Ben Burkett, an activist and visionary leader for Black farmers and a 2020 Cooperative Hall of Fame inductee will appear on Everything Co-op on Thursday, April 30. A weekly exploration of the impact and potential of the cooperative business model, Everything Co-op aims to generate interest in and support for the cooperative movement.
For more than 4o years Ben has made his mark on his community and the world as a farmer, cooperative organizer, and advocate for southern Black farmers. After graduating from Alcorn State University, he carried on his family legacy, and became a fourth-generation farmer in Petal, Mississippi. Vernon and Ben will discuss his experiences as both a farmer, and advocate for farmers in the Black Belt.
Ben Burkett has been a tireless activist, and visionary leader, who has helped farmers in rural Mississippi gain access to federal and state programs; expand their distribution; and gain access to technical assistance that allowed them to qualify for USDA farm programs. Ben also Organized neighboring farm families to expand markets denied them because of ingrained discrimination, and helped farmers preserve land ownership and optimize its agricultural use.
While continuing to farm and serve as a local co-op leader, in 1978 Ben joined the staff of the Emergency Land Fund (ELF), a non-profit whose mission was to save and expand Black farms and assist Black farmers with heirs’ property issues. His role was to identify and work with other Black farmers and landowners to protect their landholdings. When ELF merged with the Federation of Southern Cooperativesin 1985, Ben’s role was expanded to include spreading the word about the cooperative business model and he began teaching diversified crop development for conservation and marketing purposes. Ben’s knack for connecting with rural communities in the South, his passion for farming, and unique ability to get things done made him a sought-after agricultural trainer.
Ben was also a compassionate true leader. Following Hurricane Katrina, he Identified rural communities in need of assistance and coordinated relief efforts for farmers in Louisiana. His reputation as a farming and rural development expert garnered the attention of Mike Espy, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of Agriculture under the Clinton Administration. Espy appointed Ben to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Committee for Mississippi and was largely responsible for the inclusion of technical assistance funds that enabled more minority farmers to qualify for USDA farm assistance. Through his work with the FSA State Committee, Ben encountered and supported Lester Spell’s candidacy for Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce. Key to Spell’s election, Ben was appointed to the State Marketing Board where he served two terms and continues to be involved.
A tireless promoter and advocate for the cooperative business model, Ben embodies the spirit of cooperation. As such, his work has received numerous awards including the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2014.