African American farmers have surmounted all kinds of obstacles in order to keep their family land and make farming profitable. We talked to Shirley Sherrod about the radical structure of New Communities Inc. — the first community land trust in the U.S. — and their hard work over fifty years in the poorest, most rural counties in Georgia.
Visit New Communities at www.newcommunitiesinc.com to learn more, or contact Shirley Sherrod at (229) 430-9870.
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee. These are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Our Food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.
Hello and welcome to The Stories Behind Our Food. I’m Kate and I’m here with Danielle and we are privileged and pleased to be here with Shirley Sherrod today, who is a civil rights activist, community organizer and a former Georgia state director of rural development for the United States department of agriculture. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Thank you and good to be with you today.
All right, so one of the reasons we’re recording this podcast right now is New Communities Inc. has an important anniversary coming up this October. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Yes. it was 50 years ago that we came up with the idea of trying to develop a community land trust. And so here we are 50 years later using that model and others are using the model and we want to celebrate the first 50 years .
I mean, clearly there’s so much history on this land and so much history, 50 years of history within this organization. I heard some really amazing facts about New Communities that I want to share with our listeners who may not know what you do and what you have done. I’ve heard that it was the first community land trust in the U S and also that, you know, go ahead.\
I was going to say that’s exactly right.
That’s really impressive. I’ve also heard that it was at one time the largest tract of land owned by African Americans in the whole country. Is that one, right?
Yes, that’s correct too. The, on the original land, of course we lost it in 1985 but we had about 6,000 acres of land, which was about the size of the state of Rhode Island.
Oh my goodness. Wow. Wow. So how did that … tell me about, can you tell us about a little bit about the history of New Communities — and I don’t want to dwell on difficult topics, but also about how it was thwarted.
Yeah. So my work and I work in the area, started with the Civil Rights Movement. And one thing we realized as we were helping people to exercise their rights, many times we’d have people come into the meeting and they’d been kicked off the land they were living on. So we, from that we started trying to develop a solution to dealing with it because sometimes we get a whole family, at a meeting we had to find somewhere for them to live and so forth. So we actually sent a group to Israel during the summer of 1968 to look at how Israel was resettling its people looking at the kibbutz model and so forth. And they came back and we started meeting and decided to develop something where we could get land, hold onto it and not lose it. So that’s how the whole idea of developing a community, land trust, communal ownership of the land. So that we wouldn’t lose it.
Yeah. So what happened next?
Well, we faced a lot of discrimination, once we got our … we had a, we had — actually, we found the land. We had a one year option. We got a grant from the government to plan this community. But what happened was that local opposition surfaced and sometimes they would shoot at the buildings we were in. They started the political opposition to what we were doing. So that by the end of the year of planning where we had planned every aspect of this new community, where industry would be located, what kind of farming we would do, the kind of educational system we would have and so forth, and how we would live and work with each other. By the end of that year though, the government, OEO, the office of economic opportunity didn’t feel politically, they could actually give the major grant they had talked about giving. So we, we actually faced foreclosure for a couple of years and, and family got better financing around 1973 and we were farming.
What were you growing then?
We were growing peanuts, corn, soybeans, sorghum. We had a herd of cattle. We had the 75 brewed sour operation. We were known for the cured meats that we had. We grew lots of vegetables and and we worked in organized with farmers in the area to try to get them elected to committees that affected the farming in those counties.
The diversity and scale of this is just mind blowing to me. I mean, it’s so, so impressive and I don’t know, I mean I’m just stuttering here because I can’t imagine the organization that this must have required. And it sounds like there were a lot of people involved as well. Can you talk about how you came to be involved and who the other people were that were participating in this?
Well, my work, as I said earlier, it started with the Civil Rights Movement and it was after my father had been murdered. My father was murdered by a white farmer who wasn’t prosecuted, even though there were witnesses and I made a commitment on the night of his death that to stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. So that’s why — initially it was the Civil Rights Movement and then we moved on into economic development and trying to make life better for people who had recently been allowed to eat in restaurants or integrate schools or register to vote. You know, what was the next step? The next step was involved with trying to make life better where they were living.
And so I do a lot of organizing work with Equal Exchange and I’m hearing just around that there is a growing interest for racial justice specifically within food. And I was just wondering kind of, you know, you being involved in this work, what does collaboration look like with other organizations or other folks who are doing different but maybe similar work and maybe them looking at you as a role model because you know, you folks have been around for so long.
Well, let me say to you, without being able to collaborate with groups around us, and then especially with those who were not from this area, I can go back to legislation where we were trying to get a minority — it started out being a Black farmers’ rights group — rights legislation passed. It’s known as the minority farmers rights act now, but we had to look to white groups in the Midwest and in the North to help us eventually get that legislation passed. Now everybody’s benefiting from it now, but it was really because of Black farmers. I can also talk about the days when we couldn’t get into local markets and we had to look outside of the area. We partnered with Red Tomato and, and, and even Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company, actually arranged to buy pecans from, from our farmers to help with the problem of Black land loss. So without the collaboration and the help from group outside of this area, many of the things we’ve been able to do, we would not have been able to do in those earlier years. Things are a little different now. We get a little more cooperation. Back when I was trying to find a place to get pecans processed for Black farmers in the 90s, I couldn’t find anyone, even with us paying them to do them. But today that that has changed and New Communities, our project is able to actually contract out some of the value-added work that, that, uh, we, uh, we are doing.
So we talked about the, and then we talked about — Danielle just asked you about what you’re doing now, but what, what happened in between, when you lost these grants, when you were — I mean, I was gonna say a word that I probably shouldn’t say on air, but yeah. When you were the unfortunate, you know, when this discrimination happened and you lost the money that you had expected, then what? How’d you get to where you are now?
Yeah. So we had all of these major plans and couldn’t implement any of them because we didn’t have a way to, to get the financing to do so. But, so we started farming. Now, even with that, we couldn’t go to USDA for the loans that were being offered to other farmers, mainly white farmers. So we had to look to, again, organizations and groups outside of the area to get the financing to do the farming. And we were doing quite well. We could, we could from 1973 until the drought started in 1976 we could farm, we could make the money to pay the land notes and we could expand the farming operation. We couldn’t build the housing and do all of the other things we had planned to do, but we could hold onto that land. And then we ran into a drought followed by second year of drought. And it was at that point we decided we had to try to go to Farmer’s Home Administration to get an emergency loan. Like all farmers were doing. Well, what they said to us is, you’ll get the — the County supervisor said, you get a loan over my dead body. And we ended up having to complain to Washington. They sent people down to go with us to the local office to get the application. Would have been good if they had stayed to help us through that process because it took three years and three years with more droughts and not the proper input for the products was just too much. Now also in between there when we had the money and before the droughts, sometimes we would order liquid fertilizer and wouldn’t know until the crop was up that, that, that was something wrong with that fertilizer. It forced us to start pulling a sample from every delivery we had to the farm. Because many times we were not getting what we ordered. So —
so you were being sabotaged, is that what you’re saying? Like they’re sending you bad fertilizer on purpose?
Sending bad fertilizer on purpose and then even taking the crop in the peanuts for example, the grades would be much less than what we knew the grades we should have been. But what could you do? You have to try to work within that system. But anyway, when we got an emergency loan, it wasn’t what was requested. They would not find this irrigation for us and then they require a lien on all available assets. And once they got a lien on everything we had, then they could engineer the foreclosure. So in 1985, we lost everything and in fact they — our assets were worth about four and a half million at that point. They sold it to someone out of Atlanta for one million dollars and then three weeks later let him borrow 950,000 of that. Then he dug holes and pushed all of our buildings over in them getting rid of every trace of us on that property.
This is so disheartening to hear and I can’t imagine what it would be like to live through. That said all of this local opposition and you still feel these ties to Georgia, to the South. Can you talk about what that’s like?
You see when you –like I said earlier, I made a commitment to stay and I made a commitment to not just stay here, but to stay here and fight to try to make it better. So you work with people in those communities and you work with anyone else who can help make that make, make some of the changes that are needed in this area so that life can be better for all of us. And every now and then you find someone who’s, who’s from the area who also want to work with you to help make it different. You know, I ran into that one … I had a white farmer that come to me in ’86 to ask for help with saving his land. In the end I did that and then when I became state director of rural development, Breitbart tried to take that situation and turn it around to make it appear that as a government employee, I refused to help a white farmer. The help I gave to that farmer was 24 years earlier. But that white farmer — unlike many of the white farmers I’ve worked with through the years — stepped forward to say what I had done to, to help him and his family and save the day for me with that.
Gotcha. Wow. Do you feel like there are — to me this, this project has specific resonance for Black farmers due to land insecurity and all of the, the forces of discrimination and working against Black people, people of color specifically. Do you feel like there are young farmers coming up, young farmers of color who are interested in this work today?
There are, but a different kind of agriculture. That’s why it’s been so difficult to get young African American farmers interested. They saw what their grandparents and their parents dealt with, dealing with the system through the years and wanted no part of it. Now I have said to them all through the years, “you know, they have machines to pick cotton these days so you don’t have to worry about picking cotton.” But what I’ve pushed is — “you know, people need to eat so you don’t have the acreage to compete with the big cotton farmers, the big peanut farmers or the big corn farmers. But you can grow the food that we eat every day and work together to market that to people in your community, to people in other, say Atlanta, for example, or even to school systems that want to serve locally grown food.”
And that’s something people are, are excited about?
Yes. We, we have a group of women who are working — see, when I first started this work, back in the 60s, uh, it was the men who ran the farm. The women did a lot of work there but you didn’t really see them. But there are women who have stepped up and they, you know, they are farming. They’re young people. We are looking at developing an agro-tourism trail. So we looking at things that will actually help bring in more income so that those who are on the land and, and need to pay taxes and need to make a living there and those who want to try to come into the area and farm, will find a space to be able to do that .
Maybe — thank you so much for that. Maybe taking a step back to, the … obviously there’s such a rich and inspiring history of New Communities. What does the, how has the evolution of what New Communities used to look like and what it’s kind of transformed into now, because I’m kind of thinking are, what types of things did you grow then and what types of things are you growing now? And then also I read on your website that there’s a retreat center. And so I don’t know if that’s related to the agro-tourism, but that that does seem like an interesting way to kind of think about diversified income strategies. If, you know, there are challenges as a farmer and being able to compete with a really big market and big farms around.
Yes. So back in the, in the 70s, we, for example, we were growing three and four hundred acres of peanuts and you know, four and five hundred acres of soybeans. But we don’t have that acreage at this point. We have 1,608 acres. It’s a prime piece of property. So today we can’t do that large scale farming. And I’m not sure we even want to do it anymore. As I explained earlier, we’re trying to take our farmers into a different direction. So, when you go out to the property now, that we currently have, you will find Pecan Grove,when, when it was purchased, there were 85 acres of trees that were almost a hundred years old. We added another 115 acres to that, uh, of young trees. And you find satsuma oranges. Uh, this is a crop, as they found more and more problems with growing oranges in Florida that production is moving more into Georgia. So not only are we growing them, but we also having — bringing our younger farmers in and other farmers in to look at what we’re doing so that we can spread that around the region. We have, muscadine grapes. Our goal —
Are those the big ones. Are those, those really big, those big grapes? Sorry to interrupt you. I got excited.
Yes. So we have some for eating and our goal is to add another 12 acres for wine-making. So we eventually want to have our own wine. There is , we also grow vegetables from time to time. There is an 85 acre lake on the property. There are cabins on the property. We actually have a master plan. There’s about 600 acres of wooded land. We looking at that for recreation. With the cabins there, we arranged for people to be able to come and stay there. There is, we — our goal is to add more of them. Eventually it takes a lot of money for for that kind of thing to happen. There is a 13,000 square foot antebellum house on the property. This property was once owned by the largest slave owner and the wealthiest man in the state of Georgia. He had about nine plantations and this was one of them. He built, the original part of that house was built in 1851. It was restored many times over the years, but the last time around 1998. The previous owner actually developed a system for paying for fuel at the pumps. So he had lots of money and put $3 million into restoring. That house is used for lots of meetings and so forth now. And weddings, it’s a beautiful, beautiful place. Uh, we feel that racial healing — it had a bad beginning cause it was a slave plantation. We actually have an ad where 150 slaves from that plantation were sold at the courthouse steps here in Albany, Georgia on December the 29th, 1859. But we feel, we can use that plantation to, to help train Black people on our history. The fact that they could go from a slave began into descendants of slaves. It’s so much you can talk about and deal with on that journey to where we are now. We, when we first acquired the land, we had what we called blessing of the land ceremonies. We did it for three years where we brought in, , the Lower Creek Indians, Hispanics, Black, white, Asians, and, and it was so educational for everyone ’cause each group with would bring the blessing from their culture. And you know, people learn so much during those sessions.
Yeah, that’s really powerful. A lot of folks say the problem that we have as Americans is that we don’t talk about our racial history. White people don’t want to hear about the past and sometimes Black people don’t either because it’s so painful and there’s so much blame to go around. Do you think people who come to visit this plantation are ready to learn?
Many of them are. Some we’ve had just wanna come and see. You know, once we acquired the property, there were white people located locally who could not believe we had gotten it first of all. And, I’ve gotten comments so many times lately, they’ll say, “Oh, y’all keep the grounds so beautiful.” It’s as if no one expected us to keep the place up. When we first acquired it, we allowed a group that deals with abuse, child abuse and sexual abuse and soforth, to have a fundraiser there. And they told us they wanted to put a tent up, in the end, they didn’t. The affair was beautiful. They sat at tables and chairs in front of that antebellum house for 500 people. Well, I want you to know before it was over, the police came and they told me they had to come because that was the second time being called. Now we way out in the country and uh, the closest house is quite some ways away, but one of the neighbors actually called the police and he — you can even hear, there was a band and this was — when the police came, he saw out of about 500 people that are maybe 20 Black people there. And I think he was shocked, but I think the neighbor was trying to stop us from being able to have anything there.
A fundraiser for abused children, like who could be against that?
Right, right. And later when we wanted to get an area around that house rezoned, he went before the County Commission to talk against the re-zoning saying that — one of the statements he made was that “Charles Sherrod is living there like a Black king,” where my husband and I have never stayed in not one of the buildings on the property. We live about 15 minutes away, you know? And we’re not trying to build anything for ourselves. IOur work through the years has been for others here in this area.
I’m just really inspired by everything that I’ve heard from you so far and I’m just kind of going back to — to me land is power and for this land to have such a history of kind of being, you know, started during the slave trade to kind of the work that you’re doing now is just really inspiring and, and kind of symbolic of the evolution of kind of how far we’ve come as a society. And obviously you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges that you’ve gone through doing this work for years and years. I’m kind of curious as to what are your, what are you right now, what are your most pressing challenges? Consider kind of where you’ve come from to where you are now? Because I don’t think, I don’t think obviously the challenges are, are different than they were, but there are still lots of challenges, right?
Yes. And the way we acquired this property was through winning a lawsuit and the Black farmers — blended our case rather, and the Black farmers’ lawsuit. We were awarded about $12 million. Should’ve been much more when you look at the amount of land we lost. But we’ve used that to acquire this property and we’ve been operating for about eight years. You heard me say we added pecan trees, you know, 115 acres. We put irrigation in and we are doing all of the things we need to do to try to expand and, and move more into profit making ventures. That takes a lot of money and the money from that lawsuit can’t last forever. So that worries me. I have sleepless nights because there’s so much we need to do. There’s so much we can do to not just do for New Communities, but looking at the region, we actually try to work in a 14 county area, bringing farmers along and bringing others along to try to make a better Southwest Georgia. That’s what we’re about.
You lost all this time, you lost all this money and you got a little bit of it back, but you’re worried — if I’m just like, to recapitulate what you’re saying here — you’re worried that it won’t last for you to do the work that you want to kickstart here.
Absolutely. That’s, that’s, that’s part of the issue here, now. We need to, we need to –we are, we’re organizing for example, pecan farmers. In fact, there’s a meeting coming up in a few days. And so having a process in sight for them or trying to figure out how we can all process together, how we can add value to, to the product, how we can get into markets. When, when the President talks about tariffs on China, we knew we would be hit hard. And anytime there’s something that affects larger growers, you know, we get the worst of it. So just trying to maneuver through all of that and figure out how we can hold on to the land we have and have others hold onto the land they have so that we make a better life for all in this area. And this is like your poorest area of the state of Georgia. There are so many persistently poor counties here, but it’s your largest, agriculture, you know, row crop, vegetable production area for the state.
Are there a lot of small growers in the area still or are they mostly been taken over by these big farms?
Still a lot of small growers and many of them have — we’ve lost a lot of land. We have lost a lot of land as Black land owners who inherited land from former slaves who worked so hard to get it. But we still have a good bit of land. So just trying to help those families who are still holding onto it, figure out how to make some money so that they can continue to hold on to it, because there’s pressure all around to get that land out of the hands of Black people.
And how many farmers do you work with?
We have about — around a hundred Black farmers in the region that we work with. Yes.
Are you still — that’s good. That’s good to hear. What happened — I know New Communities originally was built around this idea of collective ownership and I’m sure that got disrupted in the course of this 50 year history. Where are you at with that now? Like who technically owns the land? And then also I’m curious about like, do you still have hope for collective ownership as a model for, for Black farmers or other farmers?
Collective ownership is the way to go. When we purchased the land, we had to put it into — it’s still in the name of New Communities and we still operate as a community land trust. It’s just that once we got the money, we had all of these legal people trying to help us put together what was needed for today. But we’ve never stopped operating as a community land trust. And —
So, why is it that this is the way to go? Yeah, tell me more.
Yes, it’s a way to go. You know, when we came up with the idea originally we came up with that because we had so many — you know, there was so much heir property owned by Black people and that was one way to lose it. So we — and then people would make foolish purchases and ended up losing land. So that’s, that’s exactly the reason why we came up with the idea of collective ownership and having it so that people could get a longterm renewable lease on the land where their home was built and so forth, and then work together. You know, I’ve, I’ve said the farmers through the years, “back in the day when my grandparents were working, even with them, they work together as a family. But when they were, when there was one person on the farm who felt he could make it on his own, maybe he could. But today that’s just not possible, especially when you own 50 acres or 30 acres or even a hundred acres. It’s just not possible for you to, to do the things you need to do to be able to make the money you need to make, to stay there working alone.”
Yeah. So it’s, it’s really amazing, all the commonalities that farmers around the world have. Farmers around the country and farmers around the world facing instability related to the climate changing, droughts, like what happened to you folks in the 70s? Finding ways to diversify income and figuring out that they have to work together in order to keep what they have. It’s just like, it seems to me like you were ahead of the curve on so many things and you’re, you’re such a great resource for other farmers.
Yeah. I think back to those early years, , as we were involved in — see, people are so used to just going and work on a farm, not making any, any decisions. Not having any say but that was different at New Communities. We operated with committees. For example, there was a Farm Committee and that we had a Farm Manager cause we needed someone to lead this, and everyone understood when we are out there working, that Farm Manager had the last say. But we had a Farm Committee meeting every Monday night and the members consisted of everyone who was working on the farm, plus three members from the Board of Directors. So you had a say for the first time in trying to use your ideas or to, to have some input and moving forward. It was so different for our people. That was hard for folks to get it, early on.
Yeah. You don’t just — you’re not just a laborer. You are a business person as well. And I can, I can really see that you have gotten that figured out. What’s going on now? What’s going to happen in the future?
Well again, we, we don’t have the landholding that we had, that we’ve had, but that place is a special place for everyone. So the training that, you know, we have to do production agriculture for New Communities, ’cause we do need to make money in order to be able to stay there. But we can’t let — we can’t do that in an area where there’s so much need and not think about others. So we are bringing everyone else along with us. We also see it as a place for racial healing. I can’t stress that enough. There’s a special feeling when you go out there on that property. That’s why I encourage people to come, you know, come and just walk those grounds. That place can be used to try to bring us together where we’ve been so separated in the past. And then young people, they have no clue of what their history is. We have to connect to the land again. And that’s one place where that can happen. And as we connect them to the land there at New Communities, we can also get them out into and, and on land in the region, in the area. You know, we can bring some pride back again to being land owners as my husband’s always saying, “land is power and all power comes from God.”
Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you so much for talking to us. Oh, another question I wanted to ask you is how can people get involved? If, if folks feel like this was as powerful as I feel like it was when they’re listening into this. , Equal Exchange is proud to offer pecans from New Communities. You can find them on our web store and buy them. But what, what would you say — people who are maybe not in the, in the Georgia area — what can they do?
We have a website and I’m sorry I can’t …
we’ll put everything in the show notes so we can give a link to your website there.
OK, and then, you know, a phone number. , it’s 229 … We use the Southwest Georgia Project phone number currently (229) 430-9870. We welcome, we need all kinds of help. We need all kinds of skills here and we want everyone, we want people from all over the country to feel this is a place they can come to and have an experience that they won’t have anywhere else.
So people can just give you a call?
Surely. Yes, yes. I’m here every day. You know what they say, I’ll be 72 and in November and I just didn’t think I’d still be working, but I have some new energy now.
Well you are just full of ideas and stories and it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and I’ve learned so much. Really. Thank you for sharing the story with us.
Thank you, Shirley.
And happy anniversary.
Oh, thank you.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, Inc., A worker-owned cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equalexchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Gary Goodman, with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.