FERN’s Back Forty: How Vegetable Farming Can ‘Redevelop’ the Mississippi Delta

By Boyce Upholt

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Woodruff County, Arkansas is located at the western end of what has come to be known as the “Delta,” the flat empire of farmland that hugs the Mississippi River along its thousands of miles more to the south. The county had a population of 23,000 in the 1930s, its economy centered around agriculture.

Last fall, when reporter Travis Lux and I drove through the county, we noticed that many storefronts in his largest village were closed. The population has dropped over the decades and is around 6,000 today. I lived in the Delta for almost 10 years and got used to the signs of decay and abandonment. Visitors, however, sometimes told me that the empty city centers and home repairs reminded them of the developing world.

Travis and I traveled to Woodruff County to report on the latest episode of FERN hot farm Podcast. Today, the land there, as in most of the delta, is almost entirely given over to staple crops. Arkansas, for example, grew more than 3 million acres of soybeans in 2019; vegetables, meanwhile, like tomatoes and sweet potatoes, cover just 15,000 acres across the state. We wanted to explore whether this ratio might change in the coming decades – whether the delta might, as a report suggested, becoming the “Next California”.

California feeds the nation, producing one-third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of our fruits and nuts. Today, as drought and wildfires, driven by climate change, threaten the state and a growing global population increases demand on California’s fields and orchards, these crops have already begun to grow. move to new territories. The World Wildlife Foundation, which authored the report I quote above, thinks the Delta might be a good place to target.

Why is a wildlife-focused nonprofit stepping into the future of delta agriculture? Currently, new agricultural land is being cleared in the Dakotas and Montana, replacing native grasslands that provide crucial habitat for all sorts of species and pull carbon from the air that is warming the planet and trap it in the ground. . The delta offers fertile soil and, in most places, abundant water; its greatest asset, however, at least from a conservation point of view, is that the habitat there has already disappeared.

Workers during the sweet potato harvest at Peebles Organic Farms. Photo by Kelly Peebles.

Until the end of the 19th century, the Delta was a vast forest of cypresses. This soil was expensive to clear and drain, so early white farmers were usually wealthy men with large gangs of enslaved laborers. Later, after emancipation, the “planters,” as large landowners are still called, deployed an agenda of paternalism and racial oppression to maintain a supply of predominantly black tenant workers.

Among those tenants were some of the world’s first blues musicians, and today Highway 61, which crosses the Mississippi Delta, is promoted as a road trip destination – a slice of Americana lined with old juke joints and graves of blues masters. But there are also darker markers of the region’s past. Almost all counties along the lower Mississippi are predominantly black and poor.

One of the reasons for poverty is that farmers no longer need a large workforce. In the four decades since the Great Depression, as tractors and chemicals replaced mules and human hands as choice tools and commodity farms replaced family farms, the farming population of the lower Mississippi Valley fell 78%, according to historian Christopher Morris. In the 1960s, farmers burned down rows of empty tenant houses, freeing up more space for crops.

Even black farmers who owned their land often lost it, due to discriminatory laws and policies and operating political structures. There are still thriving villages in the delta, but the smaller towns have struggled as those who were able sought opportunities elsewhere. In this sense, it is really the UN-developing world, a constellation of communities that have been gutted by the brutalities of the modern agricultural economy.

What happened in the delta was part of a national trend. By the end of the 20th century, much of rural America had become a patchwork of large farms operated by small crews atop large machines, producing mostly corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton. In Woodruff County, the average farm is 1,400 acres, more than three times the national average. Yet the per capita income there is 27% lower than the national rate. Someone gets rich from these base crops, but that’s not most residents.

Our story for hot farm centered on Shawn Peebles, a Woodruff County farmer who once largely turned to vegetable production, growing everything from sweet potatoes to black-eyed peas on 7,000 acres. As Peebles explains, the change saved his family’s farm. I was struck, however, by another effect: to grow its vegetables, Peebles needs a large team of full-time employees. “We bring in 50 to 60 guys a year, in a town of 800 people,” he told us. “It’s also an influx of taxpayer money into this community.”

It’s no surprise that Peebles sees vegetable production as a way to repopulate the Delta. With vegetables, a family can make a good living on a few hundred acres, he said, and would also need the help of several employees. These would mainly be low-wage jobs, although Peebles said he was also looking to hire an agronomist.

As Travis points out in the podcast, the “New California” narrative faces significant hurdles in the Delta. Each culture requires its own equipment and infrastructure, which is costly and little known. Labor is also an issue, as most farmers in the Delta lack experience in recruiting and hiring a large workforce. Peebles brings its workers through the H-2A visa program, which brings in seasonal foreign workers, mostly from Mexico.

This has its own complications. Peebles says that once, while members of his team were shopping at a dollar store, another customer called the police. She thought – mistakenly, Peebles discovered after reviewing the store’s security cameras – that they were stealing merchandise. For Peebles, the incident was rooted in stereotype. Residents of Woodruff County are not used to dozens of men covered in agricultural filth and speaking Spanish in their stores.
This suggests another way the Delta could possibly emulate California, where the culture has been heavily shaped by immigrants working the fields. A road through California’s Central Valley has been dubbed the “taco trail.” If the Delta is to redevelop around vegetable farming, Highway 61 may have to make way for its bluesy past for a new identity.

About Keneth T. Graves

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