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Red Tomato and Shirley Sherrod: Supporting Black-Owned Farms
Episode 517th September 2021 • What is American Food? • Hannah Semler & Ali Berlow
00:00:00 00:24:24

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It can be hard to perceive the ways that systemic racism affects food you eat, whether it's the inequitable efforts behind getting a package of pecans to market, or noticing the farmers who aren't present at the local farmers' market.

It's a sad irony, that racial discrimination, largely based on skin color, is not, in fact, observable. But if we look hard enough, with a better understanding, we will see and maybe we will act.

In Season 2, Episode 2, of "What is American Food?" - co-hosted by Hannah Semler and Ali Berlow-- you will hear the incredible story of activist Shirley Sherrod and her decades of partnership with Red Tomato. We hear how black farmers in Georgia sought out Red Tomato-- a small hybrid nonprofit food hub in the northeast-- to help get their watermelons, and years later their pecans to market. Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of New Communities, Inc., and Michael Rozyne, founder of Red Tomato, built a relationship of trust around fair food supply chains.

Shirley Sherrod is a warrior for black land ownership and farmer equity. She's served as an activist, elected official, and community member addressing systemic racism in farming for the last 40 years. Shirley was born 1948, the daughter of black farmers in Georgia. After her father was murdered by a white farmer-- who was never convicted despite multiple witnesses-- Shirley chose to dedicate her life's work to community food systems and black farmers. She turned her experience of injustice into a quest for justice for others. During the Obama Administration, she was appointed to Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture-- only to be forced to resign after a smear campaign by Breitbart. She persisted, in pursuit of justice.

Through it all, Shirley co-founded and continues to operate New Communities, Inc., which oversees a 200-acre pecan orchard on land that was once one of the largest and richest slave-labor operations in Georgia.

In listening to Shirley's story, we feel that there is hope for restoration. And we hope that Shirley's passion and sacrifice, her resilience and joy, will bring you new light and understanding.

You can learn more about New Communities at www.newcommunitiesinc.com.

You can subscribe to new episodes and sign up for our newsletter at www.whatisamericanfood.com.

We are so grateful to The Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation for their ongoing support to make this podcast happen. Check out more of their work at www.BJFFF.org.

To continue learning about Black-owned land loss, systemic discrimination, and Shirley Sherrod, check out the following resources.

 

Transcripts

Hannah Semler:

Welcome to a very special episode of "What Is American Food?" I'm one of your hosts, Hannah Semler. In our last episode, we introduced you to Red Tomato, a nonprofit food hub in the northeast, creators of the eco-certified apple and peach programs. For the last two months, we have been digging into more of Red Tomato's work, carefully following their multi-dimensional story and

Michael Rozyne:

Red Tomato serves as marketing agent for a very large black-owned pecan orchard in southwestern Georgia owned by New Communities, which is a nonprofit farm and I would say black farmer rights organization. And we are the marketing agent for 200 acre pecan orchard. Our relationship with Shirley Sherrod and New Communities is actually 20 years old, but we've really stepped it up in

Hannah Semler:

Shirley Sherrod's story and the stories of all the farmers she has helped along the way is essential to our understanding of how our food system works. And particularly important is how the entire farming community's experiences of systemic racism have determined the food system that we currently have today. Shirley Sherrod, a civil rights activist, organizer, warrior, who turned her

Ali Berlow:

Shirley, welcome and thank you, we're so honored. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and New Communities?

Shirley Sherrod:

Yes, I grew up on a family farm. And sad to say during those years, my goal was not to stay in the south and not to stay on the farm or not to have anything to do again with farming in my life. But during my senior year of high school, when I was looking forward to leaving the south to go to school in the north, my father was murdered by a white farmer, who was not prosecuted,

Ali Berlow:

Could you describe your history and New Communities' relationship to Red Tomato, as a nonprofit, and perhaps Michael Rozyne as well?

Shirley Sherrod:

Yes. Well, my history with Red Tomato goes way back. Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, organizing farmers into co-ops and trying to locate markets that they could sell in because they were mostly locked out of markets here in this area. So in dealing with the folks at Red Tomato, one of the things they wanted was seedless

Ali Berlow:

You just mentioned that some of your farmers were kept out of markets in your area in Georgia. Could you describe a little bit more about that?

Shirley Sherrod:

Yes, in Thomasville, Georgia, the city of Thomasville, there is a state farmers market. And it's an auction market where farmers would bring their produce through, and the buyers would bid on it and it would be sold. But our farmers, the black farmers couldn't sell on those markets. Either they wouldn't buy, or they would offer a ridiculously low price. We know that white

Ali Berlow:

I'm familiar with the pecan growers and the pecan orchardists of New Communities. At what point did Red Tomato and New Communities shift?

Shirley Sherrod:

So we continued at the Federation to work with Red Tomato on getting produce marketed. But when President Obama was elected, I was chosen as State Director of Rural Development, the first black person to hold that position for USDA. So I actually had to step away from the work for a short time. It was also during that time that New Communities had won its claim in the black

Ali Berlow:

Which sounds quite low.

Shirley Sherrod:

It's very low, very low. As the production was coming, you know, growing because of the new trees, and as President Trump put tariffs on China, which is where a lot of the pecans were going, we knew a smaller gross, because you have some 1000, 2000, 3000 acres, and here we were with 200 acres.

Ali Berlow:

Right.

Shirley Sherrod:

We knew we would really suffer. So it was at that point that I investigated trying to get pecans processed. Getting them process means you can get them processed into halves, becaus you get pieces in the effort to try to get halves. So you would get pieces and halves. So I sat down and wrote Michael and the folks at Red Tomato, a long memo, saying "Michael, I'm in trouble. I

Ali Berlow:

They're gorgeous. And I ordered directly from Maria at New Community. So they are available to consumers directly, right? As well as wholesale accounts. Yeah, they're delicious.

Shirley Sherrod:

Yes. So that relationship and the things that have happened with Red Tomato helping to market pecans and Equal Exchange has led to the effort to create a cooperative, especially for black farmers, who have small acreage, who find it very difficult to get pecans processed this last year. And I'm not certain any of them were able to get pecans processed there-- last year was a

Ali Berlow:

I just want to circle back to a minute about your acquiring New Communities and the land. You mentioned the lawsuit that-- you're referring to Pigford case, is that correct?

Shirley Sherrod:

Yes. See New Communities, we initially had 6000 acres of land and there was so much opposition in the state all the way up to the governor. There were times when they would shoot at our buildings with us in them. They did, they diluted our fertilizer. Did everything they could to run us off that land. And we held on for about 16 years. We were farming and making money to pay debt

Shirley Sherrod:

light bulb went off. Oh my goodness, we were farming in 1981-- New Communities can file a claim in the Pigford case. We did that. We met the deadline for filing. And it was 10 years later, when we finally got the word that we were successful. We were denied initially, in a case that was clear cut, which meant we had to appeal. The Justice Department lawyer working against us in our case, she

Ali Berlow:

From your perspective, which is also a national perspective, wow does the structural racism and the externalized costs or the hidden costs of that racism-- how has it impacted our US food system?

Shirley Sherrod:

It makes it a hundred times more difficult for our farmers to, to participate in these markets. If I can just give you one example, which is all of these school systems that want to serve locally grown food. But the thing that gets in the way is that, let's take collard greens, for example, our farmers can grow them and grow them very well. But the school system doesn't want the

Shirley Sherrod:

what we'll do. We will, we'll buy the pecans from black farmers, and then we'll process them and sell them to Ben and Jerry's. And they can say they have pecans from black farmers in their ice cream, which was not that what we were trying to do. In the end, Ben and Jerry's actually had to get their major supplier to do the processing. And then they paid the farmers market price plus a premium

Ali Berlow:

Given all of your experiences in the history of where we are now, in Black Lives Matter social movement, all these opportunities, perhaps, where are we going? What is, what is the most potent, ripe thing, in order to address at a structural level, the agricultural system, whether it's through policy, grants?

Shirley Sherrod:

It would be all of those areas-- policy, grants. I look at the role Red Tomato plays with us helping to move that marketing into an area where it's really beneficial for all of us. We're even exploring eco pecans together to see if that's a marketing niche that we can all use in marketing the product, but helping to get our product into the hands of consumers. The more we take

Hannah Semler:

And just to pause here for a second, I asked Shirley a question during the interview, and I wanted to end with what she told me. It was about how she could see the value of the work she had done her whole life, full of resilience, but also sacrifice.

Shirley Sherrod:

I can ride through this area of southwest Georgia, and say, you know, I helped to save that farm. Or even while I was at USDA as state director, I can drive out to interstate 75 and oh, yes, I signed the paperwork for that business over there. And I signed the paperwork for this hotel over here, you know, just being able to ride through and know that you had an impact, I can ride

Shirley Sherrod:

I can point to, and know that because I made the decision to stay here and try to make a difference. Some of these things I can, I can go to, I can point to, you know, I have a relationship with those people who are helping to keep it going at this point. And New Communites has a beautiful site. When we first acquired it, it's like oh, my goodness, you know, we didn't know the history, but we've

Hannah Semler:

We're so grateful to Shirley Sherrod for her time and her story. You can learn more about New Communities at www dot new communities inc dot com. This episode of What Is American Food was produced by Ali Berlow, Melody Rowell, and Hannah Semler. Our music is by Elijah Berlow. You can subscribe to new episodes and sign up for our newsletter at What Is American Food dot com. We're so