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The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates interviewed Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund Executive Director Cornelius Blanding to check in about how the organization is navigating the coronavirus pandemic and demonstrations calling for racial equality throughout the nation, including in rural America.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Oates: I wanted to check in with you about the Federation and see how you’re feeling about these difficult times, but first can you tell me about your organization and its history?

Blanding: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC/LAF) is a cooperative association of black farmers and landowners all across the South. We were founded directly out of the civil rights movement, a little more than 50 years ago in 1967. Our organization focuses on three things: cooperative economic development, land retention, and advocacy. Our organization is owned by the folks we work with, the cooperative businesses, so ownership is at the heart of who we are and what we do. We’re organizing farmers and landowners and people in need in rural communities into cooperative businesses so that they have more ownership and control of their rural communities

Another big part of our work is land retention. All of that is spurred out of some simple statistics that tell that story, document the need. In 1910, there were about 218,000 black farmers owning about 15 million acres of land. Before the turn of the century, based on the 1992 ag census, there were only about 18,000 black farmers owning less than three million acres of land. I say that because you have a tremendous loss of land, a tremendous loss of assets, a tremendous loss of wealth, a tremendous loss of ownership among black farmers in rural communities. The core of our work is maintaining the remaining land and wealth and asset base. If we lose that, we lose community.

The point we keep trying to make is that this matters to everyone, the food system should be a concern for all of us. What happens to our water, our air, should be concerning to all of us. How we take care of the land, how we raise food, the viability of any farmer but especially black farmers, when we lose our land there is damage and destruction that whole country can feel.

Oates: How does that history translate to today? How is the Federation dealing with the pandemic and all of the economic problems it’s exposing in the Black Belt and the Delta?

Blanding: Our greatest challenge, what you’re seeing playing out in the streets today, the protests and riot and unrest, that’s directly from poverty. And poverty is connected to policy. If we had better laws, better regulations, more funding for people that need it, you wouldn’t have these kind of situations happening.

And, yes, it’s true that we have been impacted disproportionately by the pandemic, and also by poverty, because of policy and policy decisions. But more importantly, it’s the atmosphere of this country specifically around discrimination. Discrimination is a huge hurdle for black farmers and for rural communities where black people live. But right now, there appears to be a spirit of openness where people are beginning to see, try to understand, and at least have conversations about these issues.  And we are optimistic that those conversations can put us on a new trajectory as a country, where all of us think about policies differently, where all of us can start realizing our dreams.

Oates: There is a new generation out in the streets calling for change.

Blanding: It’s the young folks that are making me excited, and it’s always been that case. At the heart of every one of these social movements, all the positive changes that have happened in this country, they’ve always been initiated by young people. I’m so excited that young people are still engaged, and especially right now because of this social distancing, young people are opening up new ways to communicate. A lot of this new form that form of communication, online and by phone, it has in a lot of ways in my opinion weakened relationships. But when the new communication forms can lead to positive things, positive actions, better policies, that gives me hope.

Not everybody is as fortunate as those of us who have seen what people can do when we get organized together, working on equity issues, building local economies, things like that. The majority of our country has been blind to these issues, to the struggles and the discrimination. I think what we’re seeing now is shared light on the ugliness of our country, and so there’s a shared light and platform for having conversations that can get us to fixing things, to be the beginning of the real change we need. 

Oates: I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on what’s different about this current moment of protest. Do you have any thoughts about that? What makes this moment different.

Blanding: Now, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these things are happening during the same time that this pandemic is growing. There are people that are in their homes, glued to their TVs and smartphones. They’re seeing what’s happening when they would have been too busy to see it several months ago, maybe.

It’s important also that the federal government has responded, and it’s not been in a perfect way, but there are considerable resources that have been put out there now, and thank goodness for that. But just like the pandemic is impacting us disproportionally, with discrimination and racial inequities as our reality, the distribution of these necessary resources are not exactly going to the people who need it most.

Oates: Can you tell me about the Federation’s response to the pandemic?

Blanding: Right now, as an organization, we have developed a food box program that was part of the CARES Act. So with that, what we’re trying to do is turn this ugly situation into an opportunity, where we can attempt to addresses those inequities, to feed people who need it, and help out our farmers. And it goes back to the cooperative model of ownership. We’re not going to fix much until we start owning that infrastructure. Until that happens, we’ll find ourselves right back in this situation again. We have to own that infrastructure, in this case, the raising and distributing food. But it works with other parts of the infrastructure, too.

We work on developing credit unions. We work on housing. It’s diverse for the Federation, and we go where the need is. Like when this coronavirus started happening, we started distributing food before any of this assistance came out because there was a need in our communities and a bond between our members of these cooperatives and the communities where there’s a need. So we started feeding the community with our members’ produce when people were shut up in their homes, where people couldn’t work with everything that’s happened. One of the biggest problems we have here now is that our farmers don’t have any place to go with the food they’re raising, they’ve lost farmers’ markets and restaurants.

We asked ourselves what we own right now in those communities that can make the most difference and we own these cooperatives and that’s the local infrastructure that exists in these rural communities. We have a starting point, at least, and that’s between the small farmers and the cooperatives and that’s something to build on, infrastructure like packing facilities. We own those, now how do we make sure we use that to rebuild that food system where we’re aggregating the production of all of the small farmers and take it through that pipeline to get it to the communities that need it? We built this food box distribution program around those cooperative principles.