- Sustainable Communities: community development, local and regional food systems
The project was centered on sustainable development activities for a set of Southern Black agricultural communities that were created during the Great Depression, initially under the direction of the Resettlement Administration and subsequently under the Farm Security Administration. These and related agencies provided an opportunity for landless sharecroppers and tenants to own land. This opportunity allowed the “settlers” to become small independent farmers (a Jeffersonian ideal) and form independent agricultural communities (a Booker T. Washington ideal). Thirteen such all-Black communities were established, about half of which remain as viable communities–although they are “at risk.” The others have faded, although both archival records and original residents remain to tell their story.
Using nine of these communities (Sabine Farms, TX; Prairie Farms, AL; Gee’s Bend, AL; Mileston Farms, MS; Mound Farms, LA, Flint River Farms, GA; Allendale Farms, SC; Tillery, NC and Aberdeen Gardens, VA) a sustainable economic development strategy and training meeting was convened. Community participation ensured that this training lead to site-specific community development plans and activities.
Results of the training were based on the activities initiated by the participating communities. Planned activities included submission of grant applications, community meetings, organizing and community-based activities. In addition, results will be presented at professional meetings and symposia and published in local media and professional journals, and further Resettlement Community meetings planned.
The principal cooperators were selected representatives of the participating communities and the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment Station at Tuskegee University. The proposed project took approximately one year.
The purpose of this project was to provide community directed, participatory training and technical assistance to increase the potential for sustainable economic development in selected African American agricultural communities. This was accomplished through an intensive three-day workshop that focused on critical hands-on community development issues and strategies such as: grantsmanship, tourism (community/historical and agricultural), natural resource development and small business development.
Twice since Emancipation, the U.S. Government devised programs to strengthen the land-owning capacities of Black farming communities–once during Reconstruction, and again during the Depression. Although the efforts are viewed as deficient, there are significant remnants of these programs that influence these communities today.
Of particular research interest are a set of communities proposed and established during the Depression by the Resettlement Administration and its successor agencies. The USDA’s Resettlement Administration (RA) provided an opportunity for landless sharecroppers and tenants to own farm land. Thus, these landless sharecroppers and farm tenants could become independent farmers (a Jeffersonian ideal). Further, they could form independent agricultural communities, with a strong infrastructure (a Booker T. Washington ideal). Reaching beyond “40 acres and a mule,” the members of these communities would have not only land, but also schools, health centers, churches, cooperatives, gin and grist mills, and farm supervision and management training (Oubre 1978). In the end, the RA purchased approximately 1.9 million acres used for 140 to 150 agricultural resettlement projects (Holley, 1971; Salamon 1979 and also see Alexander 1936, Cannon 1992, 1996, Cobb and Namorato 1984, Conklin 1976).
These Resettlement communities were established throughout the United States. In the South, 13 rural resettlement projects were designated for Black farmers alone. These communities encompassed 1,150 families on 92,000 acres. An additional 1,117 Black families were resident in 19 scattered projects on 70,000 to 80,000 acres of land (Salamon 1979). The 13 all-Black communities were important because they were to provide an opportunity to own land and gain economic independence; individual action would be reinforced by community development. The fact that these communities exist or are remembered today emphasizes the small but important effort of the Resettlement Administration and its successor agencies.
Initial reports concerning these projects were positive, both in terms of farm productivity and community development. Gradually, support and guidance from USDA agencies declined. Eventually, Congress called into question many New Deal programs and sponsoring agencies, including the RA. In 1937, the Resettlement Administration was reorganized into the more limited Farm Security Administration (FSA), itself then subsumed into the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) in 1946. As the nation’s attention turned increasingly toward war, prejudicial and discriminatory practices began to permeate the very agency that had been empowered to provide agricultural support to the new Black communities and to newly established Black farm landowners (see Baldwin 1968).
Some communities established by the RA are today still visible–although they may be considered ‘at risk’. These extant communities provide a field setting within which to investigate seven decades of community cohesion maintained against a variety of institutional and economic threats. Other Black community development projects undertaken by the USDA/RA have faded from view, having succumbed to land concentration, urbanization and suburbanization, economic failure, and a variety of other pressures.
Projects where communities share their successes and challenges are particularly timely. Communities surrounded by limited-resource and small-scale family farmers nationwide have rapidly vanished from the landscape ideal still deeply ingrained in American culture (see Berry, 1977; Vogeler, 1981). The South’s Black farm land owners and operators have disappeared at a rate significantly greater than their white counterparts (Wood and Gilbert, 1998; Zabawa, 1991).
Recently analyzed Census data, however, show that, contrary to expectations, certain southern states have experienced a slight rise in both Black farm land and Black farm operators (USDA, 1997; Zabawa 1999). Such increases may result from USDA-funded collaborative programs directed toward Black farmers (such as the 2501 Small Farm Outreach Training and Technical Assistance programs based at the 1890 and 1994 institutions, and at community-based organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation). These projects have provided the technical assistance necessary for Black farmers to gain access to programs previously denied them. In this regard, they may be interpreted as a return to the proactive development programs of the original Resettlement Administration.
Because of the success of the 2501 and other technical assistance programs, we suggest that additional collaborative and TA programs can be designed to maintain the momentum of the last decade. It will augment, at community, university, and agency levels, our understanding of the factors or “ingredients” that ensure a rural agricultural community’s growth and maturation. The primary value of the proposed project is regional, in particular among the southern Black Belt states. Other regions experienced similar community development projects in the 1930s, and there is considerable overlap with ongoing and future research across the U.S.
Project Relevance to Sustainable Development
Communities at risk benefit enormously from establishing a coherent sense of their own history and planning and implementing their own development strategies using local resources. Thus the products of the project benefited a wider community than simply using the resources of an agency or university. The communities involved, such as Tillery, NC, Aberdeen Gardens, Prairie Farms and Flint River Farms already initiated research into their past; others have responded enthusiastically to preliminary investigations (Hargrove and Zabawa 2004, Warren and Zabawa 1998, Zabawa and Warren 1998, Zabawa 1999, pers. comm.). The opportunity for these communities to gather together and share their experiences and strategies towards a common goal of sustainable development is unique.
In December 2004, the 62nd Annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference at Tuskegee University hosted a meeting of Southern Resettlement communities. The theme of this meeting was “Pioneering Communities: Revisiting New Deal Resettlement.” The goal of this meeting was for leaders in these communities to share their common and unique experiences with each other.
The focus on subsequent meetings was to address specific issues relevant to the sustainable development of the participating communities. Through on-going discussion with community leaders an initial set of workshop activities was developed to address community and agricultural development. Examples included:
•Grantsmanship—this topic is critical for local citizens to be able to access funding opportunities from the local to the national levels that deal with individual home repairs to creating community parks and recreation facilities. Participants will be given a list of potential grant donors, and then they will receive skills training on how to write to submit applications for funding.
•Tourism—the creation of these specific communities through New Deal programs is a historical fact that is being lost to subsequent generations. Opportunities to highlight this history through tours, museum displays, WebPages, and popular publications are critical to passing on this knowledge.
•Small Business Development—individual participants have opportunities to develop activities from small farm production and marketing to cottage industries such as quilting and bed and breakfast enterprises.
In August 2006, the program “Pioneering Communities: Celebrating New Deal Resettlement II” convened in Macon County, Georgia and hosted by the the Flint River Farms Resettlement Community. This program was supported by USDA SARE/SRDC grant # CS05-039. The objectives of this project were:
•Objective One—each community participant will attend a series of workshop sessions that target specific sustainable community development strategies, including: grantsmanship, tourism (community/historical and agricultural), natural resource development and small business development.
•Objective Two—each community will engage in an extensive assessment process to: (a) identify local resources or endowments (social/cultural, economic, natural); (b) identify resources available at the local, regional and national levels that support local agricultural and community development. An inventory of these resources will be developed.
•Objective Three—upon identification of resources, participants will work with experts to develop a plan of action for accessing these resources. The plan of action will be individualized and catered to the needs of each community.
In September 2007, the program “Pioneering Communities: Celebrating New Deal Resettlement III” convened in Hampton, Virginia and hosted by the Aberdeen Gardens Resettlement Community. This program was supported by USDA SARE/SRDC grant # CS06-046. The objectives of this project were:
Objective One—each community participant will attend a series of workshop sessions that target specific sustainable community development strategies, including: land retention, website development and other forms of communication, grantsmanship, and natural resource development as it applies to conservation, taxation and education.
Objective Two—each community will engage in an extensive assessment process to: (a) identify local resources or endowments (social/cultural, economic, natural); (b) identify resources available at the local, regional and national levels that support local agricultural and community development. An inventory of these resources will be developed.
Objective Three—upon identification of resources, participants will work with experts to develop a plan of action for accessing these resources. The plan of action will be individualized and catered to the needs of each community.
In January 2009, the program “Pioneering Communities: Celebrating New Deal Resettlement IV” convened in Vicksburg, Mississippi and hosted by the Mileston, Mississippi and Mound, Louisiana Resettlement Communities. This program was supported by USDA SARE/SRDC grant # CS07-060. The objectives of this project were:
1.To provide sustainable economic and community development skills to selected African American communities created during the New Deal Era.
2.To provide these communities with strategies so that they can best utilize the resources (natural, social/cultural and economic) inherent in their communities.
3.To provide these communities with strategies to access resources (local, regional and national) to address issues critical to sustainable development.
Based on evaluations from previous workshops, the objectives for the 2010 workshop were as follows:
1.To provide sustainable economic and community development skills to
selected African American communities created during the New Deal
2.To provide these communities with strategies so that they can best
utilize the resources (natural, social/cultural and economic)
inherent in their communities.
3.To provide these communities with strategies to access resources
(local, regional and national) to address issues critical to