The Black Farmers Growing Rice
Portside Date:
Author: Liz Susman Karp
Date of source:
Ambrook Research

In 1926, Konda Mason’s grandfather fled his prosperous Alabama farm in the dark of night, wife and infant son in tow, to escape being lynched by the Klu Klux Klan. He lost everything he had worked for. His story is all too typical of Black farming’s legacy in America, punctuated with painful stories of lost land and livelihoods.

In 2019, Mason, a serial entrepreneur and economic and social activist, founded Jubilee Justice, an organization that uses regenerative agriculture to foster racial healing and equity. It now runs The Black Rice Project, helping Black smallholder farmers in the Southeast foster repair and reconciliation with an especially symbolic crop: rice.

Before cotton growing, enslaved West Africans produced rice on South Carolina farms, helping propel America to economic wealth and power. Mason said they had developed successful, sophisticated growing methods on all kinds of African topographies — European captors recognized the value of this expertise. “When emancipation happened, African-style farmers immediately got out of the situation they were in and walked away from rice farming,” she said, leaving behind that fundamental part of their identity.

Mason wasn’t planning on forming a nonprofit, but friend and Lotus Foods co-owner Caryl Levine told her about System of Rice Integration (SRI), an agro-ecological methodology employed worldwide that sustainably increases productivity while utilizing less water.

Lotus imports artisan rice from smallholder farms globally but was looking to work with U.S. farms. Mason, who has a permaculture background, recognized an impactful opportunity for Black growers, who in the 1920s totaled 14% of the United States’ agricultural community but who now comprise just 1.4%. They also lost 18 million acres of farmland between the 1920s-1970s, what she calls “an intentional collusion” between the government, the USDA, and private businesses.

Roy Mosely drove a tractor on his grandfather’s farm at age 5. Today he pasture-raises hogs on 16 acres and grows heirloom vegetables and grains on another 40 acres in Portal, Georgia. Moved by Mason’s support, he joined The Black Rice Project three years ago. Jubilee Justice has “taken on the cost to show us how serious they were just to give us the chance to learn,” he said. Mosley initially trialed half an acre of rice; next year he’ll grow between seven and 10 acres.

Mason moved to Alexandria, Louisiana, where the group is headquartered at a former plantation, Inglewood Farms. It’s owned by another friend, Elisabeth Keller, who donated land to the initiative.

The enterprise has made great strides. Ten farmers from Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina joined up last year; Mason hopes to add three more in 2024. Over 75 varieties have been trialed; the group identified 7 particularly successful ones and will focus on growing 3-5 of them.

Notably, the group opened the country’s first Black-owned mill last May. Producers keep more money in their pockets by not having to pay a middleman to process the rice. Keller gifted the approximately 5000 square-foot building on the Inglewood Farms property, and it’s been remodeled with solar panels and state-of-the-art equipment.

Collectively owning the mill, the means of production, said Mason, contributes to self-determination in a way that can lead to healthy Black farming communities. The mill is designated as a Public Benefit Corporation, which will be converted to a co-op once its structure is agreed on by the farmers and running smoothly.

Milling trials and plans to process other grains and dry beans are underway. Hopefully a robust crop this year will have the mill humming. Mosely said the mill provides “more incentive to work harder to keep everything going. You feel more a part of it knowing that you’re the owner.”

A farmer cooperative is also being formed. The cohort shared their farms’ legacies and experiences at a recent first retreat, by all accounts a meaningful, bonding experience. The project also offers networking and farm education, including a grower’s manual.

Gaining the farmers’ trust didn’t happen overnight. But now, “They really trust the work we’re doing,” Mason said, “because we keep showing up. Everything we say we’ve got to do, we do. And we do it well.”

Collie Graddick grew up on a 200-acre sustainable farm in western Georgia; his father was a founding member of two Black farmer cooperatives during the Civil Rights Movement. Graddick is now growing rice and lending his farming knowledge and work experience to develop the cooperative’s structure.

Mason’s fundraising and support resonate with him, as well as the project’s long-term potential. During the New Deal, Blacks were forced to move from his home county to an area that remains one of the state’s poorest. He sees the lasting effects infusing government money can have on building a community — in that historical case, it was the white community. “I see this as the same opportunity to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” he said, “bringing opportunities to a community, a larger community, because we’re gonna rise across the Southeast.”

A co-op Graddick has organized in East Alabama, comprised of young farmers who are heirs and descendants of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, will grow rice on two leased acres next year. They’ll give their crops to food shelves in East Alabama.

The farmers are growing specialty rice because they fetch higher prices, and the pigments and fragrances are more interesting than commodity varieties. They include a black sticky, a creole red, and one they’ve branded Jubilee Jasmine, which they’re deciding how to market. Lotus Foods will purchase the majority of all the harvests; some may be sold to chefs or at farmer’s markets. Prices by the pound vary from $1 wholesale to $6 for direct sales.

Mosley said it’s been a steep learning curve; growing rice regeneratively is different than growing other crops, and most rice grown in the U.S. is conventionally farmed. “Not using any chemicals. Just being a student of the crop, certain stuff you do to grow the crops,” he explained. For example, rice, unlike his heirloom corn, does not like having dirt thrown on it to suppress weeds.

Jubilee Justice has also partnered with SRI expert Erika Styger, director of Cornell University’s Climate-Resilient Farming Systems Program. Styger takes a collaborative listening approach with the farmers, tailoring plans and solutions with them. She and Mason hop in Mason’s RV twice a season, visiting each farm to troubleshoot and discuss harvest plans.

The project posed a new challenge for her. “It has been very difficult,” said Styger, to produce enough rice of high quality, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.” The irrigation required is very different. There is trial and error in planning the whole workflow for smallholder farmers, to plant a new crop differently than it was planted before. This is the first time SRI is being used in the U.S. and it can take years to figure out a new way of growing crops.

Now armed with new ecological knowledge and techniques to control weeds and a better understanding of required equipment, Styger’s fairly confident they’ve come up with methods that will scale production in 2024.

“We have heard stories you wouldn’t believe,” she said, “how farmers have been sabotaged … This is an opportunity to reverse this.” Grateful to work on the project, Styger hopes to train Black farmers to take on a technical role. “They have the opportunity to create their own products,” she said. “That’s really beautiful.”

Liz Susman Karp

Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer with a focus on culinary history, foodways, and the intersection of food and culture. Her work has been published in Civil Eats, Plate, Modern Farmer, Atlas Obscura, Vine Pair, and Cheese Professor, among others. She’s based in the Hudson Valley, where she enjoys exploring the area’s rich agricultural heritage and offerings.

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