From the top of his sun-bleached cap to his flannel shirt, overalls with thumbs hooking the clasps, and work-scuffed shoes, Ben Burkett looks every inch the classic, timeless farmer of children’s storybooks. Except that as the last of a rainstorm passes over Petal, Miss., creating downtime, he is tapping away at a laptop computer, watching streaming video playing over the monitor.
Burkett is a dyed-in-the-wool independent farmer in an age that has been particularly hard on his kind. Since taking over his family’s farm in the mid-1970s, he has watched relatives move away, one after another, looking elsewhere for better opportunities, better money, more excitement.
He has watched neighbors go bankrupt, their farmland turned over into subdivisions and Christmas tree farms. But as he sits at his laptop downloading video clips with a few effortless clicks, it becomes clear why Burkett has managed to hang in there and make a healthy living where so many others have had to call it quits.
It begins with family, and in the farmlands around the small town of Petal (pop. 7,579), one can’t walk too far in any direction without running into a Burkett. They’ve been there since 1886. “My mother’s grandfather homesteaded 164 acres, and now we’ve got over 300 acres in the family,” Burkett says. “Every generation has added some to it.”
Burkett even has his great-grandfather’s original land patent, signed by President Grover Cleveland. You don’t easily turn your back on that kind of legacy.
But after earning a degree in agriculture from Alcorn State University, a historically African-American school in Lorman, Miss., Burkett thought he was more than ready to do just that. “I didn’t intend to stay here, to tell you the truth,” he says. “My generation was leaving here, going to Chicago and Detroit, and I was going to Chicago. But then my father took sick and they tricked me. They told me to help get out the crop and I could leave.”
That was in 1973. A strong season persuaded him to postpone his departure. “We made good money that year,” he remembers. “I bought a brand new pickup truck and paid cash for it.” But when his brother and nephew went off to Vietnam, he tried again to follow them out of Petal. “I volunteered for the Marine Corps, but my mama and daddy raised so much Cain,” he says with a laugh.
Burkett stayed, and the farm kept turning out a profit until the late 1970s. But then cotton prices dropped and stayed there. Soybeans decreased to half their value. Farmers started going bankrupt, and those who managed to hold on had to start rethinking the way they did business, and fast.
That’s when a small group of area farmers put their heads and their money together and formed the Indian Springs Farmers Co-op. Drawing on their family connections in Chicago, the group pooled together and bought two 10-wheelers, each of which could hold up to 900 watermelons.
Loading the trucks with their crops, the farmers would take run after run up to the city, where they usually would sell out within a day. “One would be going, the other would be coming back,” Burkett says.
In the meantime, as prices continued to sag in the 1980s, Burkett also took a job with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, one of the nation’s oldest civil rights and land assistance organizations, which had helped the Indian Springs Co-op write its charter and bylaws. That’s about the time he started to be known in farming circles for his decision to stay home, to stick it out, to make it work.
While he started working on distribution deals through the co-op at home, he also hit the road, teaching and talking with other developing co-ops in the federation, working his way across Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, then coast to coast. With the other farmers in the federation, he went abroad to the Philippines, spent 10 weeks in Europe, and began an annual series of trips to Africa.
He lectured on everything from raising honey to credit unions and export-readiness issues. He brought home new irrigation techniques, new market information. He worked his way across Israel, Egypt, Libya, Senegal, Gambia, South Africa, Ghana, and Zimbabwe.
Every time he came home, he helped build the distribution and wholesale deals that helped members of the co-op, who now number 44, to keep their farms alive. He also helped raise the money to build a state-of-the-art processing center, where members can store, clean, and box their produce—designed to handle $1 million a year in business volume.
With his family (“They’re my work force,” he smiles.), he continued to harvest all his crops—corn, butter beans, turnips, spinach, crowder peas, among others—by hand and to drive them to neighboring cities such as Jackson and New Orleans, where he has expanded the co-op’s business.
On one such a drive his family met with tragedy. In a truck that he had purchased only a day before, Burkett’s brother, James, skidded off the road in Irish Bayou, La., and was killed. The accident once again made Burkett question everything—his trips abroad, the future of the farm. But in the end, it only brought him closer to the land where he was born, where he had spent all of his life.
And though things have changed in Petal—new homes, shops, and fast-food restaurants mushrooming over former farmland—he says there’s nowhere he’d rather be. “It’s the best living in the world,” he says. “If I have not one dollar in my pocket, I have a bed to stay in and food to eat, and that’s it.”
Times are never really easy for farmers like Burkett. “In the last census that I know of, there were only 18,000 small African-American farms left,” says Keith Richards, executive director of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group in Elkins, Ark. “At the turn of the century, there were over 1 million.”
Faced with such steady declines, some kind of collectivizing is almost always a necessary measure, Richards says. “Just being a small family farm, it takes some kind of innovation and some kind of edge to make it all through this time when most of them have gone out of business,” he says.
It takes a particular kind of leadership to make a co-op work, says George Penick, director of the Foundation for the Mid South in Jackson, Miss. “With a lot of farmers, big and small, the mentality is you just keep planting,” he says. “I think Ben has a very good sense of innovation, and he’s sort of a mentor for African-American farmers and that’s very important.”
But for all the praise that federation colleagues and fellow farmers are quick to pile upon Burkett, he says his drive to keep the farm alive runs far deeper than good business sense. “It means an awful lot to me,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m on my farm, I think that I’m the fourth generation on the same piece of land. It supported me and sent me through college, and now it’s sending my daughter and my nephew through college.”
Burkett’s daughter, Darnella, following in her father’s footsteps, is now a sophomore studying agriculture at Alcorn State. “When I was at Alcorn where they teach you all that stuff from books, I’d come back and talk to my daddy about it,” he laughs. “So now my daughter comes back talking to me about hydroponics and greenhouses.”
But whether Darnella and her cousins eventually will run the farm still is up in the air, Burkett says. “I’m ready to let them take over,” he says. “It’s good sandy loam land. It’ll grow anything on it, any kind of vegetable crop.”
After 28 years running the farm, his mind turns increasingly to his family’s future generations. He hopes they will come to the same realization he did, that the Burkett farm is worth fighting to hold on to, the legacy worth preserving.
“My responsibility is to improve the land and take care of it and hand it to the next generation better than when it was handed to me,” he says. “So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. In my heart, my land is something close to me. You’ve got to take care of it.”