The number of African-American farmers and landowners in the Southern United States are declining at a disturbing rate. For many reasons these, mostly small, farmers are being forced out of agriculture. Traditional crops alone do not provide the income and security that small farmers need to sustain the family farm. Many farmers must work off-farm jobs in order to sustain their farm operations.
The Indian Springs Farmers Association (ISFA), a cooperative based in Petal, MS and comprised of 45 small farmers, assists them in diversifying their farm operations to include the production and marketing of alternative crops such as medicinal and culinary herbs. Through a project with the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives and the Foundation for the Mid South, IFSA used their producer grant to conduct field trials to determine which herbs grew better in open fields and which did better on raised beds.
Six farmers participated in the trials and grew 32 acres of herbs and constructed five raised beds of 100 square feet apiece. They also constructed a drying pad—not a part of the SARE project—on which to dry their herbs.
They also experimented with different harvesting techniques and found that picking directly into ½ bushel plastic containers with holes in them was more efficient than picking directly into 5-gallon buckets, which is the accepted way in their area. This allowed them to wash the herbs in the same containers in which they were picked, saving time and labor costs. They also experimented with the types of containers preferred by customers and settled on an eight-ounce clamshell container.
The ISFA developed markets at the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans, LA and Alliant Food Services, Inc. They wanted to sell their herbs by mail order but decided that the fresh herbs would not hold up well enough to market them that way. They found that there is a ready market for medicinal and culinary herbs. They also found, perhaps due to the nature of the product, that many customers asked for 100 percent certified organic products.