food TV network and the company that owned the Coach company, the one that made the purses and bags and stuff, they sold their business to get into dairy goats, and I said wow, I know they were rich, I think at one time I had owned a Coach purse. But it was some very popular purses. And they sold that big business just to get into dairy goats. They do what they call artisanal cheeses, they hired people from France to come in and make their cheeses and so I thought that was very interesting. They had, I think it was the Alpine goats, because they built the pastures where there would be these rocks for them to climb over and all that because where they came from they were used to climbing things. So I don’t think I’ll ever get quite that big because I want to keep it where it can be hands on, I don’t want to have to use the machines to do all the milking (laughs) ‘cause you get enough of them and you’re gonna have to use the machines ‘cause that’ll be too much to do by hand. But I would like to be milking maybe five or six at a time, one of these days. And I would like to do a diary cow also, but I know I’ve got big visions. My daughter, you know how these modern kids are – they don’t do anything unless you tell them (laughs).
SL: You’ve mentioned that you do the dairy goats and things because you can’t drink the cow’s milk and you like the fresh vegetables for your health, but you also mentioned selling products online. So is there…what is the primary purpose of this, is this a business venture, is this so that you can be kind of self sustaining in terms of food…?
LP: Mmm-hmmm. Well right now it’s mostly self sustaining, but I would like to get to the point where I could make more money. I make a little bit at it. And we recently, our Heifer Project group has started a farmers’ market and it’s going great. The people of our group that participate sell out every Saturday, so that’s something we started in June of this year and I’m trying to rush my greens on up so I can have greens to sell there too. So eventually I would like to make quite a bit of money at it like my sister in Clarksdale has to have goat milk for her diet and it’s just kinda expensive to get the milk to her. But I have a few local customers that their doctors tell them they need to drink goat milk and stuff like that. Eventually I would like to do it on a larger scale. I don’t know whether I would ever try to get certified, you know, with the government, so far I just sell to friends and relatives. But the government requires that you have a concrete building, concrete floor and all that. So I don’t know whether I’ll ever get around to that point. I might, I don’t know, I’m not sure whether I want to go that far or not. But right now I’m mostly self sustaining. Hopefully next year I can be more business than I am now. Mmm-hmmm.
SL: What is the value of the land to you and your family?
LP: Do you mean like a monetary value?
SL: Like whatever you interpret as value.
LP: Oh, okay. Well, I think the main reason that this house and the land mean a lot to me is because my aunt and my uncle actually worked with their bare hands to get the property and it was what they call blood, sweat and tears. They were able to build this. They had built a house out in the country too before they moved here, but my aunt was a city kinda person so she just wanted to move to town. I would like to see it taken care of. I had a house fire in ’98 and we haven’t finished repairing it yet from then. But I would like to see it even when I move out, if I get a place in the country I would still like to see this maintained even if it’s just family property, just taken care of even if I make it into a library or an office or something. I would like for it to remain in the family some kind of way. So I value it because of what they did and out of respect for them, and I value it too because it means something to be able to live off the land and you know, that goes way back, I can feel a connection with people from long, long ago because I’m trying to live off the land too. And it brings back my childhood somewhat. I was so glad to get to Memphis (laughs) I remember, standing over that nice steel sink, you know, in the country we had a dish pan you had to wash the dishes. I remember the first day I got there, I believe the first thing I went to was the sink. Oh! Oh! We can wash dishes in the sink! (laughs) And I think I was so glad to get to Memphis until I just really washed everything out of my mind about the country. Except I remember one thing I still would do when I was there, and that was walk around the house barefoot. That’s one of my habits from the country that I kept with me. But I think that I really, you know, just forgot about it when I moved to Memphis until, you know, the food, you know, just was like, this has got too many chemicals in it and this has got that and all that. Look, well, I got to do something better than this, I gotta try to raise something. And so that was a big wake up call. When I moved to Boston, I was able to meet two of the health food conscious peoples up there and I think that may have been my first awakening up there, when I lived up there for a while. And so that’s what it means to me to be able to live off the land a little. I watch programs sometimes on Home and Garden and DIY where you see these people get these totally self sustaining places. And Dorothy and I went to this place out in California and we went to visit this couple and everything in the house was recycled: the wash water, the dish water, and they collected rain water from the (laughs) house. And they had these holes in the ground with this – what you call this green mold that grows on lakes and stuff like that? They were using that stuff to purify (her daughter whispers, “algae.”). Yeah, it was some kind of algae, and they would use that to purify the water from the washing machine and all this kinda stuff. They grew their own fruit trees, their own vegetables, they had chickens, they had ducks and these people were like, they were called some kind of institute, and Dorothy might still remember them exactly what it was. But it was like, and their house was built out of like stucco and mud (laughs) but it was real neat, real cute, and one day I would like to be kinda like that and you know, I’ve seen people with houses built out of cans. And while we were out there in California, we went to visit some of the chefs. These guys had master degrees and we walked up to their place, they’re out there with their hoe (laughs) chopping in their gardens, and it was like, these were some organic growers I think, California. We went to some of the wineries and stuff and the cheese. Then Heifer Project sent Dorothy Grady and I to Vermont last year and we went to the Women in Agriculture Conference and that was quite an experience. We went to visit this farm, these ladies make their own cheese, cow’s milk cheese, and that was really, really exciting. They had a cave in the ground where they kept the cheese to age the cheese and that was really fascinating. Now that’s something I would really like to do, have a cave where I could age the cheese and all that, ‘cause I experiment with a lot of different things, trying to make different kinds of cheeses, trying to invent my own (laughs). But I think sometimes I feel that one day I might just really get into cheese, you know, just nothing but cheese. I would love that because I have a little chemistry in my background and you know, you messin’ with seeing how things react and all that. So I might just do that one day, not sure. I’m kinda trying to get on my feet again after my husband and I have separated and we plan to eventually get a divorce, so I’m trying to kinda feel my way into what I really want to do. So that’s what I feel about this place, I feel blessed that I can be here and as you can see I’m kinda like my mom, I got books and magazines (laughs) everywhere. My aunt was totally different from this, as they say she would roll over in her grave if she saw all these papers and stuff. She was a smart lady, but she didn’t like to see junk around or anything like that, whereas my mother’s place would look just like this (laughs). Yeah.
SL: How do you feel about keeping the…keeping this land in your family for future generations?
LP: Um, that’s what I would like to do and my daughter says she wants to be an orthodontist, but I was saying I haven’t made a will yet and it’s not really legally in my name. Eventually I probably will get it in my name. But if I don’t leave it directly to her, I will leave it to one of the other cousins who I feel are responsible and would be willing to keep it in the family, ‘cause that’s what I would like to see done. I would like to see it handed on down because I feel that it’s so precious because they actually built this with their own hard earned money, so that’s why I really think it’s precious, yeah. So, um, I would like to keep it in the family, if not my daughter, maybe my grandchildren one day, and I would like to see it kept on her side of the family, on my aunt’s side of the family.
SL: Have you utilized any assistance for your gardening or farming, such as FSA or co-ops or USDA?
LP: No, I haven’t been able to get any direct assistance other than from Heifer Project because it’s not legally in my name. In order to do that, I would have to have all the relatives to sign, and that would be a real long process, and so I just don’t bother with it. But the other lady I was telling you about, Ernestine Evans, manages to get these volunteer students to come down and help her and I keep telling her, “You gotta hook me up with these kids,” (laughs). And I think she just wanna keep ‘em all to herself because she always evades the question whenever I mention it. But if I can one day – now I had gotten an email from a student in Sweden or somewhere and wanted to come and do an internship, and so I emailed her back and she emailed me and wanted to know how much was I paying her. I said, well, okay, I’m not paying yet. But sometimes…there is a group that comes down here out of Minnes…(talks to her daughter) that’s not Minnesota they come from, is it Sarah? Where do they come from? Wisconsin. And sometimes they will come and volunteer and spend a little, but like every time they come I’m gone out of town or something. So we gotta make connections. I know they’re coming again in January, so maybe this time they can help me out back with my goat house and all that. ‘Cause that’s my main thing is trying to get a house built for the goats for the winter. And I don’t know if I can talk, just really get down and get serious with Ernestine and just tell her to let me have a couple of these students for a couple of weeks or something, I might could get some help that way. But I haven’t been able to get any help at all from FSA or any of them.
SL: Whose name is this property in?
LP: It’s still listed in my aunt’s name, Miss Lela Alexander, and I pay the taxes every year and I have to pay them still in her name.
SL: How has race affected your farming and gardening?
LP: Whether race is an issue, you mean? Um…I wouldn’t say that race has really affected a whole lot. For instance, when we started the farmers’ market in June, I had met some white families in Vaiden, Mississippi, that I would buy produce from to sell at the market because mine wasn’t ready. And oh, they would be bragging about, you know, they make like $300 a week at least, you know, and I was saying, oh, wow, that’s gonna be fantastic. I wasn’t making nearly that much, and this lady that was telling me that she makes at least $300, and you know, there was one gentleman there in Vaiden that we would go down and buy stuff from and see, he had people coming to his house just buying stuff just like we were doing. And I happened to mention to a friend of mine and she was saying like, “Yes, he gets $5,000 a week like from his vegetables and stuff.” But I think rather than just say it’s a racial issue, it’s really about black people supporting one another, ‘cause we have this one member of our group that sells watermelons. And people would pass up his watermelons and say go to this white friend and buy watermelons, and so sometimes his white friends would be getting the watermelons for him. But they swear that his watermelons taste better than his (laughs). So I think it’s more like us sticking together and supporting one another and then we can do as well as the next race, you know. Like the farmers’ market there in Vaiden has been around for a while, and then the town, the city, Vaiden, donated them the building that they use and so yeah, they do very well for themselves. And I think eventually we will do that too, we will get there too. But we do have a white gentleman in our Heifer Project group, Mr. Richard Fisher, and he is just as friendly as he can be and he will help you. He has, I don’t know how many acres. (Talks to her daughter) Do you know Sarah, how many acres of land he got? But he got quite a few cows, and he sell bulls, that’s how he makes his living, he raise bulls and he sells bulls. But he’s a very nice person to have in our group. He helps, you know, the other guys with their cows and stuff. Now they say that this area of Mississippi is a very prejudiced area. I haven’t just met with a whole lot of prejudice yet. But that’s what they say about this part of Mississippi. I know my mom would tell me that too. But I think even so, if black people would learn to pull together and support each other that that would help out some. So I can’t just really say how race has played…(notices goat outside) ooh, ooh! She has pulled off her tree! (pause tape to go catch goat)
SL: What would you tell a young person who is interested in going into agriculture today?
LP: Well for a young person just starting off, it’s a lot out there agricultural, a lot of money can be made, you can go to college nowadays and get degrees in agriculture and get jobs with the state department of agriculture. Even if you just buy your land and own your own farm, there’s a lot out there. I wish I was starting all over again (laughs) and I knew about it now because it’s just good opportunities out there now.
SL: And what’s been your most memorable experience or memorable moment with farming and gardening?
LP: I think maybe the first year that I moved back here, that would’ve been when I did the first big garden would’ve been the summer of ’94, and to see all of those vegetables and I did them myself (laughs). That was the first time that I had, since I was a child – well even when I was a child…well even when I was a child my mother, we just helped in the garden, she really did all the gardening. But to actually do a garden that big myself, I guess I had about a half an acre that I had done. I would be out there day and night. So I guess that was. And then next I guess would be actually learning how to milk anything. When I was a little girl, now, my older sisters and brothers milked the cows and I had to churn it. We had this big clay thing with a stick that go up and down in it and I did that, but I had never milked anything. And it took me forever (laughs) to learn how to milk this goat. This lady kept telling me, “Your goat need to be milked,” (laughs). I said, “I can’t, I’m trying.” I’d have to wait ‘til my husband come and milk the goat. And I would just watch him and watch him and watch him, and I started like feeling retarded, I just couldn’t (laughs). And then when I went to get these goats up in the mountains of Georgia and this lady that was donating the goats was so patient and she just knew how to teach, you know. And she blew up these medical gloves, filled them with water and we used that as, you know, that you gotta…see people were showing me but they weren’t telling me that what I’m actually trying to do up here is cut it off and then squeeze it off. I never asked why you’re doing that or what am I really supposed to do. She just said, “Well what you’re doing when you squeeze it like that, you’re cutting off the supply and then you pull it out.” I thought oh, so that makes sense! So I really caught on finally to what was actually going on, and I haven’t had any problems since, I can milk like a pro. And my daughter, she can milk with both hands (laughs). But it still is a very soothing experience to sit down and milk, very soothing and calming. And I just enjoy it every time I do it, I just enjoy it. So that was quite an experience, actually getting the hang of how you milk anything (laughs). And then when I made my first cheese and saw how good it tastes, that was quite an experience there too. Well you know I didn’t have to spend an arm and a leg for some good goat cheese. Oh, man.
SL: Why was it important to you that you did the garden by yourself that first year?
LP: Um, well, just the idea that I could do it. Like, you know, I had garden magazines, there’s a magazine called Organic Gardening by Rodell Press. I would look at all those beautiful organic gardens like oh, I wish I could do this, I wish I could do that. And so to actually do one myself, that was very gratifying that I could do it too. And you know, before then, I would go to the health food store when I lived in Memphis. There was a cheaper health food store on Poplar, so when I was in college I wasn’t too far from it so I could catch the bus and go there, but you know, I would buy what I was able to buy but then to be able to actually grow my own stuff and not have to pay a whole lot of money for it, that was very gratifying too. So overall it means a whole lot to be able to grow your own produce, and I really think it’s gonna eventually be the key to survivor, because you know, with these terrorist threats and eventually stores just may not be safe, and if you already know how to do your own, God bless the child who’s born, you know.
SL: If you could change anything about your experiences with farming, what would it be?
LP: One thing, I wish I had started earlier and I wish my mom had instilled that aspect of it into me more. I was, you know, just trying to get a good education and get out there and do something and you know, just go buy food in the grocery store, you know, she’d buy some pretty healthy stuff. And like I said, I wasn’t aware of all these chemicals and stuff that’s in the food and I wish that I had started a lot earlier, maybe in my twenties at least and really put more emphasis towards buying some land in the country. ‘Cause I only have one sister that’s actually in the country up in Michigan and raised all their own food and all that, and she’s really healthy, I don’t think she ever has to go to the hospital and all that – even though she was the only one of us that didn’t finish college, but you know, they are very well off and I wish I had kinda taken their example and bought land earlier and got started a little earlier, I guess that’s about the only regret, the only thing I would do different.
SL: And finally is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you would like to add?
LP: Um, well one thing that I have learned from some of the conferences and stuff that I go, when I really got started trying to do stuff to sell, I would just raise too many things. People like this, I gotta raise some of this, just trying to raise everything. But then I think it’s better, if you want stuff to sell, like this year I just did tomatoes, so to learn to just kinda specialize in one area, that’s a little bit more economical and I think it’s a little bit more profitable too, to learn to specialize in one area and not to try to do too much that you can’t handle, ‘cause I started off trying to do more than I could handle too. And then try to associate with people that are positive about what you’re doing, that makes a lot of difference too, ‘cause you can get your strength from being around peoples that believe in what you believe, or else you can fall from being around that don’t believe in what you believe in.
SL: Which experience have you had out of those, I mean have you been around positive people or have you been around…?
LP: Well the lady I was telling you about, Ernestine Evans, they are very positive and they are very inspirational and you know, the way they do things, all the organic – they’ve gone beyond organic, they are into biodynamics and stuff, so they’ve been very inspirational. And, well I’m not gonna talk about anybody personal ‘cause I don’t know (laughs) where this might end up at. But then Dorothy Grady has also been very inspirational, the way she has been farming and she’s in the city too, so that has been very inspirational. And Will Allen, have you had a chance to meet them? Growing Power, they are an urban farm, and to go up there and see – they got goats, big old billy goats too, and to see them in town too trying to do urban gardening, that was very inspirational. So when I go to the conferences, different conferences that Heifer Project send us to and things like that, that’s where I get my inspiration from, and most of my best friends I meet them there, and also the members of the Heifer Project group are very inspirational, very positive. And see, you know, you got people keep telling me, “You don’t need goats in town.” And then about a month ago I met another home school group of kids at the library, and we got talking and they said, “Well we got goats too, we live right around the corner!” (laughs) I said, “Really?” I think they got four, and they live in town, so you just never know. So ‘cause I had become kinda discouraged, like sometimes you’ll see they get loose, but normally I watch them, I look out every twenty minutes to make sure they’re still out there, because they have gotten, I got them in April and I think they’ve gained at least a hundred pounds since then (laughs) ‘cause it’s getting harder and harder to try and control them. Once I get them back in the fences I’ll just keep them in the fences, ‘cause she can, this one is actually almost struggling one day she’s gotten so heavy. But I love them. One day the police came here, I was like, oh boy, somebody done said that I got to get rid of these goats (laughs). And so they was asking me some questions about somebody else. And so that used to worry me, whether some of the neighbors might would say that I, but the man across the street is an older Caucasian gentleman, got chickens, and as long as we don’t say a thing about his chickens then he can keep his chickens (laughs). But the kids are all just fascinated with the goats, they think they are fascinating and so I really had things cleaned up back there like I want to I would probably maybe have kids to come over and do things, but maybe in a couple of years I can do that. But Ernestine Evans, that’s what she wants to do. They call that, what they call that, oh I can’t think of what they call that now…like people have corn mazes and people come to their corn mazes…
SL: Like agritourism?
LP: Yeah, agritourism, that’s exactly what, I’m supposed to be on the board with agritourism (laughs). Yeah. So that’s something that she’d like to do ‘cause they got a lot more space and all that, ‘cause they were the ones that originally were supposed to have the two goats but she felt that that was too much for her to handle and do her products too. She does skin care products and stuff. Now I make – were you at the market in Cleveland last year when it started and I brought the soaps? Oh, you weren’t there? And I started making homemade soaps before Sarah was born and that’s all I use now is my own homemade soaps, and now Shanae has got me beat, she makes homemade soaps and lotions, skin care products, hair products and all that. But I love making my own soaps, I don’t have to worry about itching and all that. I use Dial soap and I’ll be itching for days (laughs). So I’m always trying to see what I can learn to make on my own and all that. So that’s the kind of person I am. I home school my daughter and one other child. And I would like to one day get way out in the country for real. Okay, I guess that’s about it I guess.
SL: Well thank you so much, I appreciate it.
LP: Well you’re welcome, I enjoyed talking to you.
SL: Well good.
END OF DOCUMENT