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As Mississippi Loses Black Farmers Fast, This Couple Sows Solidarity

Above Photo: Teresa Springs harvests okra from a small plot next to the hoop house in October, 2021. Erica Hensley.

Black Elders Saved This Couple’s Mississippi Farm.

Now They’re Harvesting Ancestral Techniques—And Tomatoes. Teresa and Kevin Springs inherited an overgrown farm in Mississippi. As they reclaim the land, they’re racing to reap farming lessons from community elders before it’s too late.

Louisville, Mississippi – Until five years ago, Teresa Springs was always in heels and perfectly manicured. As a child growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, she’d never even walked barefoot in the grass. Today, Teresa goes shoeless in rows of crops on her farm, grounding with the Mississippi earth as a part of her daily healing, connecting to the land at sundown before heading back with soil-covered hands and feet to her husband, Kevin, and their old farm house.

Now five years into stewarding their farm—dubbed TKO Farming, an acronym for Teresa and Kevin’s Oasis—they’re still just as awe-struck by what they’ve built by hand. As self-described city folks who met in July 2013 while working on criminal-justice reform in Miami, the couple never envisioned living on, much less operating, a farm. Now, they can’t imagine anything different than their lives on the 73 acres of flat, open fields surrounded by ponds and piney woods, peppered with mini-row crops. Their farmland is only accessible via dirt roads in McCool, Mississippi, a 118-person town about two hours northeast of Jackson.

The farm had been in Kevin’s family for four generations; it’s a place he visited as a child, but he hadn’t exactly picked up the skills to be a farmer.

In June of 2016, as Kevin’s mother’s health failed, she transferred the property deed to him, as no other family members wanted anything to do with it. On a trip to the property soon after, Kevin and Teresa saw why. Everything on the grounds needed fixing: the grass was nearly 4-feet tall; there were two year’s worth of leaves piled up; and the house was in disrepair. The couple looked around and saw overgrown trees and broken windows. That night, the bugs were so loud Teresa called them “terrifying.”

“We were happier leaving than coming,” Kevin said. Though she never said why, Kevin’s mother still entrusted him with the deed despite no experience, or interest, in farming.

For the first six months, the couple toiled over what to do with the property. They considered selling it, but the land, and obligation to care for it, kept tugging at them.

They decided to make one more trip back, once the shock wore off, and something about the land—and more importantly, in them—shifted. Touring the tract with a forrester who taught them about native flora and fauna, the Springses witnessed what they couldn’t see the first time.

To prepare for life as farmers, they spent long hours on YouTube, read books, and attended food safety and farming conferences—in addition to countless field days and workshops focused on sustainable farming practices. They planned to take on this unknown territory one 100 x 100 foot plot at a time.

Still, when the couple moved to McCool in January 2017 and looked out over the abandoned farm, they had no idea where to start. So, they looked to history, back to a time when this land was tended well.

The farm was once one of the central Mississippi farms that were stewarded jointly by Black families, formed out of necessity to share resources and know-how in the first half of the 20th century. Cooperatives have a long history for Black farmers in Mississippi of helping Black sharecroppers evolve into owning land and farms. In spite of systemic barriers, Black co-ops began to prosper and proliferate along the Mississippi Delta. Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative spearheaded them into the mainstream civil rights movement.

“Each family owned hundreds of acres, there was really no need to go outside of the community, maybe only a couple times a year to get anything because the whole community supported each other,” Teresa said. Some families raised cows and hogs, others grew produce; a few craftsmen like farriers made the rounds; and the whole community thrived together. From stories and photos passed down, Teresa said, “It was majestic.”

Within a week of moving to Mississippi, they connected with their local farm cooperative at the insistence of a local state extension agent, one of Mississippi State University’s agriculture specialists who offer informal farming education in all 82 counties.

In 1985, building off the progress of earlier co-ops, a group of Black farmers formed The Winston County Self Help Cooperative to help formalize local knowledge sharing and community support. In the midst of increasing Black land loss and broken USDA promises to support small farmers, similar local co-ops popped up across the country.

At his very first meeting in March 2017, Kevin uttered only a few words to this group: “We don’t know nothing and we need your help.”

That first week, they had to clear space on the overgrown plot for new growth. Kevin raked up 80 piles of leaves, then began cleaning up the ditches with a walk-behind push mower—their first farm purchase which drained the $200 they had to their name when they arrived in Mississippi. The co-op farmers, all community elders, also spent hours on the Springs’ property, bringing over tractors to till their first garden plot, helping install irrigation systems, and putting up fencing.

Now, they’ve got cows, goats, chickens, bees, and three ever-growing produce plots on their regenerative farm, which is both an ecological sustainability process and a lifestyle that honors the land, Teresa said. Completely self-sustaining—chickens feed off leftover veggies, and in turn, their eggshells go back into the soil as a source of calcium carbonate—they don’t use any herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or petroleum-based fertilizer.

In addition to their crops and livestock, they’ve also cultivated a sense of peace; the couple feels a sense of calm wash over them every time they traverse their grounds—something they never knew they needed a decade ago as they navigated, and eventually fled, generational trauma in South Florida.

The couple leaned on their community ****elders for farming advice, which soon morphed into emotional support, too. Both Kevin and Teresa arrived in Mississippi in need of deep healing from their lives before they found each other. “I literally left Florida running for my life,” said Teresa, who fled, in part, to distance herself from an abusive ex-relationship. “I just knew that I did not want to become a statistic.”

The co-op elders believed in and supported the Springses because the couple kept showing up, ready to learn. Without them, Kevin and Teresa aren’t sure they would have made it.

Today, the group’s future is slightly uncertain, as most of its members are farmers predominantly in their 70s, making the Springses, who are in their 50s, the youngest farmers in the cooperative.

Many of the elder farmers in the co-op have become ancestors since that first evening back in March 2017, when Kevin asked for their help. Today, many of their children and descendants have no interest in carrying on their family farms. As they have for decades, aging Black farmers have carried on this legacy largely in isolation. The Springeses realized the lifesaving, generational wisdom their elders imparted on them—like when to plant, how to cut hay, and the best way to fell trees—could be lost to posterity if someone doesn’t harvest it.

After decades of Black land loss—and, theft—Mississippi, the Blackest state in the nation, has a lot more to lose in the next few decades. Twelve percent of Mississippi farmers are Black, marking the highest proportion of Black farmers of any other state. Mississippi is also home to one of the highest concentrations of aging farmers. Put another way: Black farmers in Mississippi are retiring and dying at higher rates than ever before.

In 2012, 34 percent of the state’s farmers were at least 65 years old. By 2017, across the nation, farmers were older than ever when the average age reached 58. In Mississippi, it’s 60.

Both in their late 50s, the Springses often feel the toll of the long days of manual labor in the heavy Mississippi heat. Exhausted from the chronic back and shoulder pain that never seems to go away and tackling bouts of throbbing feet and hands, their physical pains rival the frustration of getting started with rewarding yet toiling work so late in life. “We often wish we were 20 years younger with the strength that comes along with it. We advise everyone this will be much easier on them if they start while they’re still young,” Teresa said. “Every day we feel fortunate to be able to experience this lifestyle, but we feel the responsibility to keep it going for the next generation.”

On top of the risk of losing aging farmers, Black farmers too have been stripped of their land and livelihood over the past century—from 1 million Black farmers to less than 50,000 across the 20th century, comprising only 1 percent of U.S. producers.

In Mississippi, Black folks once dominated farming but have lost nearly 70 percent of their acreage, now comprising less than 5,000 farms out of nearly 35,000 across the state.

As the Springses inherited the land and farm, they also inherited ongoing ramifications of generations of racist tactics to keep Black folks from owning land. The Natural Resource and Conservation Service, a USDA agency that awards farming grants for conservation projects, seemed like a helpful resource at first, but the Springses soon found only roadblock after roadblock. “They had as many excuses as there were months that passed,” Teresa said. Too, as stewards of a small farm, they aren’t eligible for many federal subsidies. For grant applications, despite different practices and margins, their crop yields were compared to commercial operations, which have more product at a cheaper price. That false comparison short shrifted TKO’s value and reduced their competitiveness on paper.

After applying for one of these federal contracts in 2017, the Springses received a letter saying they weren’t selected. But the next year, they found out their application was never processed.

Through resolve and persistence—and new leadership at the local NRCS office—they eventually obtained contracts for conservation promotion and since have completed 27 projects that further the farm’s regeneration, such as feeding pads for cattle, and hoop house underground irrigation.

Progress to reverse years of discrimination against Black farmers is stalled at the federal level, too. The Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan included $4 billion in debt relief to “socially disadvantaged farmers” defined explicitly as nonwhite. But after the program’s debut in May 2021, a federal judge in Florida quickly blocked the funds when it appeared that a white farmer—one of over a dozen who’d gone after the debt relief in court—could successfully claim racial discrimination.

No payments from the relief package have yet been made, as farmers are forced to play another wait-and-see game with their livelihood and loans while the courts give creedence to the latest iteration of a right-wing legal strategy that challenges civil-rights protections as “reverse discrimination.”

In the meantime, without federal backing, the co-op has been even more important. Kevin and Teresa move thoughtfully but urgently when it comes to learning from elders and storing away their knowledge: It’s not a matter of if the know-how will be lost, but when. Elder farmers passing on their knowledge promotes holistic practices and offsets destructive outcomes of corporate agriculture, which often strips land of its resources, Kevin said. With one local elder, Kevin has stepped in to inherit the farming knowledge his children and grandchildren aren’t interested in receiving. “I guess that’s why he’s pouring into me because I’m there, to listen and ask questions,” Kevin said. “When he’s gone that’s gone.”

Today, the work on TKO Farming revolves around stewarding and growing the farm, looking for opportunities to blend criminal-justice reform into their food justice work, and educating young students to bridge the knowledge gap between the elders who taught them so much, and future generations.

As part of what they dub their Education Exchange, TKO brings college students down for day- or week-long immersion into Black land stewardship. They also mentor youth groups at a local church, teaching the basics of gardening and planting. And they always look for opportunities to teach young folks the basics of food justice. “We never call food insecurity ‘food deserts’,” said Kevin. “This is food apartheid. A desert is natural. A policy that deprives us of our right to food is purposeful.”

After their first exchange in 2018 with students from Williams College in Massachusetts, Teresa took a break from the lessons to watch the students fish, and couldn’t help but sob.

“If we helped instill love of land and this sacred connection—that is everything—and this is why we came here,” she said. “For a year I knew what I wanted but hadn’t seen it yet.”

Preserving this knowledge felt even more urgent when the pandemic hit. Everything the Springses were learning about self-reliance and sustainability came into stark relief amid the need to self-isolate in early 2020 and the international supply chain and food disruptions that followed.

“When things collapsed with the pandemic, everybody went into their separate areas, but what we built within the community kept us working together and building together,” Teresa said. “Before COVID, we were thinking that being so isolated might be a problem if something happened, but it actually saved us. Look at the holes in the food system—we are at the cusp of major disruption, but we’re self-reliant here.”

Mississippi is considered the most socially isolated state in the country, especially for aging folks. Between its extreme rurality and high rates of folks with disabilities living in poverty, the state sees plenty of poor health outcomes that can be linked back to isolation—distance to hospitals, food insecurity, and loneliness, which is a risk factor for early death and rapid aging decline.

Public health researchers have increasingly argued that where isolation is a physical absence of relationships, loneliness is a social dearth, and though related, the two aren’t always inextricably linked.

“Loneliness is only weakly associated with objective isolation, it’s more of a mismatch of what one has versus what one wants in quality of social relationships,” said Louise Hawkley, who researches loneliness at the University of Chicago. “Loneliness is not chosen, but isolation can be.”

The Springses see this distinction every day. They chose to be isolated—to steward pastures and veggie plots, shedding a fast-paced life in South Florida, one of the most densely populated places in the country. And at first, they thought the loneliness would start to seep in with the isolation—almost a natural byproduct.

But they were wrong, and quickly found the opposite was true. The isolation spawned deeper connection with each other, themselves, and eventually, neighboring Black farmers.

Hawkley points out that pain and reward, both physical and social, activate the same parts of the brain. But social science is pretty limited in how loneliness is studied, usually just lumping it in with physical isolation. “It is collective, as well as relational and intimate, and we need to measure it as such. We don’t understand what older adults need because we’re not asking what they need.”

This is especially true in the Deep South, where infrastructure for aging folks, such as in-home care to address growing medical needs and social interventions like food delivery, are more limited.

But for the Springses and their elder neighbors, the collective is actually the cure. Despite great swathes of isolation, their Black farming community—though small—is strong and supportive. Intergenerational co-ops serve as a way for communities to retain vital knowledge for self-sustainability, while also offering a place for people to be in relationship with one another.

The Springses and others say although farming is isolating by design—something they’ve been thankful for during the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s not a sentence of loneliness. It’s actually the exact opposite: The connection to the land and community support from Black farmers and land stewards actually creates a buffer effect, protecting from loneliness in what is otherwise an increasingly isolating career and way of life.

But, most farmers don’t have the support and community that the Springses have. Along with the number of Black farmers, co-ops have declined over the last 50 years. Those working to protect them say they’re more important than ever. And just over the past 25 years, more than 200 small co-ops have popped up.

“It almost wasn’t our choice to move here,” Teresa said. “This was our best option to build something new together. When we saw the potential for self-reliance and knowledge-sharing with farming elders, the light bulb went off. We realized we could learn something and build something, and we can teach something. The tail wagged the dog.”

For the Springses, their farm not only became their personal redemption, it began to shape into a political act—a revolution.

In midst of land loss and food insecurity, Kevin says the only option is to take care of themselves and their community, one crop row at a time. He added that the act of working his own land on his own terms is invaluable, and something he never understood the power of until they took on the farm. “My labor belongs to me,” he said. “Small farmers don’t make money but we do create value. This is the most revolutionary thing I could do—start and end the day with soil.”

Teresa feels calm after a day of digging and planting in the garden, like she had released something. Too, only eating from the homestead and knowing exactly what’s going into their bodies has helped improve their overall health, she says. The soil between her toes was also healing, Teresa said.

“When I came here, I had to disconnect in every way possible to stop the stress and anxiety voltage from coming to me—I had to let it all go,” said Teresa. Being away from the noise and air pollution, Teresa began to find solace and safety amid the big open space surrounded by trees that bent in the wind to the same song the birds and bees sung to her and Kevin.

The quiet days with fresh air on beautiful land was healing, but the land alone couldn’t have sustained them.

“If we didn’t have the community aspect of this, I don’t know if I would have stayed. The loneliness could have made me separate from the land and Kevin,” Teresa said. “Taking care of this land needs so much, the land gets all your attention. But the shared community piece saved our farm and probably our marriage.”

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