A Slow Demise in the Delta

By Gilbert M. Gaul and Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

SHELBY, Miss. -- From 2001 to 2005, the federal government spent nearly $1.2 billion in agricultural subsidies to boost farmers' incomes and invigorate local economies in this poverty-stricken region of the Mississippi Delta.

Most residents are black, but less than 5 percent of the money went to black farmers. They own relatively little land, and so they generally do not qualify for the payments. Ninety-five percent of the money went to large, commercial farms, virtually all of which have white owners.

In Bolivar County, where Shelby is located, farmers received a total of $200 million in crop subsidies over the five-year period, while just $11 million in Rural Development grants from the Agriculture Department went to replace the abandoned factories, decaying houses and boarded-up downtowns in dozens of dirt-poor, majority-black Delta towns.

Many of these towns are trapped in a long, painful death spiral, plagued by poverty, crime and unemployment. More than 100,000 people -- nearly a quarter of the population -- have fled in recent decades in search of a better life.

"It's just a sad situation," said Judy Hill, who leads a women's group that is desperately trying to rescue what is left of the small agricultural town of Shelby, which has a cotton gin, two liquor stores and not much else. "There's no industry, no factories, no hope for the future, nothing to keep the people here. And what the answer is, I don't know."

The farm bill that Congress is now crafting is a complex mosaic of competing goals, including income support for farmers, conservation incentives and the preservation of rural communities by spurring economic growth. Farm subsidies are meant to tide growers over when prices fall or when disasters strike. The Rural Development grants, on the other hand, are supposed to help small, struggling communities such as Shelby. Yet in the Delta, farm subsidies are massive, while Rural Development money is relatively scanty. From 2001 to 2005, the Agriculture Department awarded $1.18 billion in subsidies but just $54.8 million in Rural Development grants for housing, new businesses, water systems and other projects, a Washington Post investigation found.

"The policy choice that Congress has made is so stark," said Charles W. Fluharty, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "You see the effects in lots of poor rural communities. But the tragedy is exacerbated in the minority communities."

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said the importance of agriculture to the Mississippi Delta economy is "undeniable" because it contributes hundreds of millions in state and federal taxes and is "a driving force" behind progress there in the past few years. "The challenge we face centers around ensuring that we pursue the most responsible and fair policies when seeking to sustain our nation's agriculture industry," he told The Post in an e-mail interview.

The wide disparity between subsidies for farmers and Rural Development money for agriculture communities highlights one of the contradictions of federal farm policy, which favors big agriculture over small farms and poor rural towns. In the Delta, it has helped to preserve a two-tiered economy and a widening economic chasm between the races, according to local residents, government officials and researchers.

"You're in the Delta. Most of the real economy is controlled by large families. It has been that way for 200 to 300 years," said Ben F. Burkett, a black small farmer who also works part time for the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives. "We'd like to break that cycle and create new businesses. But there's not much money for that. You see what we get from Rural Development. It's not much, is it?"

Agriculture Department officials declined to comment for this article.

Farmland in the Mississippi Delta has been passed down from generation to generation and built up through acquisitions, with whites controlling most of the land. In Bolivar County, whites now own 421,000 acres, records show, while blacks own 22,000 acres. Because farm subsides are based on farm size and production, most of the payments go to the large operations.

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