Ralph Paige, a renowned advocate for the rural poor and a determined promoter of the cooperative model to help minority farmers, passed away June 28.
As Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, Paige worked to keep family farmers on their land and to promote a more just system of agriculture.
Born in LaGrange, Georgia and educated at Fort Valley State College and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Paige began his work as an advocate for the rural southern poor in 1969 as a field organizer for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. He helped develop the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative, working with black farmers to market vegetables, firewood and other farm products. In his early years he also helped build the East Georgia Farmers Co-op, which grew to include a small meat processing operation for pigs and cattle produced by members.
Paige was named Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund in 1985.
At the Federation, Paige led efforts to secure public and private resources to support cooperative development, forming the Federation’s Business Development office in the late 1970s. He also directed the Federation’s first VISTA project, organizing 110 volunteers at 60 cooperative and credit union sites.
Known as a visionary as well as a pragmatic leader, Paige arranged the merger between the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Emergency Land Fund, which expanded the mission of the Federation and deepened its efforts to help black farmers stay on their land. Under his leadership, the Federation developed more than 200 units of low-income housing, built 18 community credit unions, started 75 cooperatives and started the Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama to prepare and support rural leaders.
Paige was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2004. In recommending Paige to the Hall of Fame selection committee, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said, “Ralph has played a central role in the development of better U.S. policies for family farmers,” by “encouraging Congress to provide help for rural cooperative development.” Paige successfully pushed Congress to provide funding for outreach, education and technical assistance for black farmers in the 1990 farm bill. Paige also lobbied to create the Rural Cooperative Development Grant program, which provides $5.8 million annually for rural cooperative centers nationwide.
Paige’s belief in the power of people organized as cooperatives inspired the next generation of cooperative leaders. “Ralph was a hero for me,” said NCBA CLUSA president and CEO Doug O’Brien. “Whether on the steps of the Capital, in the Halls of Congress, or at the doors of senior USDA officials or the White House, Ralph was one of the most determined, credible and effective advocates for cooperatives and family farmers. Ralph was always a joy to be around—whether he was cracking his signature smile and wrapping his arm around you or reminding you of a hard truth to be confronted. The cooperative community and farmers everywhere are better off because of his leadership.”
In retirement, cooperators and cooperative businesses alike continued to seek Paige’s advice. He served on local, state and national boards including NCBA CLUSA, Nationwide, National Black Roundtable and the National Save the Family Farm Coalition.
Paige was the recipient of multiple honors and awards for his work. In 2000, he received the George Washington Carver Public Service Hall of Fame Award, given to those working in significant partnership with the 1890 land-grant institutions and the 2001 George Collins Rural Agriculture Advocacy Award from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. The Federation received honors in his name as well, including the 1989 United Nations award for “significant contribution of adequate shelter to the poorer segments of the community.”
“Ralph inspired so many and leaves a lasting impact. He believed in the principles of collaboration and cooperation as powerful vehicles for social change. He put those beliefs into action through persistent advocacy and tireless efforts on behalf of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives,” said Rich Larochelle, chair of the Cooperative Development Foundation’s Board of Directors.
“Ralph’s work will continue, but he will be missed by those of us who were fortunate enough to know and work with him.”
A wake for Paige will be held on Thursday, July 5 from 6 – 8 p.m. at the Warren Temple United Methodist Church, 416 E. Depot St., LaGrange, GA. A homegoing service will be held on Friday, July 6 at 11 a.m. at the New Community Church, 1200 South David Rd., La Grange, GA. Interment will take place at Restlawn Memorial Gardens, 2098 Mooty Bridge Rd., La Grange, GA. Flowers can be sent to West Georgia Mortuary, 1408 Hamilton Rd., La Grange, GA.