Wednesday, April 3

Sustainable South: Bonita Conwell

Bonita Conwell and Hillary Clinton in JET Magazine, January 20, 1997.

To some, Bonita Conwell is a farmer. To others, a butcher. For rural Southern women and youth in agriculture, she is an advocate for economic and social justice. No matter how you frame her, Conwell is a tour de force in the Delta region of Mississippi, and her influence extends up the Mighty Mississippi to Chicago and westward to Houston, TX.
Based in Mound Bayou, MS, Conwell is the driving force behind Robert’s Meat Market. Built in 1985, the market found success in providing Mississippi-made meat products to Southerners living in Chicago. To the west, Conwell sells the greens of her sweet potato crops—a part of the root that is usually discarded—to an African market in Houston. SFA director John T. Edge is such a fan of Conwell's sweet potato greens that he included them on his list of the top ten dishes of 2012 for Garden & Gun magazine.
Historically, cotton and soybeans were the cash crops of Mound Bayou. In the 1960s, in an effort to battle hunger and malnutrition, local governments created programs to encourage farmers to grow fresh produce for the community. Conwell’s uncle, Lewis Sanders, partnered with these programs and established Mound Bayou as a sweet potato-growing community. Following a Sweet Potato Jamboree sponsored by Alcorn State University, Conwell recognized the crop as an opportunity to engage the city’s youth in agriculture.
In a 2011 interview, Conwell told Linda Rule of Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) that given an opportunity, “you can farm this land, and you can grow some vegetables, and you can put food on your children's table, and you can make a good living.” To Conwell, agricultural work fosters a sense of responsibility and pride in a way that could make the difference between a young person's success versus hanging on a street corner.
Conwell is a leader in the SRBWI in the Mississippi Delta. The 30 women in the program grow vegetables such as squash, okra, peas, and, of course, sweet potatoes. Some have even extended themselves into raising livestock. These women offer each other farming know-how and support. She believes that black women in the rural South have an enormous opportunity. The challenge, she says, is to share the vision. She calls us to “think beyond ourselves and to do some things that are going to make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

Emilie Dayan, our office intern/assistant/chief collaborator, blogs weekly about issues of nutrition, sustainability, and food policy in the South.