Fighting for the Family Farm

December January 2015eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
December 2014/January 2015

If you were to strike up a conversation with Ben Burkett in the supermarket, knowing nothing about him, you might assume at first with his Southern drawl and hands that look like they’ve put in a hard day’s work out in the field, that he was your typical, down home Mississippi farmer.

If you stopped there, Ben Burkett would probably just have you believe that he is nothing more than that – a farmer. You would never know that Ben Burkett has traveled around the world. That he’s a fourth generation farmer growing crops on a piece of land that has been in his family since the late 1800’s. Or that Mr. Burkett, in his faded overalls and salt and pepper hair, has a James Beard Award at home. He’s not just any farmer. He’s one heck of a farmer.

Burkett grew up outside of Petal on land that his great grandfather homesteaded shortly after the Civil War came to an end. Coming from a farm family, it’s probably no surprise that as a boy he was active in 4-H and grew his first successful crop at the age of 12. After earning a degree in agriculture from Alcorn, his plans were to leave Mississippi far behind.

“In 1973, everyone was going to Chicago. That’s where I was heading too,” Burkett explains. “But my father got sick and my mother asked me to come back and help with the crops.”

It was only supposed to be for one season. But yield was good that year and prices were even better. The lure of money enticed him to stay one more year, then another, then another. One more year turned into over 40 forty.

In the late 1970’s, the price of crops fell and many farmers began losing their land. It was around this time that Burkett and seven other farmers decided to pool their resources to form what would later become the Indian Springs Farmers Association. In the 1980’s, Burkett took a position with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) and through his connections, helped his small rural farmer’s association become a full-fledged cooperative.

Today, the cooperative is 34 members strong. It’s one of ten groups that make up the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives (MAC), the local extension of the FSC and where Burkett currently serves as state coordinator. Like the local cooperatives, MAC provides its members with the support and security they need to improve their lives and communities, including a state-of-the-art packing facility where farmers can bring their produce for shipment.

As a young 21-year-old fresh out of college, Burkett probably never imagined that farming would take him to places much farther than Chicago. Burkett became involved in the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), a non-profit that works with local coops to bring sustainable, economically just, healthy, safe and secure food to consumers on a national level. He currently serves as president of the NFFC executive committee, representing the organization internationally during his travels to Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The trips afford him the opportunity to share his knowledge of farming while bringing home new techniques that he is able to introduce to his fellow farmers back home. Had Ben Burkett decided to stay in Chicago and not come home to become a farmer, it’s likely the landscape of farming in Mississippi would be completely different.

“My main goal has been to keep the family farm in business,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of the farms in Mississippi are family farms. I hope they will always be around.”

In March 2014, Burkett’s contributions to agriculture were recognized in a way that he could never have imagined. He received a call from Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation.  Based in New York City, the non-profit seeks to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire. Their highly coveted restaurant and chef awards have long been considered “The Oscars” of the food industry.

Ungaro informed Burkett that he was one of five individuals slated to receive a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, which recognizes visionaries across a broad range of backgrounds who influence how, why, and what we eat. Honorees are chosen by past Leadership Award recipients. Among them include chef, author and restaurateur Alice Waters and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Burkett received his award on October 27, 2014, at a dinner ceremony co-hosted by Good Housekeeping at the Hearst Tower in New York City. His fellow recipients included New York Times journalist Mark Bittman; food justice activist Navina Khanna; writer, journalist, and University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Pollan; and urban farmer and community activist Karen Washington.

“There are probably 100 more people more deserving of this award than me, but I am honored that I was chosen,” Burkett adds. “This is a highly respected award and I’m blessed to be one of the recipients.”

Adds Ungaro, “The James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards honor innovators who are making a difference and shedding light on the important issues that our food world faces, from fighting hunger to public health. We recognized Ben Burkett, a life-long family farmer, for his support of the American family farm and advocacy for the rights of every individual to wholesome food, clean water, air, and land.”

Back home, it’s business as usual. It’s harvesting time and Burkett has several members of his family out in his fields helping him bring in the crops. He’s pleased that his daughter Darnella has decided to join him as the fifth generation on the family farm.

“Farming is all I have ever done, but I can’t say anything bad about it. There are good years and there are bad years, but that’s part of it,” he reflects. “It has been a good life.”