In the Mississippi Delta, farmland runs right up to the highway. Motorists driving down Highway 61 or across U.S. 82, gaze on mile after mile of soybeans, cotton and corn, interrupted by the occasional catfish pond or gas station. Settlers cleared and drained this northwest corner of the state more than a century ago, making way for some of the most fertile soil on Earth.
Wendell Paris was driving along one of these long Delta highways, looking at the endless stretches of crop-filled fields, when he started to pray.
“I said, ‘Lord, what is your plan for economic development in the Delta?’” remembered Paris, 63, a stocky, salt-and-pepper-haired veteran of the civil rights movement who is still fighting for equality in the South.
“And He said, ‘As long as you’ve been driving through the Delta, you still don’t know what my plan is?’”
God’s plan for the Delta, according to Paris, who is now a consultant for the Greenville, Mississippi-based community advocacy group Mississippi Action for Community Education, is to devote some of the acres area farmers now use for industrial crops, such as cotton, corn and soybeans, to grow fruits and vegetables.
“This area is ideally suited for growing fresh fruits and vegetables,” Paris says, highlighting that Mississippi’s warm climate allows for a ten-month-long growing season, and the Delta nurtures almost any seed a farmer chooses to plant in it.
Paris’ divinely inspired vision would not simply unlock the full agricultural potential of the Mississippi Delta. It would cure a host of economic and social ills that have plagued the region for generations and pave the way for growing organic foods in the rural reaches of Mississippi.
But convincing local farmers to surrender any of their valuable land to an unfamiliar kind of farming may be easier said than done. Delta landowners have little patience for the organic certification process, which requires land to lie vacant for 36 months before it is deemed sufficiently rid of pesticides, says Kevin Riggin, Mississippi Department of Agriculture’s organic coordinator. Though other regions of Mississippi are experiencing a steady annual increase in the number of certified organic farms, the Delta still has absolutely no organic growers.
“The Delta has such good land, somebody is generally going to grow on it every year and use pesticides,” Riggin says.
Paris understands this high premium on Delta land, and has a plan for incentivizing growers to convert to organic. He hopes to secure them a market: schools, hospitals, and other large-scale area institutions. In providing a guaranteed market for fruit and vegetable growers, Paris’ plan has the potential to generate much-needed jobs in a region where the unemployment rate can run as high as 14 percent. With fruits and vegetables requiring more labor than the industrial crops most Delta farmers currently grow, Paris estimates his plan could employ 400 farmers and up to 1,200 others to process, transport, and market the crops.
But the selling-to-schools plan offers more than just an economic safety net for farmers; Paris is a community advocate, not a businessman. Bringing fresh fruits and vegetables into Delta school cafeterias would be an important step toward changing the nutritional patterns of local residents. Along with being the poorest state in the nation, Mississippi is also the heaviest, with more than 30 percent of the population qualifying as obese. Accordingly, residents are prone to the full range of obesity-related illnesses, from diabetes to hypertension to high cholesterol; one doctor calls the Delta “the epicenter of heart disease in America.”
Incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into the Delta diet, according to Paris, would help reverse these health trends. He remembers his first visits to the Delta in the 1960s, when he helped a group of doctors from Tufts University set up health clinics for the area poor. He says the doctors blamed diet for most of their patients’ health problems.
“They actually prescribed” — Paris rapped his hand on the table for emphasis — “They prescribed fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Along with helping the local economy and improving public health, Paris thinks his plan could begin the transition to growing organic crops in the Delta. For now, he thinks fruit and vegetable growers should stick with conventional methods, but once food crops make their way into the Delta agricultural landscape, he says it’s only a matter of time before farmers go organic.
“If I’m going to eat out of that garden, I’m going to be careful as to what pesticides and herbicides and controls and what have you that are used there,” Paris says. “It’s already taking hold in the major metropolitan areas and the middle and upper classes, but more you will see that poor people as well are going to have to start to demand organic crops.”
Indeed, Paris’ brother, George, has witnessed first-hand how quickly the transition to organic occurs when a community begins growing its own food. George Paris works for the Alabama Department of Agriculture, and he helped an elementary school in Selma start a small garden.
“There are lots of insecticides we could use, but we didn’t want to use those around a bunch of children,” he says. “We’d just as soon have a few bugs and let the students go after them during their time in the garden.”
The school cafeteria staff used the students’ crop of collard greens to make healthy meals; George Paris emphasizes that they mixed smoked turkey with the greens, rather than the “fatty meat” usually featured in collared greens recipes. The students sold a portion of the crop to local restaurants and gave the rest away to a soup kitchen. In the end, they made enough money to do the project all over again.
“It has to be an ongoing program, of course,” he says. “We’ve got to change the eating habits of our youngsters.”
Wendell Paris believes he can replicate the social and economic success of his brother’s Selma garden, though he acknowledges his task is a challenging one. He predicts it could take up to five years to get his plan fully into motion in the Delta.
“These communities, they are slower than New York or Chicago. The South is slower,” he says with a laugh.
Paris has used his contacts in the Delta community to begin the slow process of fostering grassroots interest in his idea: talking to county supervisors, school board members, cafeteria staffs, farmers, and leaders of communities that have hatched small-scale versions of his plan. So far, he’s seen small but significant successes. A local farmer has begun growing 200 acres of peas. Two Delta counties have signed on to a program that allows food-stamp recipients to use their government checks to buy fresh foods directly from farmers.
“There is motion, there is movement, there is momentum already in place,” Paris says.
And it all started with drive and a prayer.
Story by Eleanor Barkhorn. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in October 2008.