History of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives

In 1967, 22 cooperatives, which were an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, came together at Atlanta University to form a “federation” of cooperatives. The people and groups that met that Spring wanted to unite and create organization that would lead it’s members to greater access to the information, services and resources that they had been systematically denied.

The Federation came out of the South where economic exploitation and racial discrimination were patterns of everyday life. The reality was that low-income rural communities in the south were being left behind in the civil rights movement that was sweeping across the country in the 1960’s.

The fledgling self-help economic movement in the region wanted to step up to the plate – wanted to assist southern rural communities to build and sustain themselves through collective action – namely through cooperatives. For the past forty years the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has done exactly that. It has remained true to its mission and accomplished remarkable and impressive achievements in cooperative economic development in support of Black farmers, landowners and rural communities.

In 1985, the Federation merged with the Emergency Land Fund, which was also the result of a meeting on Black economic development held at the Atlanta University Center in the early seventies. ELF’s primary goal was to reverse the alarming trend of Black land loss in the rural south. The merger resulted in a stronger organization that employed a holistic approach to Black economic development. The new organization then became known as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

The Federation’s extensive work has focused on virtually all the major areas that impact the quality of life in the rural South including housing, credit, agriculture related programs and non-farm business development. In addition, the organization has played a critical role in advocacy for rural communities and policy development at the local, state and Federal level. Since 1967 the Federation has held together over 75 cooperatives, credit unions and community-based economic development organizations, involving 30,000 rural and low-income (mostly Black) families, including some 10,000 family farmers and landowners owning close to a million acres of land. The Federation has grown from an organization with a budget of $547,473 in 1970 to $3,721,880 in 2007. The overwhelming majority of that budget goes toward direct membership services.

Over the past 40 years the Federation/LAF has leveraged resources five times the amount of funds raised (more than $50 million), and facilitated the savings of more than $38 million dollars by 20,000 people in member credit unions. The Federation/LAF has employed and trained over 500 people in various positions, who provide skills, knowledge, awareness and the necessary sensitivity to work creatively and effectively on behalf of poor people. Many of our former staff work in positions of significance throughout the country, including: Congress persons, state legislators, county commissioners, school board members, program directors, bank managers, attorneys, social workers, college faculty, foundation staff, business people and others.

The organization has provided services, learning and leadership experiences, saved family estates, reduced debts, increased revenues and enhanced stability for its members through producer, marketing, consumer and credit cooperatives. It has also taught techniques and skills that are of incalculable worth. A beginning estimate of the additional monetary impact of the Federation/LAF, for the past 40 years is close to $500 million. This includes:

  • $80 million in sales through cooperative marketing
  • $26 million of member shares saved in credit union accounts and 73,516 loans totaling $211 million to low-income families
  • $26 million worth of housing units constructed and rehabilitated
  • $60 million mobilized in resources for support of member cooperatives and credit unions
  • Over 200 million worth of land saved.

The Federation/LAF has not accomplished this success without adversity and opposition from entrenched economic and political forces that benefit from the exploitation, neglect and disenfranchisement of the rural poor. Throughout our history, the Federation has experienced difficulties: from Governor George Wallace stopping member cooperative “SWAFCA” trucks in the 1960’s until the produce they were carrying rotted; a major FBI-Federal Grand Jury investigation of our finances from 1979 to 1981, which found no wrongdoing but discouraged our membership and decimated our funding sources; to government administrations, from the 1980’s to the present, that de-funded social programs, and generally tried to choke off funding for groups like the Federation.

Through the solidarity and sacrifice of our membership, staff and support of friends, we have overcome these challenges and difficulties. The Federation has risen above adversity to not only survive but to continue to be an effective advocate and resource for its members and the communities in which they live. In this section, we want to highlight some of our progress in specific program areas since our last comprehensive historical review was issued in 2002. Law Suit Assistance In the Pigford vs. Glickman (now Johanns) class action lawsuit on behalf of Black farmers, the Federation/LAF directly assisted some 2,000 individuals to file claims. Many were successful in receiving the Track A settlement of $62,500. The Federation held hundreds of meetings across the rural South to inform Black farmers of the Consent Decree and Settlement.

The Pigford case is the largest class action lawsuit by Black people against the U.S. government or a private employer. Of the original 22,000 claimants, over 15,000 have been successful in the case resulting in the payment of over $920 million to Black farmers and their heirs for discrimination by USDA in the period 1981 to 1996. This is the period during which President Ronald Reagan abolished the Office of Civil Rights in the USDA, which dealt with civil rights complaints, until the time when President Bill Clinton restored the office. The original six-month’s claim period in the case was from April 14, 1999 to October 12, 1999 during which the initial 22,000 claims were filed. An additional 77,000 people filed late claims in the case between October 12, 1999 and September 15, 2000. Only 2,041 of the late claim filers have been allowed to proceed to file full claims in the case, leaving the vast majority of late claim filers without having a hearing on the merits of their cases.

The Federation has continued working with Black farmers at every level of this case to ensure that they receive justice. We have assisted farmers who were turned down at the first level to file an appeal. Many have been successful. We have also helped farmers to secure “injunctive relief” and secure new loans from USDA on a priority basis, although this has been a difficult process reflecting that USDA has resisted systemic changes that were at the heart of this litigation A recent legislative hearing in July 2007 in the House of Representative Judiciary Committee resulted in a compromise proposal that was incorporated in the House passed version of the 2007 Farm Bill. This will give the late filers an opportunity to have their cases heard. There is a chance that this provision will be kept as part of the 2007 Farm Bill and lead to a second chance for the late claim filers. The Federation is planning for the organizing and education work on this initiative to ensure that more Black farmers receive justice.

Rural Training & Research Center

Over the years, at our 1,000 acre Rural Training and Research Center in west Alabama, we have hosted thousands of meetings to bring information and solidarity to underserved people in the rural South, assisting them to take action when their livelihoods and communities are threatened. More recently many of the training and workshops devoted to the Federation’s “relief and recovery” for those victimized by the Katrina hurricane disaster were headquartered at the Training Center.

In recent years, we have developed at demonstration farming component at the Rural Training Center. We have developed a goatherd as part of our demonstration ‘silvopasture’ program to show that farmers can raise goats in their woodlots and forests . This extends and enhances the utilization of forested land by making it productive for the short term with proceeds from livestock sales while waiting for the longer-term returns from the timber. The goats are also effective in clearing out the underbrush between the trees.

With the cooperation of the three Land Grant Universities in Alabama – Tuskegee, Alabama A&M and Auburn – the silvopasture project has also become a research site on goat and other animal production. The Alabama Association of Land Grant Colleges have invested more than $200,000 in this research facility and are beginning to train graduate students. The Federation’s role will be to set up workshops and programs to translate and transmit the university research results to farmers at the local level so that they will have access to the latest information and technology. The Federation has also installed plasticulture and other horticultural projects at the center and is assisting farmers in the installation of these practices on their farms. A sustainable agriculture gardening project for youth has been developed on two acres at the Center. We are also upgrading the computer center to provide internet and computer access for people in the rural communities surrounding the Center. There are currently ten networked computers at the center, which are available for training sessions and community use.

Advocacy and Policy Development

Through our Advocacy and Policy Development activities, the Federation conceived and successfully lobbied for the passage of Section 2501 of the 1990 Farm Bill, which has been continued in subsequent farm bills. These provisions enable community-based organizations and predominately minority Land Grant Colleges and Universities to share in a special $25 million dollar authorization for outreach, education and technical assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

Section 2501, though never fully funded, provides much needed technical assistance to underserved farmers. In the House of Representative’s version of the 2007 Farm Bill, 15 million dollars in mandatory funding annually has been approved for 2501. The Federation and scores of other CBO’s are advocating for a 50 million dollars in mandatory funding. In additional to 2501, the Federation/LAF has been actively involved in advocating for more progressive policies and programs in the current 2007 Farm Bill. These provisions include more targeting of resources and assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

Katrina Relief and Recovery

The extensive work and experience of the Federation over the past four decades placed us in an excellent position to immediately assist victims of the Katrina disaster in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was one of the worse disasters in U.S. history. The hurricane destroyed urban and rural communities, farmhouses, livestock, crops, markets, local economies and lives. It also made us realize the vulnerability and risk to our local food systems. Local farmers lost their crops, grocery stores were demolished, and various modes
of transportation were disrupted. People were struggling to feed themselves and their families.

In response, the Federation immediately developed a Disaster Relief and Recovery Program that focused on the immediate needs of those impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as long-term recovery opportunities and solutions for small farmers and rural communities. Community centers, cooperatives and offices strategically located in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were converted into Disaster/Distribution Centers in order to receive and distribute food, clothing and emergency supplies as well as provide shelter to displaced families arriving from New Orleans and other severely affected areas.

Our recent recovery work in Louisiana has rejuvenated the Louisiana State Association of Cooperatives, which includes the beginning stages of the creation of 6 new cooperatives, including the South Plaquemines Parish United Fishing Cooperative, and successful efforts to bring in much needed funding from government and private sources. The fishing cooperative will unite Black, Native American, Vietnamese, Hmong and other fishing communities to work together to find more lucrative markets for their seafood. The Federation has provided training and technical support to move the fishing co-op from dream to reality. One of the first efforts of the Federation after the hurricanes was the revival of
the Crescent City Farmers Market, which provides an outlet for our farmers and cooperatives in south Mississippi and coastal Louisiana. This recovery phase also includes support work with partner organizations – such as Common Ground – in the lower ninth ward as well as a new farmers market in the upper ninth ward.

Summary

The model of cooperative economic development fostered by the Federation in the rural south for 40 years is still needed. It has focused on the people and rural places that need the most help. We stress collective action and solutions over individual successes, but our work fosters equitable and shared development for all people and communities. We develop alternative economic models that demonstrate ways to involve people in the shared development of their communities, which are replicable on a global basis. The Federation has developed a unique “40 Acres and a Mule Endowment Fund,” which now has close to $3 million in assets, to provide for long permanency and stability of this important work. We hope to grow the Endowment Fund to $10 million or more so the annual investment earnings – interest, dividends and capital gains – will support the core budget of the Federation/LAF and allow us to weather the ups and downs of public and private funding.

For more comprehensive and detailed information on the history of the Federation/LAF, please consult our website at www.federation.coop which includes the history sections of our 25th and 35th Annual Reports and other historical documents and records of the Federation’s long history. The Federation has also placed thousands of pages of original historical documents at the Amistad Research Center and Archive in New Orleans, Louisiana.

From the 40th Annual Report of The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (pdf).

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