The cooperative movement found its birth in necessity; the necessity of poor black people to combine their resources, talent, [and] labor to make an economic unit able to survive in an economically hostile environment. Cooperatives sprung up throughout the south – from Texas to Virginia. They were varied in their type, e.g. manufacturing, farming, cut and sew, consumers. These cooperatives were operated by the disadvantaged of the south; the blacks, Spanish speaking minorities and a few whites. We organized these combinations of poor people to raise ourselves out of poverty. – Annual report of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, 1976-77
The southern civil rights movement that developed in the 1960s focused on legal rights – voter registration, public accommodations, desegregation. But an outgrowth of that movement was the creation of a number of agricultural cooperatives. In part this was a natural result of an organizing black community looking at further ways to improve their conditions of life. But partly it was out of necessity. Many blacks were tenant farmers and hired workers on the land of whites and often those who registered to vote or were activists in protests immediately lost their jobs or were evicted from their tenant land. So they drew on their agricultural skills to build farming cooperatives that could sustain them economically.
Freedom Farm Co-op
Fannie Lou Hamer, for instance, founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Ruleville, Mississippi. At the age of 45 Hamer, the 20th child of sharecroppers, attended a 1962 mass meeting sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and quickly became a field organizer. As a result she and her husband were evicted from their shanty on the Marlowe Plantation. Besides working on building the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the traditional state party, in 1969 Hamer helped raise enough money from Northern organizations to buy 40 acres of prime delta land in Sunflower County to start the co-op.
Shortly Freedom Farm included a herd of pigs, Head Start program, community gardens, commercial kitchen, a garment factory, sewing cooperative, tool bank, and low-income, affordable housing as strategies to support the needs of African Americans who were fired and evicted for working for their civil rights. The cost of membership for the co-op was $1 a month. But even at that price, only 30 families could afford membership dues; another 1,500 families belonged to the Freedom Farm in name. The co-op planted cash crops like soybeans and cotton to pay taxes and administrative expenses. The rest of the land was sowed with vegetables, like cucumbers, peas, beans, squash, and collard greens, all of which was distributed back to those who worked on the co-op.
Over the next two years the co-op grew into a multi-faceted self-help program. In 1970, the co-op purchased an additional 640 acres for cultivation. With funds from the National Council of Negro Women, the co-op bought 35 gilts (female pigs) and five boars (male pigs). The ‘pig bank’ produced thousands of new pigs to feed impoverished families. Mrs. Hamer was especially fond of the pig bank. “There’s nothing better than get up in the morning and have…a huge slice of ham and a couple of biscuits and some butter. . . I wouldn’t take nothing for our golden pigs.”
At its height, in 1973, the co-op had 600 acres in crop production, had assisted 300 families to get animals from the pig bank, had 70 families living in its affordable housing, and had distributed scholarships to local high school students to attend college and start several black businesses.
Bad weather destroyed many crops, however, and in 1974 Mrs. Hamer fell ill. The Freedom Farm was unable to pay its farmers, fell behind on its mortgage, and ultimately had to sell its land in 1976 to pay overdue state and county taxes.
North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative
Sixty-four residents of Bolivar County met in Rosedale, Mississippi in December, 1967 to organize a farm co-op. This was not the first effort to develop a cooperative farm in Bolivar County. The Delta Co-op Farm was started there in 1936, in response to the economic plight of residents during the Great Depression. Agricultural operations included growing cotton, dairy and beef farms, a pasteurizing plant, and a saw mill. The cooperative also provided a number of social and other services to members and the surrounding communities, including a cooperative store, a credit union, a medical clinic, educational programs, a library, religious services, and summer work camps for students. Due to several factors, however, including the tense political climate of the 1950s and poor cotton sales, cooperative efforts were abandoned around 1956, and pieces of the land were sold off to members.
In the 1960s, Bolivar County remained one of the nation’s most impoverished due to systemic oppression and the decline of the agricultural industry. The vast majority of people attending the 1967 meeting had been tenant farmers, sharecroppers, day laborers or domestic workers. Mechanization and federal subsidies for leaving land fallow had further cut into agricultural employment in the area and many envisioned the cooperative as a last ditch effort to stay farming in Mississippi rather than move north.
Operating on a regional scale within Mississippi, the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative they founded used agriculture as a strategy of self-determination and self-reliance, offering farmer-members an alternative to participation in the regional economy that was controlled by white elites. To join your family income had to be under $1000 a year. Nobody received any pay the first year, so much of the work was done at night or on weekends. But the co-op was able to secure 120 acres of leased and borrowed land from black landowners, purchase seed and rent tractors, and by the end of the first year boast 953 member families. In 1968 they raised and distributed over one million pounds of produce, including potatoes, greens, beans, peas and cantaloupes. The next year the group made plans for a small canning facility and signed a contract with Heinz Foods for the purchase of 50 acres of cucumbers.
Federation of Southern Cooperatives
As these examples indicate, there were many strong forces at work promoting agriculturally-based cooperatives among black farmers in the Jim Crow South. What was missing was an organization to bring these co-ops together to tell their stories, hear each other’s problems, and share their solutions.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives was formed at a meeting in Mount Beulah, Mississippi in December, 1967. Twenty-two representatives of rural southern co-ops met to discuss the extreme poverty their members were experiencing. They wanted a network of co-ops capable of raising money and providing technical assistance to members on behalf of black farmers, landowners, and rural communities. In the founding documents the Federation describes itself as: “…the principal advocate for low income cooperative development in this country.”
If offered member co-ops bookkeeping, technical and financial services, resource development and training in agricultural skills. By 1974 a total of 134 co-ops had joined FSC from 14 southern states, including the Southwest Alabama Farmers’ Cooperative Association (SWAFCA) with over 2000 member families (97% of whom were African American) in ten counties. Altogether the FSC served 10,000 small farmers owning over half a million acres of land.
One of the primary tasks of the FSC was to broaden the knowledge of member farmers, especially by introducing new crops to folks who had grown cotton their whole lives. The new crops included fresh vegetables and often led to the planting of fall vegetables, which enabled harvesting two crops in a year instead of one. Sustainable practices regarding water use and season extension were taught. In response to the 1970s energy crisis, the FSC promoted small farm energy conservation including solar energy, catchment systems for irrigation, wood stove construction and greenhouse design.
Forestry, animal husbandry, and limited legal advice were also available. FSC replaced the middlemen in farm expenses by enabling co-op purchasing of seed, fertilizer and lime, tires, oil, tillers, sprayers, dusters and fencing, and in farm income by selling as a group – ‘no longer basket by basket, but by the truckload’. One co-op, the Mid-South Oil Cooperative, formed by a group of black tenant farmers who were cut off from buying gasoline after they registered to vote, ended up supplying gas to 250 members in a four-county area of Tennessee outside Memphis.
Cropping decisions in a co-op were made, of course, cooperatively. As a farmer in southwest Georgia’s Flint River Farmer’s Cooperative put it:
“Well, first of all we sit down and discuss what we want to grow. And then each of us grows a portion of, say, collard greens. If we decide to grow 10 or 20 acres of collard greens, each individual will grow a certain amount of acres. Like, I might grow one acre and then two or three weeks later another farmer might grow an acre and then we pass it around. That way it won’t all be ready at the same time and we can have produce year round. That’s the same way we grow the peas. We rotate.”
By 1977 the FSC members controlled over a million acres of land and the organization was growing. Many local white business interests were being threatened by the co-ops it was helping, however, and normal Jim Crow measures were not repressing their activities. For several years federal funds had been granted to the group from the War on Poverty’s Office of Economic Opportunity and the white power structure chose this as an avenue of attack. In 1979 the local U.S. Attorney impaneled a grand jury to investigate federal funding of the organization. It involved looking through ten file cabinet drawers containing 40,000 cancelled checks and lasted 18 months. Although no evidence of wrongdoing was found and no charges were ever filed, defending itself cost the group tens of thousands of dollars and funders backed away because of the suspicion of fiscal improprieties, putting a real strain on the FSC budget.
In 2017 the organization celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, still receiving funding from 30 private organizations and the USDA. In answering questions about their receipt of federal money, executive director Charles Prejean dismissed challenges as follows:
“Show us the USDA sponsored facilities that are responsive to the needs of small farmers; show us the facilities that are disseminating information useful to the small farmer in a form and context he can understand; show us the facilities that are oriented toward providing techniques and training to small farmers in enterprises that can produce new income for their families. These facilities do not exist in the South; that is why we are creating our own training institute, centrally located within our membership area and centrally concerned with giving new skills to disadvantaged people in the context of developing a self-help movement for substantive economic changes in our society.”