In honor of National Farmers Day, we couldn’t think of a better farmer to honor than organic farmer and Alliance Board Chair Collie Graddick, whose family has been long-time leaders of the Black farmers co-op movement in Georgia. The Alliance worked closely with Collie and his Community Table Co-op for five years helping immigrant and low-income farmers in the Twin Cities Metro area gain additional income from their surplus crops and provide them to corner stores and farmer’s markets in food deserts.
Interview by Liam Schwartz, Alliance Intern from Hamline University
Tell me about the history of your family’s farm and how that legacy has impacted you.
My grandfather was a sharecropper that farmed other’s land until he was able to purchase his own land. He purchased 250 acres in 1914 and an adjacent 100 acres in 1935. He had a good relationship with the bank and would buy land and re-sell to Black farmers. When he passed, each of his five children got 50 acres. My father and our family farmed his siblings’ land as well for a total of 200 acres.
My father was born in 1912 and I went to a segregated school until the fifth grade, where even the school buses were segregated. My father was the only driver of Black students to school. He sold our farm’s produce to the Fort Benning military base in order to buy a bigger truck so he could transport more students. He also connected other farmers in the area to sell to Fort Benning, and each farmer specialized in a different vegetable. This is how the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative was born as one of the founding cooperatives in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives — 16 co-ops that helped with training and distribution. My father sat on the board for both organizations.
Tell me about your background and training and what brought you to this work?
I grew up on a farm and participated in 4H, FFA, and other agriculture organizations in high school. My high school agriculture teacher was often around and was a mentor to me. I went to Fort Valley State University for my Bachelor’s degree and Tuskegee University for my Master’s degree. They were both in agriculture. I came to Minnesota during my time at Tuskegee and eventually ended up working for the State of Minnesota Department of Agriculture. My job was to educate people through workshops and presentations on non-commercial pesticide use in urban areas and how to only use pesticides as a last resort.
While at this job, I noticed that many Hmong farmers lived in the urban and suburban Twin Cities but worked on farms outside the Metro area. I looked at various farming techniques and production processes to look at pesticide use from a holistic perspective. I also helped Hmong cooperatives develop marketing and production plans.
I then went to work with immigrant, Latino, Black, European, and other small farming communities around the Twin Cities. I was asked to give a presentation at the Living Green Expo where I met Alliance President Terry Gips and became involved with the Alliance for Sustainability.
My teaching and attempts to get people involved in cooperative economics helped me organize the descendent of the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative. This new entity is the West Georgia Young Farmers Cooperative. They do farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and have a food truck among other things. They are also working with and selling to larger institutions, such as grocery stores and universities.
Tell me about your farm. What are you growing and what challenges are you having?
I grew up on a farm that specialized in okra and now I grow mostly okra but also tomatoes and bell peppers. Only two acres of my fifty acres are in production and I have another two acres that are a mixture of fruit trees.
Most farmers cannot make a living from merely farming and even bank loan applications ask for supplemental income because this is well known. The term the US Department of Agriculture uses is limited resource farmers. They simply can’t compete with factory farms and huge agribusiness.
However, cooperative economics can help with farming, transportation, housing, and finances because they are built at the community level, which hopefully allows people to sustain themselves from the food system. There are seven steps needed by any family to sustain itself: healthy food, comfortable clothing, suitable shelter, reliable transportation, quality education, a meaningful occupation, and a nice vacation. This is what cooperative economics can help provide at a community level.
Tell me about the Community Table Cooperative. What work do they do and what programs does it offer?
I started this organization in Minnesota since marginalized communities struggled to work with me because I was working with the MN Department of Agriculture (MDA) — a government body. They sometimes had experiences with governments that were not kind or respectful to them. I could not get a good reception when I donned my MDA uniform as I thought I could as a peer.
Thus, Community Table Cooperative (CTC) was created to help organize different co-ops of minority groups around growing food for Minneapolis public schools. We helped them write business plans and grants to help improve their farms. Ultimately, the MDA’s leadership changed and now it better supports limited-resource farmers where it did not in the past. This is mostly why the CTC stepped in at first to provide that support. Now, there is less of a need for the CTC because of additional support in place.
How have economic conditions changed the way you do you your work?
The price of food, gas, and everything else has risen and it is just a matter of passing those increases on to the consumers. At the West Georgia Young Farmers Cooperative, we are transparent and tell consumers why they have the prices they do because of what they make per hour for the labor and what the materials cost. The success of finding markets that pay what they ask for varies, yet it is encouraging to see young people realize that they can negotiate a price to sustain their needs. When working together, some people grow the food, some people process the food, some people sell the food, and others make the food into meals.
What do you foresee in the future of agriculture?
Corporate agriculture is still going to be around, but I believe that there is also room for the family farm to return through cooperative/collaborative economics. I am inspired because consumers are becoming more aware of their food choices. It is important to note family farms can offer transparency whereas corporate farms cannot.
Why is sustainability important to you?
It is an opportunity to take care of the community, society, and our planet simultaneously. It requires cooperation, trust, dependence on others, and will withstand the test of time. The future is in sustainable communities where everyone is taken care of.