Indian Springs Farmers Association
At A Glance
|Where:||Six counties in southern Mississippi, near the city of Petal|
|What:||Vegetable production, processing, and distribution|
|Founders:||Eight local farmers|
|Year Founded:||Informally organized in 1966 and again in 1979; incorporated in 1981|
|Number of employees:||1 full time, 3-8 seasonal|
Even though he has led the Indian Springs Farmers Association in Mississippi for almost a generation, Ben Burkett views himself first and foremost as a farmer. On the 255-acre farm that has been in his family for more than a century, he grows 16 types of vegetables and herbs and manages pine timber. “I really enjoy what I do, although I haven’t got rich at it. I started off in conventional cotton, transferred into corn, soybeans, and wheat. While we always had a vegetable contract when I was growing up, I only transitioned over to vegetables in my own farm a little more than ten years ago.” But Ben’s most important crop is farmer empowerment.
Indian Springs is typical of cooperative associations that have given thousands of small farmers in the United States a chance to succeed. In 1966, with a $250 grant from the Office of Equal Opportunity, one of the frontline federal agencies formed during the War Against Poverty, eight farmers from Indian Springs, Mississippi—seven African American and one white—formed a cooperative to buy equipment for handling the insects bedeviling their pea plants.
In 1979 the association was dismayed to discover that their African American members were being paid lower prices for their watermelons than nearby white farmers. They decided to pool their money, buy a truck, and start hauling watermelons directly to Chicago. Two years later, a representative from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives helped them organize into a cooperative.
Today, Indian Springs has three dozen producer members spread over six counties in Mississippi. They own a $500,000 packing facility that enables them to box, market, and truck their produce to a wide variety of wholesale and retail buyers throughout North America. They reach markets hundreds, and even thousands of miles away, in Memphis, New York, Boston, and Toronto, and have access to the vast distribution networks of Sysco Corporation, Albertsons, and U.S. Foodservice.
The Indian Springs Farmers Association is typical of many farmer cooperatives in the south—small, informal, personal. Yet it has also distinguished itself through its long history, its many accomplishments, and its roots in the civil rights movement. “We’ve come a long way since the 1980s,” Ben says, “but there’s still a long way to go.”