Women and the Farming in Choctaw County, Alabama
Presented By: Yvonne Hampton
Since 1995 the number of women who work on a farm has decreased tremendously. Back then in my community, nearly all of the mature women raised their own vegetables and meats. They needed to feed their families. Everything was raised organically: peas, beans, corn meal, grits, greens, tomatoes, and okra. Occasionally broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and strings beans were raised. We also raised watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers and squash. Back in the day when farming was really big, we raised sweet potatoes, peanuts and sugar cane from which we made river cane syrup. Anything that was sold in the stores we raised on the farm. Now it is hard to find farmers to grow any crops in our community.
In 2004, people who were still growing set up a Farmers Market through the State to sell vegetables to seniors. The State provided vouchers to the seniors so they could purchases fresh vegetables. You received the vouchers and deposited them in your account that was set up for the farmers market. You only could sell only things produced on your farm -- the vegetables and fruits that you grew, plus eggs, canned fruit, preserves, jelly etc. Nowadays, mostly everything is purchased from the stores or vegetable markets, except some of our meats.
Until last year, we raised Black Angus cattle and poultry, and we have started raising New Zealand white rabbits again. In the early 2000’s, we learned some new farming methods. We used the fertilizer from the animals to raise our vegetables organically, using plasticulture and an irrigation system.
We raised pasture poultry, 100 chickens in a 10x10 moveable cage. They fed on grass and a small amount feed because the chickens rotated on the grass. The pullets would be ready for marketing at 2-1/4 pounds. They also started to lay eggs at this time. We produced our own white and brown eggs.
We are still raising cattle with the West Alabama Farmers Association, which is a cooperative. You can start a cattle operation with five heifers and a bull. If these heifers have a calf each year, you can quickly build your herd. We would sell the young bulls and keep the young heifers for breeding. In two years we would need to purchase another bull for breeding, to keep the young heifers from inbreeding with their father. We produced up to 60 mature cattle and used 4 purebred bulls. We sold over 200 calves and non-producing cows.
Our rabbit farm started out with 25 does and 3 bucks averaging 8-10 in each litter. We raised 79 does and 6 bucks over a period of time. We sold rabbits commercially and locally. We started to raise rabbits again within the last month, 10 rabbit have produced 82 litters.
In the last two or three years, I’ve noticed that the younger generations in my community do not seem to be interested in farming.
Over the years, we were able to get only one loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I joined the minority farmer’s lawsuit in the year 2000 because of the department’s discrimination against Blacks in the past. Black farmers were discouraged from getting loans and were not given the information and assistance they should have received. If a Black farmer got a loan, it would be not enough to really invest in crops and equipment. Whites would not need collateral, but a Black farmer’s loan would often have to be co-signed by the store where he/she made purchases. We did not want loans under those conditions.
When women were full partners in running farms, many of them would do the bookkeeping and would be well informed about the finances of the operation. As women’s role was reduced, many of them became ignorant of the finances and might not even know that their farm was in trouble or that they were facing foreclosure.
My mother was not involved in our family farm finances, but I kept the books from the time I was a child, and I did the same with my husband, so I always knew what was going on.
The biggest problem now in being able to farm is the lack of labor. In the old days, we had ten family members and fifteen hired people working on the farm. Now, no one wants to farm. Many of the women have taken jobs – usually minimum wage jobs. And young people are not interested.
I was one of eight children in my family, and I was the only one who went into farming. I love it. I have been slowed down by a back injury, and my husband became sick in 2004. We cannot do the work ourselves. In 2004, we had a youth program and involved young people in farming and selling at a farmers market that we started. Now they are not interested, and their parents do not encourage them. We are losing the tradition of helping each other out.
In 1985, I had the opportunity to go to the Third World Conference on Women in Kenya. My husband wanted me to ask his permission, and I refused to do so, so I didn’t go. I think he thought I would never come back. I had been to RDLN’s Rural Development Institute at the University of California at Davis for four weeks, and then we had spent a week in San Francisco getting my passport on an emergency basis. By 1995, I made sure that everything was prepared, and, without asking anyone’s permission, I went to China with RDLN’s delegation of forty rural women.