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Cultivating the next generation of Black farmers in Mississippi

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Mississippi is home to many in the Black farmer community, a group that's pretty small and aging across the U.S. And as many of these farmers grow older, some are worried that their traditions might die with them. Danny McArthur of the Gulf States Newsroom has the story of an effort to cultivate the next generation of Black farmers.

DANNY MCARTHUR, BYLINE: Alonzo Miller is showing me around his farm in Louisville, Miss. There are cows, vegetables and fruit trees.

ALONZO MILLER: This farm has pretty much everything that you need to provide food for yourself, water.

MCARTHUR: But Miller's scaling back. He'll be 70 soon, and all that land is too much to handle. Miller is a fourth-generation farmer and a pastor in his church. His family taught him how to preserve the soil and provide the land whatever it needs to be self-sustaining. He wants to pass on this knowledge, but he worries that it will end with him. His children have other careers.

MILLER: And that, for us older farmers, to not have our sons and daughters involved in that, it's a hurting thing.

MCARTHUR: Black farmers in Mississippi, like Miller, are an aging demographic. Nationally, it's estimated that there are less than 50,000 left. And they have all of this ancestral knowledge that could help the next generation figure out how to keep growing as the climate changes. Miller is part of a local farming cooperative where he mentors other beginning farmers.

MILLER: Those kids that do want to learn, they still a part of your family.

MCARTHUR: These older farmers, they're basically libraries, says Teresa Ervin-Springs. Members of the cooperative taught her family the basics, like how to drive a tractor and install irrigation.

TERESA ERVIN-SPRINGS: They actually told us how to plant, how deep to plant, you know, everything.

MCARTHUR: That was six years ago. And soon, Ervin-Springs says she noticed that she and her husband, Kevin, were among the youngest farmers in that cooperative.

ERVIN-SPRINGS: We thought to ourselves, if we're the youngest, you know, and we're in our 50s, well, we're going to be in trouble if we don't harness or get this knowledge so we can pass it on.

MCARTHUR: So she and her husband are in the early stages of opening a training center that will pass on sustainable practices from older Black farmers to younger ones. They also mentor other new farmers like Markel Thompson.

MARKEL THOMPSON: Meeting Kevin and Teresa kind of opened the door.

MCARTHUR: Thompson oversees his family farm in McCool, Miss. He's 28 and grew up in Chicago. He came here to start farming last year after his grandfather passed. The Springs family showed him skills like how to set a planting schedule and manage a farm. And they connect him with mentors like Miller.

THOMPSON: Pastor Miller, for example. Every time I see him, I run up to him with a sense of urgency, passion, like, Pastor Miller, this was going on.

MCARTHUR: Now he's preparing his first pasture for planting. Often he'll spend hours just exploring the land. It's partly fun, but also practical.

THOMPSON: I was back there searching for a well that's supposed to be just open somewhere. I need to find that before I fall in there. That would be terrible.

MCARTHUR: Thompson just bought the building that will be his future home. It sits on top of a hill from where he can look out over his new farm.

For NPR News, I'm Danny McArthur in Tupelo, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T AND THE MG'S "GOLDEN SLUMBERS/CARRY THAT WEIGHT/THE END/HERE COMES THE SUN/COME TOGETHER (MEDLEY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Danny McArthur