African American farmers in the Black belt would have lost a valuable advocate had Ben Burkett moved to Chicago after graduating from Alcorn State University as he had planned. But when his father fell ill, Ben, a fourth-generation farmer stayed in Petal, Mississippi to get the family’s cotton, cucumber, corn and beans to market. Forty years later, Ben has made his mark on his community and the world as a farmer, cooperative organizer, and advocate for southern Black farmers.
Farming is never an easy profession but in rural Mississippi long ingrained discrimination denied Black farmers open markets for their crops, access to federal and state programs and even retention of their land. “We achieved the right to vote, but we still needed to achieve the right to survive,” said Ben. Seeking better prices for their watermelons, Ben organized neighboring farm families to sell their crop in Chicago. With the assistance of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Indian Springs Farmers Association was born.
While continuing to farm and serve as a local co-op leader, in 1978 Ben joined the staff of the Emergency Land Fund (ELF), a non-profit whose mission was to save and expand Black farms and assist Black farmers with heirs’ property issues. His role was to identify and work with other Black farmers and land owners to protect their landholdings. When the ELF merged with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1985, Ben’s role was expanded to include spreading the word about the cooperative business model and he began teaching diversified crop development for conservation and marketing purposes. Ben’s knack for connecting with rural communities in the South, his passion for farming, and unique ability to get things done made him a sought-after agricultural trainer.
Ben’s reputation as a farming and rural development expert garnered the attention of Mike Espy, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of Agriculture under the Clinton Administration. Espy appointed Ben to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Committee for Mississippi and was largely responsible for the inclusion of technical assistance funds that enabled more minority farmers to qualify for USDA farm assistance. Through his work with the FSA State Committee, Ben encountered and supported Lester Spell’s candidacy for Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce. Key to Spell’s election, Ben was appointed to the State Marketing Board where he served two terms and continues to be involved.
Ben’s political appointments and his service in various food advocacy organizations including the National Family Farm Coalition, La Via Campesina’s Food Sovereignty Commission, the Rural Coalition and the Community Food Security Coalition helped to raise the profile of the Federation and of agricultural and handicraft co-ops throughout the South. His expertise has taken him to Africa, South America and Southeast Asia where he shared his knowledge of small-scale agriculture and the power of cooperatives.
As a tireless promoter and advocate for the cooperative business model, Ben’s knack for connecting farmers globally and bringing them together for a common cause has made him a sought-after speaker, trainer, organizer and a true example of the cooperative spirit. Ben’s work was recognized with a leadership award from the James Beard Foundation in 2014.