Black family farms find a Catholic ally for bringing fresh food and hope to tables

By Robert Alan Glover | OSV News

Home to the landmark Edmund Pettus Bridge and other Civil Rights era memories, Alabama’s Selma also is home to another effort to strengthen African-American family-owned farms and communities across the Deep South that rely on them: the Edmundite Missions’ Black Farmers Initiative.

Founded in 1937 by the late Edmundite Father Francis Casey, the Edmundite Missions is a tireless ally to rural, mostly Black communities in the Deep South in the fight against extreme poverty by providing assistance with farming, education and nutritional diets.

“They live with me and I live with them, right in the heart of Selma,” Chad McEachern, president and CEO of the Edmundite Missions, told OSV News.

McEachern became the first layperson to lead the Edmundite Missions in 2012 and said his goal is twofold: “making sure that the ministries get what they need to combat poverty (here) in the Deep South and deliver a message of hope.”

“We tend to those to whom we are called to care for (not all of whom are Catholic), bringing them a message of hope and helping them live their lives in dignity,” McEachern said.

That is no easy task in this rural area. In Dallas County, where Selma is, per capita income is just under $23,000 a year and 33% of people live at or below the poverty level, according to census estimates.

The Black Farmers Initiative is currently assisting eight farmers in Lowndes County, Alabama, whose chief problem is being ineligible for government money under the Heirs Property Act.

“Many of these farms are multigenerational,” McEachern explained. But here, passing down these farms from one generation of Black farmers to another has come with a significant problem. “The current owners have no clear title to the land,” he said, “and we are trying to address this big dilemma.”

The Edmundite Missions have partnered with Tuskegee University to figure out solutions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture money that the Black Farmers Initiative receives and distributes to its clients, helps farmers to acquire planting seeds, farming equipment, cold storage boxes and to pay for labor costs at harvest time.

Here, the Edmundite Missions plays a key role as a trusted ally for African American family farms.

“Over the years, a lot of people promised different things (forms of aid) to these farmers that never happened, so we had to establish trust,” Susan Raymond, vice president of programs and chief innovations officer for the Edmundite Missions, told OSV News.

Because of these broken promises, she said, “we were required to strengthen their (the farmers’) ability to help themselves.”

“Once we did, the missions discovered that many Black farmers lacked the capital needed to plant and grow diverse, high-quality products on their land, such as fruits and vegetables,” Raymond explained.

“Farmers also lacked access to adequate irrigation, which is needed for barn storage of their crops — and adequate cooling systems in them to prevent excessive ripening, and access to both technology and technical assistance,” she said.

The relationship in turn allows the Edmundite Missions to play a role in strengthening food security locally. Raymond said the missions buy produce from Black farmers for the Good Shepherd Farmers Food Market in nearby Mosses, Alabama, and the Bosco Nutrition Center in Selma, a facility that both serves and delivers meals to families in need.

An essential and highly effective part of the Edmundite Missions’ initiative to support Black farmers is its Impact Grants Program, which, Raymond said, “allows them to increase production and quality of their food, and both sell more and sell to high-priced markets.”

The program also provides technical assistance which allows farmers to structure their farms as businesses and make sustainable or long-lasting improvements.

John Brown, one of the Black farmers who works with the Edmundite Missions, told OSV News his family-owned farm has been in business for almost 80 years after his father bought it in 1945. He himself is retired, having served in the U.S. Army and as a state corrections officer.

The 30-acre property, Brown said, “is run entirely by us, and yields green, leafy vegetables and a variety of corn, cantaloupes, watermelons, peas and okra.”

Brown noted that USDA does not provide enough assistance small family farms need, and so the assistance he receives through the Edmundite Missions’ grant program is invaluable “to buy the supplies I need and pay the cost of hiring labor at harvest time.”

A significant part of the Edmundite Missions work on the initiative is forging partnerships that can help Black-owned farms like the Brown family’s cultivate this agricultural region known as the “Black Belt” for generations to come.

“The area’s name is derived from the rich, black prairie soil belt that stretches from Virginia through Alabama and over to Texas,” said Andrew Williams, CEO of the Deep South Food Alliance, based in Linden, Alabama, serves Marengo County and five other counties.

Williams told OSV News the Edmundite Missions got together with the alliance — equipped with cold storage and transport resources — providing a valuable conduit to sell the farmers’ produce to other markets.

“What the DSFA did was purchase what the farmers had grown; then process, package and freeze the same in order to sell it on the open market,” Williams said.

Pick-ups occur weekly — involving 15-20 farmers depending on the growing season — and take place at either a community parking lot or an alliance member’s farm, where shipments are then loaded collectively.

“I was formerly with the USDA, and can honestly say that a lot of programs do exist to help small produce farmers,” Williams said. “But a different approach and various innovations still need to take place to bridge the gap.”

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Robert Alan Glover writes for OSV News from Kentucky.
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NOTES: For more information on Edmundite Missions and this initiative, visit

Feature photo courtesy of OSV News.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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