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Jubilee Justice Regenerative Farming: Tackling Racism With Rice

Aug 04, 2023

Bernard Winn, Jubilee Justice’s operations manager. (Photo courtesy of The Laura Flanders Show)

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How do you nurture the soil, feed hungry bodies, and heal hurt people and places in these stressed-out times? In Central Louisiana, on five acres of what was once a cotton plantation called “Hard Times,” a network of Black farmers is leading an experiment in rice-growing, regeneration and repair.

As Konda Mason, founder of the Jubilee Justice Black Farmers Rice Project, puts it, transformation happens at the intersection of land, race, money, and spirit.

“The magic of growing food is spirit personified,” said Mason this May, cradling a two-week-old rice seedling between her forefinger and thumb. “If you can’t see that, then you’re not growing food.”

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The Jubilee Justice Rice Project celebrated a milestone this May. After two years of experimenting with growing rice in a radically different, more environmentally healthy way, the farmers opened the Jubilee Justice Specialty Foods and Rice Mill, a facility deeded to Jubilee Justice by Inglewood Farms, a massive organic farm in the Red River Valley, in a part of Louisiana that’s generated untold amounts of wealth for white America, but never given much back to those who first tilled the land here.

Thirty-three-year-old Bernard Winn grew up nearby, in Alexandria—a 19th-century trading town on the ancestral lands of the Natchez and the Avoyel. Coming up, he remembers his grandfather’s stories about surviving mid-century as a Black boy amid the county’s creeping bayous and seeping anti-Black hate.

“He’d have bottles thrown at him on the way to school,” recalls Bernard. He remembers his grandfather’s injunction to rise above. He also remembers the food, “corn lettuce and mustard greens. Whatever you wanted.” A brick mason by trade, Melvin Winn also grew the family’s vegetables. “You’d wake up and a bag of mustard greens would be sitting on your porch, you know, free of charge,” says Bernard.

Today Winn is Jubilee Justice’s operations manager. Melvin was on his mind, as he prepared to welcome local dignitaries to the opening of the mill this May. Solar-powered, cooperatively owned, the gleaming mill is the first of its kind in the region, possibly the nation.

“I tell people that if it could happen here in Alexandria with all of the history, the negative history that we know, it can happen anywhere,” said Winn.

Food is a finicky business, but the meticulousness with which Winn swept the floor and dusted the ivory white machinery in this former truck garage ahead of the opening reflected a degree of care rooted in way more than fear of FDA guidelines. For Winn and the farmers participating in the Jubilee Justice project, the most significant thing about the mill is their ownership.

“The fact that we, as a cohort, have the deeds to this building. It’s gonna be ours. If all else fails, we still have a building for people to come to that they need. If farmers need their rice milled in two days after they harvest it, or else it will go bad—this building is here. This building is a stronghold for me and my heart.”

Books & the Arts/Tarpley Hitt

Kate Wagner

John Nichols

Étienne von Bertrab

Books & the Arts/Tarpley Hitt

Kate Wagner

John Nichols

Étienne von Bertrab

Since the 1920s, it’s estimated that the acreage owned by Black farmers has shrunk from a peak of around 20 million acres down to just over two.

“And there’s a reason for that. It’s systemic,” says Mason.

No one has felt that history more intimately than Shirley Sherrod, one of the dignitaries on hand for the mill opening. With her husband, Sherrod worked since the 1960s to establish New Communities, Inc. in southwest Georgia—the first community land trust in the nation. Under the Obama administration, she was appointed to the US Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Director of Rural Development and then forced to resign after a right-wing smear campaign.

“They shot at buildings, they worked against us politically. They did everything they could to take the land away from us,” says Sherrod of her experiences at New Communities.

From lack of access to loans and capital to deliberate efforts to strip them of their land, black farmers have endured a long history of exploitation. Often, white mill owners would give Black farmers bottom dollar for their produce or reject it altogether, or for just long enough to let the crop spoil.

“All of this was designed to…get you to the point where you were in trouble financially, and then they could move on into foreclose. We’ve lost so much land that way,” said Sherrod.

Owning the means of production is a crucial aspect of Jubilee Justice’s vision. By vertically integrating the process from growing to milling and distributing, black farmers can retain more of the value they’re generating. This initiative, supported by the Kataly Foundation’s Restorative Economies fund, aims to address the historical injustices by focusing on restorative economics.

“When Konda started to talk about the story of this land, of the people of this place, and what the farmers needed, it felt like a really great opportunity to think about how to redistribute some of our resources to support those farmers in need,” said Nwamaka Agbo, managing director of the Restorative Economies Fund at Kataly.

Restorative economics, as Agbo explains, involves acknowledging the hurt and structural harm caused by economic systems of extraction and exploitation and coming up with a vision rooted in shared prosperity. “The focus goes beyond financial reparations and emphasizes building relationships, reconciliation, and restitution to prevent the perpetuation of harm.”

Jubilee Justice goes beyond restoring farmers; it also seeks to restore the land and produce a more nutritious, less harmful rice. Flooded paddy fields used for rice cultivation emit substantial amounts of methane gas, contributing to climate change. Jubilee Justice is introducing the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), an innovative approach that avoids flooding the fields.

Cameron Oglesby

Kali Holloway

Cynthia Greenlee

Caryl Levine, cofounder of Lotus Foods, says SRI requires fewer resources, such as seeds and water, while eliminating the need for agrochemicals.

“Farmers can get double and triple their yields while sequestering carbon, while cutting down methane gas emissions. It doesn’t get better than that,” said Levine. Jubilee Justice connects Lotus Foods, a California-based specialty rice company that has extensive experience working with smallholder farmers worldwide using SRI, with farmers like Donna Isaac of Eros, La.

Isaac’s experience has been positive so far. When she first spoke with Mason, she wanted to make sure that this was going to work in her small organic market garden.

“My understanding of growing rice was that you had to flood the fields and that you couldn’t do it in Louisiana. So this was a huge learning curve for me.” Said Isaac.

This year will be her first year of trying SRI, but with Jubilee’s help she’s optimistic.

“With them providing the technical support, providing the assistance, opening up their network to me, opening up markets, opening up funding…it means we can actually mechanize and eventually think about scaling production.”

Nothing about this is easy. Farming is hard, physical labor, and Louisiana in growing season is hot, humid, and haunted. Sweating in the fields, amid the relics of those who were enslaved… Generations of justice-minded African Americans have sought their freedom away from here—in flight—not farming. Can projects like Jubilee Justice bring enough people back?

The two people at the heart of the Jubilee Justice project are Konda Mason and Elisabeth Keller. Keller’s family bought Inglewood in the 1920s, when the former cotton plantation was going cheap.

As Keller explained from the stage, at the grand opening of the mill, by going organic, she and her family sought to heal the land. In relationship with Mason and through deeding property to Jubilee Justice, she and her family seek to repair the abuse of power at the root of their privilege.

The Kellers weren’t the only white people in the room on May 12. Jacques Roy, the mayor of Alexandria, dropped by, as did people from the local Chamber of Commerce. As Bernard, like a proud inventor, talked the assembled guests through the process of rice milling, following the grains rise and fall through an obstacle course designed to separate out the chaff and contaminants, Mark Fulford, a white farmer from Maine, helped Charles Craig, the contractor who renovated the building, and Mark Blackshire, the electrician who rewired the place, prod and poke the grain to make it flow.

Looking on, Sherrod was dry-eyed but smiling. Today, with Mason, she directs a Food and Land Justice Fund that provides grants to Black farmers across the Southeast. Asked if the future could be different from her experience, she pointed to Mark and his colleagues: “We didn’t have people like that coming in. You still can’t let your guard down. But because of so many people, willing, whether they’re white or black, [to come in and help], I think it has a better chance of being able to make it.”

For Mason, back in the field, the urgency of weeding is both fact and metaphor. “We have to weed out the lies,” she reflects.

After weeding comes seeding. It’s not enough to stop pouring on harm, like chemicals on damaged soil. We have to feed and repair, she says.

“Do we want a different future? It’s not going to happen by pretending and growing some kind of new seed on rotten soil.”

You can watch the Laura Flanders Show report on the Jubilee Justice Black Farmers Rice Project on PBS stations across the nation, or on YouTube, or subscribe to the free podcast.

Laura FlandersLaura Flanders is the author of several books, the host of the nationally syndicated public television show (and podcast) The Laura Flanders Show and the recipient of a 2019 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship.

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