HARVEY, Ill. – African American farmers drove a truckload of watermelons, cantaloupes, peaches, tomatoes, collard greens and sweet corn from their farms in Georgia to a farmers market in this predominantly Black and Latino community Saturday, June 19.

Melvin Bishop, president of the African American Family Farmers Association (AAFFA), was elated that all the fresh produce was sold after a grueling 14-hour drive from his farm near Eatonton, Ga. Three other Black farmers traveled with him in the refrigerated truck.

“Once they tasted that sweet melon and those juicy peaches, people came back asking for more,” he told the World. “We didn’t have enough so we will bring more on our next trip. People are spreading the word about how good our fruit and vegetables are so we expect an even bigger turnout next time.”

The AAFFA represents about 375 Black farmers in Georgia and 500 family farmers across the South. “We need help not only to sell our products but also to save our land, save our homes and save our heritage,” Bishop said.

Roger Lamar, another AAFFA member, said the group’s goals are to “assist the targeted farmers, improving the effectiveness of our farms to make them more profitable.”

The project was initiated after Harvey’s official spokesperson, Robert Storman, made a trip through the South recently. He was impressed by both the quality of Black farmers’ produce and struck by their economic plight, since they are mostly frozen out of the market by corporate agribusiness.

“If we don’t pay attention and do something now, by 2010 there will be no Black farmers in the South, and by 2015 there will be no family farmers left at all,” he told the World. “That’s why this venture between North and South is so important.” Black farmers from other states will be invited each weekend to truck their produce north to this Chicago suburb throughout the summer. The town is helping subsidize the project by covering transportation costs and housing costs for the farmers.

In 1910, 890,000 Black farmers owned 16 million acres, according to U.S. Census figures. Today less than 29,000 Black farmers survive and land ownership has dwindled to only 2 million acres.

In 1997, Black farmers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, charging that USDA loans approved for white farmers were systematically denied to Black farmers. In 1999, a federal judge ordered USDA to pay billions in restitution. Bishop charged that USDA has dragged its feet. So far, 13,000 Black farmers have each received $50,000 for a total of $650 million, while another $20 million in loan debts have been forgiven.

But in today’s brutal market conditions, even $50,000 is a relative drop in the bucket, and thousands of Black farmers have appealed. “There is a bill pending right now to extend the appeal process to 2007,” Bishop said. “If you are in the appeal process and you owe the USDA, then they won’t qualify you for any additional loans.”

Bishop said he sent Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman a letter asking for a meeting to discuss the Black farmers’ grievances. She referred the letter to the USDA’s Civil Rights Division, which has scheduled hearings across the nation, including a July 1 session in Georgia.

“The Bush administration has not been focused on meeting the needs of Black farmers or family farmers,” he said. “They have not done enough. This country was built by independent family farmers working together, not by corporate farming.”

Willie Adams, a fourth generation poultry farmer from Greensborough, Ga., said he was cut off from his 14-year contract raising chickens for Cagles Poultry, which was later bought out by Perdue. In the mid-1990s, Adams shipped 100,000 broilers each year, which ended up as “Chicken McNuggets” for the McDonald’s fast food chain. The widow of McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, had read of the plight of Black farmers and ordered McDonald’s suppliers to buy from them.

That ended abruptly when Perdue took over. Adams said a Perdue manager showed up one day and “told me I was too far away from the plant and I wouldn’t be getting my chicks anymore.” Adams said he is fighting to win back that contract, which is vital to his ability to stay on the land.

The authors can be reached at pww@pww.org.