Wednesday, May 1

Sustainable South: Frank Taylor Helps Mississippi Farmers Help Themselves

Frank Taylor at a Save Rural America Rally in Lincoln County. Photo by Matthew  Coleman.

Winston County, in east central Mississippi, has an unemployment rate of 12.8 %. (This is compared to a state average of 9.4 % and a national average of 7.6% in March 2013.) Nearly a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line—for a family of four, that's an income of less than $23,550 per year. Despite the dismal circumstances, Frank Taylor, the director of the Winston County Self-Help Cooperative (WCSHC), sees a bright future. The organization he leads, chartered in 1988, works to empower the community and combat unemployment through asset-based development.

WCSHC designs training programs around the strengths and natural resources of the county. Using member dues and grant awards, the WCSHC provides a forum where small and underserved landowners pool their resources to purchase equipment, feed, seed, animals, and other farm tools and products. This model has helped participants raise their incomes—sustainably. The proof is in the growing number of tax receipts, making the WCSHC a win-win situation for Winston County.

However, for Taylor and the members of the WCSHC, the children of Winston County inspire their faith in the future. The youth, he says, are the crown jewel of the WCSHC’s programs. The same funding that goes toward collective purchasing also provides education and enrichment programs to the county’s youth. The Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, who highlighted the WCSHC as the Entrepreneurial Community of the Month in September 2007, says that these programs are a place where intergenerational learning is the norm, "and children can learn about their food and their culture while enjoying a laugh over garden pests or the size of a turnip.” By teaching the young citizens about agriculture, nutrition, teamwork, self-respect and self-discipline, Taylor hopes that the children will “inherit something good.”

The success of the WCSHC is in large part due to Taylor’s leadership. Born and raised in Winston County, Taylor has a strong sense of purpose when it comes to helping African-American farmers overcome adversity. His grandfather Maben Austin toiled for years in the 1930s to purchase 40 acres and a mule in order to get his family off of a Louisville (Mississippi) plantation. After attending Kentucky State University on a football scholarship, Taylor committed to working one year with the WCSHC in 1989. More than twenty years later, Taylor has brought WCSHC membership up from 4 participants to 56 and has won a Small Farmer of the Year award from the National Organization of Black Professional Natural Resources Conservation Service Employees.

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