On the Road with WhyHunger: Community Grown – A Mississippi Delta Tradition

A Southern community works together to feed everyone.

By Brooke Smith

In the cycle of things, it’s not uncommon for traditional to become modern again. Physicists explain that it’s normal for time-bending relativity to reverse concepts like “old” and “new”—what we once thought to be embedded in the past suddenly appears ahead of us as a way forward into the future. That might be the best way to understand why we’re seeing traditional agricultural methodology creeping back into our modern farming practices and shaping our current conversations about sustainability. For many growers and consumers, organic, small-scale farming is the wave of the future; yet, crop cultivation predates synthetic chemicals and factory farming by thousands of years, and so it follows that our ancestors were the original organic-loving locavores. But is the new traditional better than the old modern?

The flat shimmering expanse of the Mississippi Delta is just about the perfect setting to ask this question. The fields stretch off into the horizon much the same as they have for hundreds of years—and without the signature noise of contemporary development—strip malls, traffic, billboards—it feels literally timeless to stand in the middle of a sweltering patch of organic summer vegetables listening to farmers swap traditional tips: “Spray water, Murphy’s Soap and cayenne pepper on the okra leaves to prevent moths from laying eggs,” and “A light dusting of flour laced with cayenne pepper keeps the insects off watermelon.”


Dorothy Grady-Scarbrough has facilitated the development of community gardens on vacant lots across the Mississippi Delta

“That’s how they always did it,” says Dorothy Grady-Scarbrough, founder of Mississippians Engaging in Greener Agriculture (MEGA), and a transformational force in the Delta’s burgeoning community agriculture movement. “It’s not new. The older folk already know how to grow organic. I just tell them to ‘do like you used to.’”

Dorothy started MEGA’s demonstration farm and regional support network as an answer to the question of old versus new—encouraging local farmers to grow organic food crops that improve the health of their families, their congregations, their schools and their communities. Her career as a nurse, her commitment to her faith community as well as her own family, and her deep historical roots in the local agriculture of this sharecropping community, make the choice between traditional (smaller scale, organic) and modern (larger scale, chemical-dependent) agricultural development  a problem of simple math.

On one side of the Delta equation live the problems. Obesity, hypertension, and diabetes have risen due to lack of access to nutritious food in stores, a generational departure from the the once-ubiquitous backyard garden, and the nationally consistent malaise in terms of home cooking (the microwave) and regular exercise (the television). The last quarter of the 20th Century saw increased mechanization of farming practices resulting in a loss of agricultural jobs and high unemployment. And, finally, the monoculture of commodity crops like ethanol corn and soybeans has stripped the nutrients from the rich soil,  and forced farmers into debt-driven relationships with corporate agriculture giants who control pricing of both seeds and products.

On the other side, exist invaluable assets for leveraging change. The Delta’s enduring sense of community connection rooted in geographic longevity, the deeply relational nature of rural value systems, the life-or-death need for local access to fresh, healthy food, and the free time on the hands of both the unemployed and the younger generations are all powerful factors for regional transformation. When Dorothy balanced that equation, the answer to many of her community’s needs was clear: convert available vacant land into small-scale organic agricultural production, and feed the neighborhood with fresh, chemical-free food grown on a whole lot of team work.


Dorothy, Ryan Betz of Delta Health Alliance, and Pastor Leroy Williams have worked together on the New Hope Missionary Baptist church garden

And Dorothy isn’t alone in this effort. She spends much of her time spreading the good word, consulting with churches and youth groups and building regional networks (WhyHunger is currently partnering  with her and many others on the Delta Fresh Foods initiative to build a regional food system in the Delta). It’s all part of her grand plan to share her passion and vision for healthy community. And while it’s true that Dorothy has the Southern gift for graceful persuasion and genuine friendship, there’s also something else at play here—a profound sense of outreach inherent in the concept of community-based agriculture. Many hands are needed to produce food from the earth—from the labor to the distribution, it’s too much work to cultivate, plant, tend, harvest and cook food alone. And just ask any grower who has had the awe-inspiring experience of harvesting mid-summer bushels of beans and multiple baskets of tomatoes—you can’t possibly eat it all alone.

It’s common in the Delta for church and community gardens to enlist the necessary labor from their membership, and to distribute much of the harvest free to seniors and others in need. Dorothy explains the agreement this way, “We say to the elders, ‘Bring us tea and water and wisdom while we’re working the garden, and we’ll give you veggies.’”


Clarksdale Wildcat Growing Project student intern shows off his product

Pastor Leroy Williams oversees a couple of fertile acres devoted to producing vegetables for the New Hope Missionary Baptist congregation in Renova, MS. Church members decide what to plant, then harvest and distribute boxes of vegetables and exchange cooking, canning and preserving skills in the church kitchen. Almost everyone I spoke to was growing food for a community—keeping what they needed and giving away or selling at low cost whatever was leftover, often using proceeds to reinvest in the garden.

Up north in Quitman County, groups like the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi (CFNM) are catalyzing the return to traditional food crops and encouraging a new generation of farmers through the proliferation of hoop houses—a type of greenhouse made with plastic sheeting wrapped around a semi-circular pipe skeleton. Traditionally used to control the growing environment and extend the growing season, hoop houses also provide crops protective cover from the overspray resulting from the bright yellow biplanes dropping chemical pesticides and fertilizers on the adjacent large-scale commodity farms.

Working with churches, schools and interested local farmers, CFNM, in partnership with Healthy Congregations, Rock River Foundation, the Coahoma Community Health Council and Clarksdale Garden Club, has funded the materials and construction of multiple hoop houses for school-based learning initiatives, including high tunnels at Clarksdale High School (currently tended by teenage summer interns for the Clarksdale Wildcat Growing Project who also sell the produce at the weekly Clarksdale Farmers Market), and at Quitman County Vocational Tech School where structural construction and maintenance, as well as greenhouse growing techniques are integrated into the agricultural sciences curriculum for 10th-12th graders.

Hoop houses are also being built to support increasing production at the local family farms of veteran growers Larry Mays, Doc Davis and Frank Wilbourn, all of whom donate a portion of their crop to local churches and often give free produce to local elders and families in need.

Born in Marks, MS, Frank Wilbourn is 71 years old and has the ageless quality of someone with natural wisdom and a generous spirit. After returning from 23 years working in the steel mills of Milwaukee, Frank bought his father’s farm and began life as one of the few local organic produce growers and the only local organic produce seller in the town. Every morning he harvests his bounty (on the morning I visited him it was okra, butter beans, blackberries, and Echinacea leaves for tea), and drives his truck to the shady spot under the Bald Cypress tree along the main thoroughfare in town. And that’s when the steady stream of customers and conversation begins.


Farmer Frank Wilbourn does business under the shade of the Bald Cypress tree in downtown Marks, MS

Frank has a lot to say—and it’s fascinating—from the history of the region (his parents bought his current land in 1939), to evidence of the failures of our education and community systems (“Education is supposed to make you more loving, but I don’t see that in many educated folks.”).

As he told the story of his family land, weaving it through with a warmly mischievous theory of life involving multicolored dirt, Moses, and Biblical produce, the bright midday haze of sun bounced off passing cars and bleached out the surrounding world. Watching Frank exchanging bags of fresh okra and easy banter under a shady tree, it was clear that I had found the heart of community-based agriculture: a man under a tree, providing healthy, home-grown (and popular!) food to his local customers. This is what it looks like to care for your community—and that’s a tradition that never gets old.

Updated 7/2010