FERN’s Back Forty: How vegetable farming can ‘redevelop’ the Mississippi Delta

By Boyce Upholt

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Woodruff County, Arkansas, sits on the western edge of what’s become known as the “Delta”—the flat empire of farmland that clasps the Mississippi River along its southernmost thousand miles. The county was home to 23,000 residents in the 1930s, its economy built around farming.

Last fall, when reporter Travis Lux and I drove through the county, we noted that many of the storefronts in its biggest village were shuttered. The population has slumped through the decades, and hovers around 6,000 today. I lived in the Delta for nearly 10 years, and grew used to signs of decay and abandonment. Visitors, though, sometimes told me the empty downtowns and DIY home repairs reminded them of the developing world.

Travis and I went to Woodruff County to report the final episode of FERN’s Hot Farm podcast. These days, the land there, as in most of the Delta, is almost entirely devoted to commodity crops. Arkansas, for example, raised more than 3 million acres of soybeans in 2019; vegetables, meanwhile—like tomatoes and sweet potatoes—cover a mere 15,000 acres across the state. We wanted to explore whether that ratio might change in the coming decades—whether the Delta might, as one report has suggested, become the “Next California.”

California feeds the nation, producing a third of U.S. vegetables and two thirds of our fruits and nuts. Now, as drought and wildfire, driven by climate change, menace the state, and a surging global population ratchets up demand on California’s fields and orchards, these crops have already begun to shift into new territories. The World Wildlife Foundation, which authored the report I cite above, thinks the Delta might be a good place to target.

Why is a wildlife-focused nonprofit wading into the future of Delta agriculture? Currently, new farmland is being cleared in the Dakotas and Montana, replacing native grasslands that provide crucial habitat for all sorts of species and that pull planet-heating carbon from the air and lock it in the soil. The Delta offers fertile soil and, in most places abundant water; its greatest asset, though, at least from a conservationist perspective, is that the habitat there is already gone.

Workers during the sweet potato harvest at Peebles Organic Farms. Photo by Kelly Peebles.

Until the late 19th century, the Delta was a vast cypress forest. This ground was expensive to clear and drain, which is why the first white farmers there tended to be wealthy men with large crews of enslaved laborers. Later, after emancipation, the “planters,” as the large landowners are still known, deployed a program of paternalism and racial oppression to maintain a supply of mostly Black tenant laborers.

Among these tenants were some of the world’s first blues musicians, and today Highway 61, which runs through the Delta in Mississippi, is promoted as a road trip destination — a slice of Americana lined with old juke joints and the graves of blues masters. But there are darker markers of the region’s past, too. Almost every county along the lower Mississippi River is majority Black and poor.

One reason for the poverty is that farmers no longer need a large workforce. In the four decades after the Great Depression, as tractors and chemicals replaced mules and human hands as the tools of choice and commodity farms replaced family operations, the farm population across the lower Mississippi valley fell 78 percent, according to historian Christopher Morris. By the 1960s, farmers burned rows of empty tenant houses, clearing more space for crops. 

Even Black farmers who owned their land often lost it, thanks to discriminatory laws and policies and exploitative political structures. There are still prosperous villages in the Delta, but the smallest towns have struggled as those who were able sought opportunity elsewhere. In that sense, this is really the un-developing world, a constellation of communities that have been gutted by the brutalities of the modern agricultural economy.

What happened in the Delta was part of a national trend. By the end of the 20th century, much of rural America had become a patchwork of large farms worked by small teams atop big machines, producing mostly corn, soy, wheat and cotton. In Woodruff County, the average farm spans 1,400 acres, more than three times the national average. Yet per capita income there is 27 percent below the national rate. Someone is getting rich off those commodity crops, but it isn’t most of the residents.

Our story for Hot Farm centered on Shawn Peebles, a Woodruff County farmer who has already shifted to vegetable production in a big way, growing everything from sweet potatoes to black-eyed peas on 7,000 acres. As Peebles explains, the change saved his family’s farm. I was struck, though, by another effect: to grow his vegetables, Peebles needs a large crew of full-time employees. “We bring in 50 to 60 guys a year, into a town that has 800 people,” he told us. “That’s an influx of tax dollars into that community as well.” 

It’s no surprise that Peebles sees vegetable production as a way to repopulate the Delta. With vegetables, a family can make a good living on just a few hundred acres, he said, and would need the help of several employees, too. These would be mostly low-wage jobs, though Peebles said he’s been looking to hire an agronomist, too.

As Travis points out in the podcast, the “New California” narrative faces significant hurdles in the Delta. Each crop requires its own equipment and infrastructure, all of which is expensive and unfamiliar. Labor, too, is an issue, as most Delta farmers lack experience recruiting and hiring large workforces. Peebles gets his workers through the H-2A visa program, which brings in seasonal foreign workers, mostly from Mexico. 

That has its own complications. Peebles says that once, when members of his crew were shopping in a dollar store, another customer called the police. She thought—incorrectly, Peebles found after reviewing the store’s security cameras—that they were stealing merchandise. To Peebles, the incident was rooted in stereotype. People in Woodruff County aren’t accustomed to dozens of men covered in farm grime and speaking Spanish in their stores.
This suggests one more way the Delta might eventually mimic California, where the culture has been heavily shaped by the immigrants who work the fields. One road through California’s Central Valley has been dubbed the “Taco Trail.” If the Delta is going to redevelop around produce farming, Highway 61 may have to make room among its bluesy past for a new identity.