“The right kind of policy is one that doesn’t just favor large corporations and large growers. We need to do more for young people. They have great ideas and things that they are doing. I think we could see legislation that would better support their work.”
– Shirley Sherrod
UC Food Observer’s Rose Hayden-Smith recently attended Farm Aid’s 30th Anniversary concert and related events in Chicago. She had an opportunity to spend a few minutes with civil rights activist and minority farmer advocate Shirley Sherrod, whom Hayden-Smith regards as one of her “heroes.”
Sherrod is the former USDA Rural Development director for the state of Georgia. When she was a teen, Sherrod’s father, Deacon Hosie Sherrod, was shot to death by a white farmer in a dispute; no charges were filed. This had a major impact on Sherrod. She was also among the first black students to enroll in a previously all-white high school. In 1969, she and her husband, Charles Sherrod – a civil rights activist featured in the documentary “Eyes on the Prize” – were among those who founded New Communities, the nation’s first rural land trust. (New Communities provided the model for U.S. community land trusts). The Sherrods also co-founded the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education (SWGAP), a non-profit organization based in Albany, Georgia. They were among the class action plaintiffs in the civil suit Pigford v. Glickman. In 2010, Sherrod was wrongfully dismissed from her position at the USDA. She has written a highly praised biography of her life, “The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear.”
What is encouraging and inspiring you about the food movement today?
Sherrod: As someone who grew up on a farm, I wanted to get as far away as I could. I’m encouraged that so many young people today want to go into agriculture. Even in cities, these young people are doing a great job on small pieces of land. And they’re bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the communities they live in. So many in my generation didn’t want to farm – they wanted to leave farming.
What could we be doing better? Are there specific policies we should consider?
Sherrod: The right kind of policy is one that doesn’t just favor large corporations and large growers. We need to do more for young people. They have great ideas and things that they are doing. I think we could see legislation that would better support their work.
Addressing poverty…in Albany, Georgia, the poverty rate has increased dramatically in recent years. We lost industry and during the economic downturn the poverty rate shot up to about 39%.
Getting locally grown food into schools…there are so many barriers. School districts are used to cheap, cheap, cheap and processed foods. Limited-resource farmers have difficulty meeting a school district’s requirements. A school district wants vegetables cut up and washed, which is difficult for a limited-resource farmer to do. So we develop into associations or cooperatives.
Our organization has been given a former Winn-Dixie grocery store with a kitchen. There are four acres of land and a building. But rural development policies won’t let us use this location as an aggregation site for produce, which would enable us to get into school systems more easily. But again, Rural Development can’t assist with that. That’s delayed our project. We’re trying to figure that out and also how to get equipment. For example, we need refrigeration trucks to cool produce on-farm and to bring it in. We need farmer training: there are new crops that will bring in more income for farmers. But the current policies are not geared to helping with that.
The amount available in microloans has increased..that’s been a tremendous help. What’s needed is to increase the number of young farmers who are coming along and growing healthy food. Policies that will help grow that segment of agriculture are needed.
Big farmers will be taken care of…they have lobbyists. Family farms are what have sustained us through the years.