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Black Farmers Share Their Legacies
By Chris Clayton
Wednesday, June 19, 2024 4:55AM CDT

FORREST CITY, Ark. (DTN) -- At 86 years old, Ellis Bell got emotional last week telling the story about when he visited schools in St. Louis, Missouri, to talk to children about how farms work.

Bell, a fourth-generation farmer, and Carolyn Jones, executive director of the Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance, each have built a legacy of helping educate Black youth about agriculture.

As Bell told visitors to his farm last week as part of the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) tour in Arkansas, his work in St. Louis also connected him with leaders from the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association and companies such as Monsanto.

Bell was inducted last year into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame, operating a farm in Forrest City that was first established in 1878 by his grandfather, a Civil War veteran in the U.S. Colored Infantry. Along with longevity, Bell was nominated to the Hall of Fame because of his longstanding work using his family's farm as a model for other underserved producers to spotlight conservation practices. Bell's farm was also one of the first Arkansas Discovery Farms.

Beyond farming, Bell was also an airplane mechanic, pilot and insurance broker in St. Louis. While living in St. Louis, Bell also helped develop an after-school program for inner-city students. And he recalled giving a speech about farming when some of the students graduated from the program.

"After my speech to them, I was folding all of this stuff up so we could leave, and I wasn't looking behind me," Bell said as his voice began to tremble. "And I looked back ... these kids were all standing in line. They were all standing there to thank me. Because these were inner-city kids who didn't know anything about where their food came from. And I knew there was something I was trying to tell them, and they were getting the message."

From that, Bell said some of the kids later put together a project highlighting what they had learned about farming. With funding support from companies such as Monsanto, Bell said he was able to recreate similar after-school programs in other communities in Arkansas, even if there was some initial resistance from administrators.

"We have a lot of talent in the inner city, and they are interested," he said. Bell added, "So, it's been very challenging and very rewarding."

Bell also shared the story about going to USDA in the 1990s and getting turned down for farm loans because he was Black. He said he still has the letters he wrote to Arkansas senators and members of Congress at the time.

"It's been a long road. I wouldn't say it was so hard because I somewhat enjoyed being discriminated against because I always found another way to get it done," Bell said.


Carolyn Jones took to the stage during a reception at B.B. King's Blues Club on Beale Street in Memphis. Carolyn and her husband, Chris, also operate a 200-acre beef cattle ranch in northeastern Mississippi.

As executive director of the Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance (MMFA), Jones also focuses her attention on helping support young and beginning farmers, as well as connecting area youth to farmers in 10 northeastern Mississippi counties.

One of her passions is helping reestablish healthier foods and agricultural education in rural Mississippi. With a proliferation of dollar stores in rural towns, access to healthier foods is reducing.

"It broke my heart to come back to Mississippi and see things were actually worse than when I left," she said.

Jones said agricultural education has been removed from a lot of rural schools and replaced with other technical programs.

"In our socially disadvantaged communities, small minority communities, ag education has been taken out of the school system. So, our kids were not getting any ag education," Jones said. "When that started to happen, our communities started to decline. We became overwhelmed with food that's not healthy."

Jones said her group partnered with Extension programs from Alcorn State University and Mississippi State University to create a new 4-H group that now provides 4-H programs in four local schools. In doing so, though, Jones said they needed to figure out how to provide transportation for the students who live in rural areas. The group also has worked to put raised-bed gardens in several other schools and churches.

"So, one of the things I found out is when you are in ag, you touch every part of that community. You can't just work on one part over here because something else is going to go sideways," she said. "You have to address the other issues because they can be huge."

During the pandemic, the MMFA partnered with USDA and provided more than 100,000 food boxes to 15 different local churches and community centers.

The MMFA also has an internship program. They have 10 interns now working directly with area Black farmers and another 15 students on a waiting list to connect with farmers. Jones said the oldest farmer in her group working with interns just turned 100 in May.

"We're partnering them with our senior farmers. We put those kids with our older farmers and those kids are learning from those farmers, and our older farmers are now getting some help that they need," Jones said. "The younger generation helps a lot of our older farmers with technology issues."

The Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance also opened its own farmers market to help producers sell their fruits and vegetables. The interns also work selling in the farmers market, gaining some financial management and people skills, as well as learning more about healthy eating, she said. "That is an incentive for those farmers to grow, not only to grow, but to thrive, and those farmers now know they have a way to sell their produce," she said.

Jones said she is paying attention to policy topics such as the farm bill and hopes there is more emphasis on youth education as well as supporting young and beginning farmer programs.

"We talk a lot about the future, but we don't talk about the kids," she said.

Video interview with Carolyn Jones Carolyn Jones: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Also see "CTIC Tour Spotlights Arkansas Rice" here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on social platform X @ChrisClaytonDTN

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