SHANNON • The feed Kurt Spragin’s shoveling out the back of a trailer at his farm off County Road 154 isn’t getting any cheaper, but the cattle have got to eat.
“It’s good for the corn producing farmer,” Spragin said about feed prices. “For the corn consuming farmer, it’s not good.”
It was a cold day in early February as Spragin made the rounds on a farm that has been in his family 73 years. The cattle, about 200, including the yearlings, needed tending.
“The price of cow on the hoof has got to get right for it all to even out,” Spragin said, the higher price of feed still on his mind.
Then there was his truck. Usually reliable, it had stopped dead the day before. Just another problem that required attention. But his thoughts tend toward optimism.
“I was so grateful it quit on me here in the driveway rather than the road,” Spragin said.
But there were other things on his mind. Bigger things.
The 52-year-old Spragin is Black, one of the few Black farmers in Lee County, according to federal data. He wants to see that number change and increase. He thinks it’s a matter of economic opportunity, especially for younger members of a rural community facing limited job prospects if they stay put
“We need a shift back to agriculture as a way of life and a means of income,” Spragin said. “Not just supplying for your table, but for the tables of the community.”
County supervisors balk at extension agent plan
Spragin’s roots in agriculture go deep; his experience in the realm of public policy is recent.
In January, Spragin appeared before the Lee County Board of Supervisors to speak on behalf of a proposal to bring an extension agent into Lee County from Alcorn State University, the oldest historically Black land-grant university in the nation. The cost to Lee County would have been $40,000, though much of that could have been covered by an unused appropriation created for the county’s extension program with Mississippi State University.
Gerald Jones is the director of county operations for Alcorn’s extension program. Speaking to supervisors in January, Jones explained the university’s vision.
“Back in March 2020, just as the pandemic was coming here in Mississippi, our president asked our dean, Dr. Edwin Butler, to look at considering expanding the extension program into other regions of the state,” Jones said. “We started looking at underrepresented farmers.”
Jones, Spragin and others pitched the one-year pilot program as a unique way to foster agricultural opportunities, especially for the county’s Black population.
Supervisors didn’t think much of the idea, other than District 4 Supervisor Tommie Lee Ivy, who is Black. The other four supervisors made it clear: They think one extension agent is enough.
“I don’t think there’s that many Black farmers in Lee County,” said District 5 Supervisor Billy Joe Holland at the time.
Spragin thinks the proposal may have been misunderstood. Black farmers may be few in number in Lee County – though probably undercounted – but that’s part of the point, in Spragin’s mind. He wants to see outreach directed toward those who might not think of themselves as a future farmer.
“It’s not a black and white issue,” Spragin said. “It’s about enhancing the community with knowledge. If you enhance the community with knowledge, you get these people with land laying around wasted, and you turn it into an economic resource generating income.”
Spragin’s father, the youngest of 10, moved onto the Shannon farm with his mother in 1948. Of the eight boys, six moved off to other places, mostly up north, to seek better jobs in a more open society. The automotive industry was booming at the time.
Even Spragin’s father, and Spragin himself, spent much of their lives working industrial jobs and farming on the side.
But industrial jobs aren’t as plentiful in Lee County as they once were.
After a workplace injury ended his industrial career in 2000, Spragin renewed his focus on the family’s farming tradition. He muddled along as best he could and has learned much along the way.
“I started out with five heifers and one bull,” Spragin said. “I probably should have just bought six heifers and leased the bull.”
And for the beginner and the seasoned veteran alike, there are unique and historical factors at play for Black farmers.
Among them: Finding land to farm.
“Finding vacant land, you can find it around, but a lot of time it’s heir property,” Spragin said. “It’s hard to do anything with heir property.”
Heir property is the term for land that has been passed down without a will. When this happens across multiple generations, the number of parties with a fractional ownership interest grows large, and the title becomes muddled.
With no clear title, some government assistance for farmers isn’t available, and the property can’t be claimed as an asset against a loan.
“You can get anywhere from 10 to 200 people involved,” Spragin said. “A lot of property owned by Blacks has been lost due to an heir property type situation.”
Navigating the thorny issues associated with heir property is an area in which Spragin believed Alcorn’s unique experience could have been particularly valuable.
But Spragin’s hopes aren’t pinned on any single program or university.
It all goes to the land itself. But building a new relationship to that land will be key.
“When the pandemic came, if I’d have had 150 steers ready to go, I could have sold them all for premium dollar,” Spragin said, citing a resurgence of interest in meat and produce purchased locally.
But he didn’t have the steers ready to go, and there is inadequate local infrastructure for direct-to-consumer meat sales.
Building such an infrastructure will take time and work.
“Grabbing the younger generation, that’s going to take some hands-on experience,” Spragin said. “Letting them grow a plant, harvest the fruit from it, eat the fruit from it. Letting them get a taste of it. Farming is a way of life.”