Connect with us

Black Appalachia

How a Top Chicken Company Cut Off Black Farmers, One by One



John Ingrum lost his farm after chicken processor Koch Foods stopped delivering flocks for him to grow. "They put me slap out of business," he said. Photo: Annie Flanagan, ProPublica

The Trump administration has weakened legal protections for farmers and eased off enforcing rules on powerful meat companies.

After years of working as a sheriff’s deputy and a car dealership manager, John Ingrum used his savings to buy a farm some 50 miles east of Jackson, Mississippi. He planned to raise horses on the land and leave the property to his son.

The farm, named Lovin’ Acres, came with a few chicken houses, which didn’t really interest Ingrum. But then a man showed up from Koch Foods, the country’s fifth-largest poultry processor and one of the main chicken companies in Mississippi. Koch Foods would deliver flocks and feed — all Ingrum would have to do is house the chicks for a few weeks while they grew big enough to slaughter. The company representative wowed Ingrum with projections for the stream of income he could earn, Ingrum recalled in an interview.

What Ingrum didn’t know was that those financial projections overlooked many realities of modern farming in the U.S., where much of the country’s agricultural output is controlled by a handful of giant companies. The numbers didn’t reflect the debt he might have to incur to configure his chicken houses to the company’s specifications. Nor did they reflect the risk that the chicks could show up sick or dead, or that the company could simply stop delivering flocks.

And that growing concentration of corporate power in agriculture would only add to the long odds Ingrum, as a black farmer, faced in the United States, where just 1.3 percent of the country’s farmers are black.

The shadow of slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow has left black farmers in an especially precarious position. Their farms tend to be smaller and their sales lower than the national average, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While white farmers benefited from government assistance such as the Homestead Act and land-grant universities, black farmers were largely excluded from owning land and accumulating wealth. In recent decades, black farmers accused the USDA of discriminating against them by denying them loans or forcing them to wait longer, resulting in a class-action lawsuit that settled for more than $1 billion.

Along with these historical disadvantages, black farmers say they have also encountered bias in dealing with some of the corporate giants that control their livelihood. In complaints filed with the USDA between 2010 and 2015, Ingrum and another black farmer in Mississippi said Koch Foods discriminated against them and used its market control to drive them out of business.

After the complaints by the farmers, an investigator for the USDA, which is responsible for regulating the industry, looked into Koch Foods’ dealings with those farmers and found “evidence of unjust discrimination,” according to a 700-page case file obtained by ProPublica. The investigator concluded that Koch Foods violated a law governing meat companies’ business practices.

The Trump administration has cut back on enforcing this law, with the USDA now conducting fewer investigations and imposing fewer fines, as ProPublica has reported. Koch Foods hasn’t faced any penalty.

Koch Foods declined to provide an interview with any of its executives or to answer detailed questions about its dealings with black farmers in Mississippi. A lawyer for the company said it denies wrongdoing.

The five largest chicken companies now make up 61 percent of the market, compared with 34 percent in the hands of the top four firms in 1986. As the biggest companies expanded their control, they raised farmers’ average pay by a mere 2.5 cents a pound from 1988 to 2016, while the wholesale price of chicken rose by 17.4 cents a pound, according to data from the USDA and the National Chicken Council.

Mississippi is the country’s fifth-largest poultry-producing state. From 2009 to 2017, one of the main chicken companies, Koch Foods, went from having contracts with four black farmers in Mississippi to zero. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Mississippi is the fifth-largest poultry-producing state, with more than 1,300 chicken farms. In a state where the population is 38 percent black, only 96 of those farms were operated by African Americans in 2012, the most recent USDA data available. From 2009 to 2017, Koch Foods went from having contracts with four black farmers in Mississippi to zero.

Koch (pronounced “cook”) Foods is based outside Chicago and supplies chicken, often sold under other brands, to major restaurants and retailers such as Burger King, Kroger and Walmart. The company, which is privately held, is not part of the business empire of the conservative billionaires Charles Koch and David Koch. The owner of Koch Foods, Joseph Grendys, has a fortune that Forbes estimates at $3.1 billion.

After Ingrum signed his contract to grow chickens for Koch Foods, in 2002, different company representatives kept coming with lists of expensive modifications they wanted Ingrum to make, according to an affidavit he provided to the USDA investigator. After Ingrum met all the specifications, the next representative went back on what the previous one said and wanted things done a different way, Ingrum said in the affidavit.

Chicken companies usually say they update their specifications to improve animal welfare or respond to consumer preferences like avoiding antibiotics. But Ingrum couldn’t find much logic in the changes Koch Foods wanted him to make. One service technician directed Ingrum to install lights in one place, the next one someplace else. Another time, the company wanted Ingrum to move a power line, even though it was out of the way of the feed trucks and bins. That cost him $6,000.

Under Ingrum’s contract with Koch Foods, the company supplied the flocks and feed but penalized him if his birds were sick or underfed. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

According to Ingrum’s affidavit, when he met with a manager about the shifting demands, the manager said, derisively, “I had a couple of y’all when I was at Sanderson,” another big chicken company. Ingrum asked the manager, who was white, what he meant by that. The manager didn’t answer Ingrum. Reached by ProPublica on his cellphone, the manager hung up.

Ingrum suspected that the truck drivers who delivered feed were shortchanging him, so he installed sensors to alert him when the drivers arrived. In 2007, according to his affidavit, Ingrum caught a driver failing to fill a whole feed bin. The company brushed it off as an honest mistake. But Ingrum had heard of drivers asking farmers for payoffs to get more feed, according to the affidavit.

In 2009, Ingrum spent $50,000 on renovations that Koch wanted. Then the company wanted Ingrum to rebuild his compost shed. That was another $5,000. Then Koch Foods said the shed had to be certified by a government inspector. Ingrum called the agency, which said the shed didn’t require approval and they only sent an inspector out once a year.

With Koch Foods delivering flocks to Ingrum’s farm less frequently than expected, he was making less money and falling behind on his loan payments. He looked into selling his farm. When a prospective buyer from Florida called Koch to inquire about a contract with them, a Koch employee scared him off by saying Ingrum’s farm needed $100,000 in repairs, according to Ingrum’s affidavit. The employee also swore at Ingrum’s real estate agent and spread a rumor that the bank had foreclosed, according to the affidavit. That wasn’t true, but it was becoming increasingly hard to avoid.

In 2010, Ingrum heard that the Obama administration was making a push to help farmers who were getting squeezed by consolidation in agriculture. Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack were going around the country to hear from farmers about the problems in their markets. When they came to neighboring Alabama to meet with chicken farmers, Ingrum went and spoke on a panel.

At the hearing, Ingrum recounted how the company would pay him less if the birds were sick or underfed, even though the company supplied the chicks and the feed. Ingrum said he’d received a tray of 100 chicks with 35 to 40 already dead. Another time, he ran out of feed for three days and the chickens started eating one another.

“There’s no way it could be fair,” he said at the hearing, according to the transcript. “I had no control over the feed that they brought me.”

Companies typically say they want their farmers’ chicken houses to meet certain specifications to improve animal welfare or respond to consumer preferences. But Ingrum couldn’t find much logic in the costly changes Koch Foods wanted him to make. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

That night, when Ingrum returned home to Lovin’ Acres Farm, he found a note from Koch Foods saying his contract had expired.

The USDA investigator later inquired whether it was “solely a coincidence” that Koch Foods left the note at Ingrum’s farm on the same day he attended the hearing 300 miles away. A company supervisor said he “could not say.”

“I never got another chicken after going to that meeting over there in Alabama,” Ingrum, 55, said in an interview. “They put me slap out of business.”

As Ingrum ran out of money, the power company cut his electricity, but he refused to leave for three months. His former colleagues at the sheriff’s office had to come remove him. For the next five years, he stayed with relatives until he scraped together enough money from working at a car dealership to get back on his feet.

“Twenty years, everything I worked for, I lost it in one summer,” Ingrum said. “It just ruined me.”

Around the same time, two other black farmers in the area also stopped growing chickens for Koch Foods. Out of 173 chicken farmers under contract with Koch Foods in Mississippi, there was only one African American left. His name was Carlton Sanders.

Ingrum said he warned Sanders: “They’re coming after you, Carlton. You next.”

Sanders’ farm was in a nearby town called Lena. He had been in the business since 1992. Back then, he worked with a local family business called BC Rogers, which he said always treated him professionally. He used the chicken manure to fertilize his vegetable garden, and he took pride in his trees growing figs, pears and apricots. “I just had everything set,” Sanders said.

When Koch Foods bought BC Rogers in 2001, everything changed, Sanders said. Sanders’ performance was above average, according to the ranking system that the company used to pay farmers. But he felt singled out for disadvantages.

“I’ve never been treated like that by anybody,” Sanders, 63, said. “It was just like I was in hell with them.”

Carlton Sanders on his front porch before church. Sanders was the last black farmer under contract with Koch Foods in Mississippi, until the company gave him a list of expensive renovations that no other farmer received. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

In 2014, Koch Foods wanted Sanders to make $105,000 worth of improvements, according to the USDA case file. Then Sanders borrowed an additional $93,000 to buy new curtains, insulation, cables and heaters. Suddenly, he owed a total of $295,000, but he made his payments on time, according to financial records reviewed by ProPublica.

The next year, Koch Foods informed its farmers of a new requirement for the ventilation in their chicken houses. Sanders went to his bank to see about another loan. The loan officer called the manager at Koch Foods and sent a follow-up email asking for “a listing of needed improvements that Koch Foods is requiring.”

The manager never responded directly to the banker. Instead, the company gave Sanders an “update list” with 23 items. Sanders gave the list to his banker, who understood it to be the company’s response to his inquiry. Sanders obtained work estimates for the 23 updates, amounting to $318,000, according to the case file.

The banker advised Sanders not to apply for another loan and to consider selling his farm instead. Meanwhile, Koch Foods stopped giving Sanders chickens to raise.

Sanders asked around and realized other farmers hadn’t gotten the same 23-item “update list.” So in December 2015, he filed a complaint with the USDA.

The complaint was assigned to a government attorney in Atlanta named Wayne Basford. Basford had also looked into Ingrum’s case, stretching back to 2010. Over the years, Basford had collected affidavits attesting to Koch employees’ calling black farmers “niggers” (the employees denied it), and he observed that the office staff was all white. He also noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was suing Koch Foods, alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination against Hispanic employees in Mississippi. (The company later paid $3.75 million to settle the lawsuit, though it did not admit wrongdoing.)

In February 2016, Basford notified Koch Foods that he was investigating a new complaint he’d received, without mentioning Sanders. Koch Foods’ lawyer responded by criticizing the condition of Sanders’ farm and, at the same time, denying that the company asks farmers to make “upgrades.”

As Basford inquired about the 23-item “update list” that only Sanders received, Koch Foods said these were optional. The list used the word “must” six times and never said the updates were voluntary.

“I hate to say it, but they just don’t like black people,” Sanders said. “There are no black people in the office — they don’t even want black people cleaning up after them.”

Basford asked to schedule a meeting with Koch Foods’ executives to present his findings. The company’s lawyer, Scott Pedigo, of the firm Baker Donelson in Jackson, Mississippi, called Basford to suggest meeting with local managers instead, according to emails included in the case file. Basford insisted on speaking with the top executives “due to the potential gravity of the situation.”

In July 2017, Basford and two colleagues from the USDA met in Birmingham, Alabama, with Koch Foods’ chief operating officer, Mark Kaminsky, along with two other executives and Pedigo. Grendys, Koch Foods’ billionaire owner, did not attend, but Basford sent Grendys a copy of his slides.

In the presentation, Basford said Koch Foods’ actions toward Sanders, combined with its treatment of Ingrum and the other black farmers, was “evidence of unjust discrimination.” Chicken companies are prohibited from engaging in “unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive” business practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. The Obama administration tried to tighten enforcement of this law by proposing new regulations to spell out what those prohibited practices are. But the meat industry lobbied Congress to block the proposed rules by withholding funding from the USDA. When the Trump administration came in, it swiftly prevented the rules from taking effect.

So when Basford presented his findings to the Koch Foods executives in July 2017, he included all the evidence of discrimination, but he alleged a narrower violation: that Koch Foods failed to notify Sanders of why it stopped delivering chickens to his farm. In response, Pedigo argued that the notification nine months earlier about the new ventilation requirement was enough.

A chicken house on the farm that Sanders lost. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

The notice requirement had been strengthened by the Obama administration, but Congress reversed the change in 2015. That made it harder for Basford’s case to stick.

Basford, who declined to comment for this article, submitted the case for the USDA’s lawyers to evaluate possible next steps, such as seeking a fine against Koch Foods. The agency hasn’t taken any action so far. A USDA spokesman said the investigation is “ongoing” and the agency is coordinating with the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, Basford tried to mediate between Koch Foods and Sanders. In the months following Basford’s presentation in 2017, he pushed Koch Foods to resume delivering chickens to Sanders’ farm so that Sanders could save it from foreclosure.

Pedigo responded with a list of 10 repairs that Sanders would have to make first. Seven were among the 23 fixes that the company had previously insisted were optional.

Basford wanted Koch Foods to assure Sanders that if he spent the money to make the latest repairs, the company would start bringing him chickens again. The company wouldn’t agree.

In the end, all Koch Foods agreed to was “reviewing its policies and programs.” Pedigo told Basford the company has a “commitment to treating all of its independent contract growers equally and with dignity and respect.”

In response to questions from ProPublica about Ingrum and Sanders, Pedigo declined to comment on the specific allegations in Basford’s investigation. In a statement, he said, “Koch Foods applies its standards and expectations to all growers uniformly without regard to race or any other protected status and has never discriminated against any grower on such basis.”

Kaminsky, the Koch Foods COO who attended Basford’s presentation, last October became chairman of the National Chicken Council, the industry’s trade group.

Koch Foods and other top chicken companies — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms — are fighting multiple lawsuits from retailersdistributors and farmers accusing them of conspiring to fix prices. The companies have denied the allegations. In one of the cases, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division asked the judge on June 21 to freeze discovery in order to protect an ongoing criminal investigation.

The USDA is now doing fewer investigations like Basford’s. His office finished 1,873 investigations in 2017, the most recent data available, down from 2,588 in 2012. Penalties for violating the Packers and Stockyards Act dropped from $3.2 million in 2013 to as little as $243,850 in 2018, according to preliminary case data on the USDA’s website.

The enforcement office, known as the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, or GIPSA, was dissolved as part of a department-wide reorganization. The USDA shifted responsibility for enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act into another division whose primary purpose is helping companies boost sales. The staff in the Packers and Stockyards Division has decreased to 137 from 166 in 2010.

Sanders is living on food stamps and whatever he gets from hunting and fishing. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Sanders found himself in a downward spiral after the dispute with Koch Foods. He had a stroke and a heart attack. The bank foreclosed on his farm and he filed for bankruptcy. His wife left him. These days, he’s living on food stamps plus whatever he gets from hunting and fishing.

“I’ve been about as dead as somebody can go without being dead,” he said. “I’m trying to hold my head up, that’s all I can do.”

On Sundays, Sanders passes by his old farm on his way to church. The farm is just sitting there, still up for sale, lying fallow. Sometimes, he takes a long way around to avoid seeing it.

This article was originally published by ProPublica. It was co-published with The Clarion-Ledger.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Black Appalachia

These Photos Will Change the Way You Think About Race in Coal Country



“Untitled. (Payday, coal mining town, Omar, West Virginia. 1938.)” Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

The myth that Appalachia is uniformly White lingers, but communities of “Affrilachians” were documented in the 1930s.

This article was originally published by YES! Magazine in March 2018.

Black folks have a gift for complicating the stories that Americans like to tell about themselves. Our presence, for instance, makes it hard to accept the notion that the United States was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It’s a comforting myth and a useful one as well. Abraham Lincoln put it to good use when he spoke those words at Gettysburg, rallying the Union in a time of crisis. But, as history, this foundational myth was undermined by the centrality of slavery in the economic and political life of the new nation.

Our presence complicates other American stories, like the ones that get told about Appalachia. Historian Ronald Eller has pointed out that the region has long been seen as the “other America,” defining what the nation as a whole is not. According to this myth, America is prosperous, while Appalachia is poor. America is modern and progressive, while Appalachia is mired in the past. America is racially and ethnically diverse, while Appalachia is uniformly White, a land of hillbillies and moonshine.

“Coal miner his wife and two of their children. Bertha Hill West Virginia. 1938.” Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

“When someone hears ‘Appalachia,’ the first thing that pops into their head isn’t an African American face, ever. It’s kind of irritating.”

Shaylan Clark (Washington Post interview, 2017)

Myths about Appalachia linger in the national subconsciousness and rise to the surface when politicians and pundits find them to be particularly useful. In the 1960s, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson made Appalachian poverty the face of his War on Poverty, believing that voters would be more willing to support programs that seemed to be aimed at poor white people than poor African Americans.

Recently, myths about Appalachia have been recruited to explain the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency. As historian Elizabeth Catte points out in her important new book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, the myths of poverty, backwardness and homogeneous whiteness have made it easy to paint Appalachia as “Trump Country.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election, an entire journalistic genre emerged that ignored Trump’s support among white voters of all income levels and in all regions of the country and instead focused on white working-class voters, especially in Appalachia. Somehow, the ignorance and racism of this “other America” had propelled Trump to victory, not the votes of middle-class suburbanites in Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Texas.

The whiteness of Appalachia is one of its most enduring stereotypes. Black folks, the story goes, live elsewhere. But in fact, African Americans, some of them enslaved, have inhabited the region since the first soldiers and pioneers drove Native Americans off of their land. Catte notes that when coal industry employment was at its height, in the early to mid-twentieth century, African American miners made up “20 to 50 percent of the workforce.” Even today, she writes, more people in Appalachia “identify as African American than Scots-Irish.” Yet the myth of whiteness is so strong that even well-known Black people from the region—the educator and politician Booker T. Washington, singers Nina Simone and Bill Withers, and writers August Wilson, Nikki Giovanni and John Edgar Wideman—are rarely associated with it.

“Sunday in Scotts Run West Virginia. 1935.” Photo: Ben Shahn/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

Twenty-five years ago, poet and scholar Frank X. Walker, coined the term “Affrilachian.” It was a response to the long history of writing African Americans out of the stories we tell about Appalachia, giving a name to the Black presence in the region and raising its visibility. The term struck a chord and is now widely embraced.

“When I imagine our history, I see photographs.”

—Elizabeth Catte

Photography, Catte shows, played a crucial role in the creation of the mythology of Appalachia. Many others agree. Appalachian filmmaker Elizabeth Barret once noted that outsiders with cameras “mined images in the way the companies mined the coal.” Too often, the images they made were the ones that myths and stereotypes had prepared them to see—poverty, despair and a cast of characters that was uniformly white.

“Untitled. (Scotts Run West Virginia 1935.)” Photo: Ben Shahn/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

Some photographers, however, have come to Appalachia with their eyes and minds wide open. Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott were two of the best. Although Shahn is much better known as a painter and muralist, the photos that he made during two brief stints working for the federal government’s now-famous documentary photography project at the Farm Security Administration are among the most significant documents that we have from the 1930s. Wolcott’s career as a photographer, although longer than Shahn’s, also was short. No matter. At the FSA, she still made some of the best and most iconic images of the era.

Neither Shahn nor Wolcott knew very much about Appalachia when they first arrived. But they were both sharp observers of people and society. And if they were burdened by stereotypes, they soon learned to discard them. They were both politically progressive and opposed to racism and segregation, and they shared an openness to and curiosity about African Americans.

“Coal miner and two of his seven children. He has worked in the mines for about 20 years. Chaplin West Virginia. 1938.” Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

“… my first assignments were very close to Washington. I think one of the first ones, if not the very first, was in the coal fields in West Virginia. That was a very short assignment, of course. And it was a very interesting one, too. I found the people not as apathetic as I had expected they might be. They weren’t too beaten down. Of course, many of them were, but they were people with hope. …”

Marion Post Wolcott in a 1965 interview

In this article, I’ve selected only photos from West Virginia. That’s in part because it’s the only state wholly within Appalachia, and in part because the images that Shahn and Wolcott made there are so strong. But these photos are only a small sample of the images of Affrilachians that can be found in the FSA archive. A rich history is waiting to be explored.

“Omar West Virginia. 1935.” Photo: Ben Shahn/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

“I was offered this job [at the FSA] … but first it was suggested that I take a trip around the country in the areas in which we worked to see what it’s all about, and I tell you that was a revelation to me. … my knowledge of the United States rather came via New York and mostly through Union Square. … I had desire to go to the United States, [but] I didn’t have a penny. It was in the middle of the Depression, you know. I couldn’t get as far as Hoboken at that time. It was really a very serious time. … the present seemed to be hopeless and I just felt that I’d never get out of New York again.”

Ben Shahn in a 1964 interview

“Untitled. (The Shack a onetime church; milk is dispensed here. Relief clients wait for hours Scotts Run West Virginia. 1935.)”Photo by Ben Shahn/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress. 

There’s nothing special about the way that Shahn and Wolcott depicted African Americans. That’s one of the reasons that I like their photos so much. Black people here—Affrilachians—are part of the very fiber of society.

“My wife would do the driving. She was very understanding of the whole thing and just as much enthusiastic about it as I was, so that we’d retrace steps, sometimes 500 miles. I needed something to fill in. I’d missed it and back we’d go. We had a little A Model Ford that we knocked around in. It gave us no trouble but it didn’t have much speed, so going back 600 miles meant almost three days.”

—Ben Shahn

“Untitled. (Omar West Virginia. 1935.) ”Photo: Ben Shahn Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

“When I first wanted to take their picture, they would be antagonistic, but as soon as I would explain, or briefly explain what the pictures were for and what I intended, they were cooperative.”

—Marion Post Wolcott

“Coal miner’s daughter doing the family wash. All the water must be carried from up the hill. Bertha Hill West Virginia. 1938.” Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

“In the South or in the mine country, wherever you point the camera there is a picture. But here you have to make some choices, you see.”

—Ben Shahn

“Liberty unincorporated Scotts Run West Virginia. Negro family living in Moose Hall. 1935.” Photo: Ben Shahn/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

It’s possible to look at an isolated photo, out of the hundreds that Shahn and Wolcott produced in Appalachia, and imagine that it merely confirms the stereotype of an impoverished and beaten-down people and region. But that would be wrong. The bodies of work that they produced show people and communities that couldn’t be defined by any single aspect of their lives.

“Untitled. (Shooting craps by company store Osage West Virginia. 1938.)” Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

It’s tempting to see Shahn’s and Wolcott’s Appalachia as an interracial paradise. It wasn’t. Schools were segregated. African Americans faced discrimination in the workplace, as well.

“Omar West Virginia. 1935.” Photo: Ben Shahn/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

Yet it’s also clear that Blacks weren’t merely outcasts. They were part and parcel of their communities.

“Coal miners’ wives making ice cream to sell on Saturday afternoon after payday. Osage West Virginia. 1938.”
Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

Neither Shahn nor Wolcott sugar-coated things. Poverty was real. But the people in the photos were always much more than simply poor.

“Hauling coal up the hill picked up near mines to his home. Chaplin West Virginia. 1938.” Photo: Marion Post Wolcott/Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection Library of Congress.

Wolcott and Shahn are by no means that only photographers to picture the lives of Affrilachians. The great documentary photographer Lewis Hine did so in the early 20th century, as did Russell Lee, a former FSA photographer, in the 1940s. Recently, photographer and curator Roger May has spearheaded Looking at Appalachia, a photo-documentary project that engages scores of Appalachian photographers in a collective effort to overturn visual stereotypes about the region. Affrilachians appear in many of the images they’ve made.

Why have Affrilachians remained almost invisible in American culture, despite this visual record? Perhaps it’s because, as Nell Irvin Painter has suggested in her introduction to Blacks in Appalachia, Affrilachians upset two cherished stereotypes—that Appalachia is uniformly white and that Black people can be found only in inner cities or what used to be the plantation South. And, because stereotypes help to orient us in a complex world, it can be hard to see them for what they really are. And, so, photographers and writers continue to reproduce myths and stereotypes about Appalachia and African Americans alike. We should demand that they do better.

But we must also ask more of ourselves as viewers and readers. Passive looking and reading is lazy, and it leads us astray. When we see beyond the myths, we find a world that’s infinitely richer and more rewarding than anything we’ve been taught to imagine.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation.

Continue Reading

Black Appalachia

Black Farmers Say a Top Chicken Company Turned Them Away



A truck loaded with chickens passes Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, following a raid by U.S. immigration officials. The raids were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as undocumented employees. Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

New allegations surfaced in a lawsuit after ProPublica’s investigation of Koch Foods in Mississippi. The company denies discriminating against Black farmers.

Once or twice every year since 2005, a Black farmer in Philadelphia, Mississippi, reached out to one of the country’s largest chicken companies about starting to work with it. The company, Koch Foods, said that the farmer was too far away and that it wasn’t taking on new growers, the farmer said in a sworn statement.

But an investigator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Koch Foods had contracts with 10 farmers who were farther away and that it proceeded to recruit 165 other farmers since 2005, all of them white.

This new evidence surfaced in a lawsuit filed by another Black farmer in Mississippi who ProPublica wrote about in June. Koch Foods used to have contracts with four Black farmers in Mississippi but cut off business with them, one by one. The last to go, Carlton Sanders, lost his farm after Koch Foods wanted him to make expensive renovations that weren’t required of any white farmers.

(The company’s name is pronounced “cook,” and it is not related to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.)

After ProPublica’s article, Sanders found a lawyer, personal injury attorney Elizabeth Citrin of Daphne, Alabama. The lawsuit, filed in October in federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, accuses Koch Foods of fraud, breach of contract and violating the Civil Rights Act and the Packers and Stockyards Act, which regulates meat companies.

“Koch, and its employees, acted illegally and unconscionably in a manner that prevented [Carlton] Sanders from growing chickens in a fair and profitable manner, subjecting Sanders to agricultural servitude, akin to the abuses subjected to Sanders’s ancestors, who were slaves brought over from Africa against their will,” the lawsuit said. “All this conduct toward Plaintiff Sanders was due to his race.”

Koch Foods has not yet responded to the complaint in court. Its CEO, Joseph Grendys, declined to comment on the lawsuit or the other farmer who was refused a contract. “ONCE AGAIN I STATE KOCH FOODS, WHILE INVESTIGATED WAS NEVER CHARGED,” he said in an email.

In an earlier letter to ProPublica, Grendys denied discriminating against the Black farmers in Mississippi. He said the company made multiple attempts to work with the farmers to keep their contracts. “If Koch had a bias against them for any reason,” Grendys wrote, “we would never have offered them contracts in the first place.”

But that is exactly what the farmer in Philadelphia said happened to him. The farmer’s name was redacted in the records obtained by ProPublica.

The farmer said Koch Foods told him he was “too far out” and it wasn’t accepting new growers. The USDA investigator calculated that his farm is a 58.8-mile drive from the feed mill, while Koch had contracts with 10 farmers who were farther away. A Koch employee also told the investigator in a 2013 interview that the company accepted growers as far away as 60 miles, according to the investigator’s notes.

The investigator also interviewed another Black farmer who said he called Koch Foods about obtaining a contract and was repeatedly told that a representative would visit his farm, but no one ever came. He ended up having to sell his farm at a loss.

The affidavits from both farmers say they tried unsuccessfully to get contracts with other chicken companies in the area. Most chicken in the U.S. is grown on contracts with a handful of big companies. This system gives the companies sweeping control over farmers’ income and operations, while the farmers shoulder equipment costs and other risks.

African Americans lost the vast majority of their farmland during the 20th century and were excluded from government programs that benefited white farmers, contributing to the country’s racial wealth disparity. As of 2017, the latest available government data, just 1.3 percent of the country’s farmers were Black, down slightly from 2012. On average, their farms were significantly smaller and poorer, according to USDA data.

Sanders visited Washington in July with a group organized by the Rural Advancement Foundation International to talk to lawmakers and USDA officials about strengthening enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. The Trump administration stopped tougher rules on chicken companies from taking effect and reduced staff in the office conducting investigations like the one into Koch Foods’ treatment of Sanders.

“I have lost my home, my wife, my health, everything,” Sanders said at a press conference during the visit, choking back tears. “When a company has as much control like these chicken companies do, then they can virtually act as they want without fear of reproach.”

Koch Foods is privately held and supplies chicken, often sold under other brand names, to restaurants and retailers such as Burger King, Kroger and Walmart. One retailer, Foodtown, said it “made an independent decision” to stop carrying Koch Foods products. Other companies that Koch Foods’ website shows stocking its products didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Koch Foods’ facility in Morton, Mississippi, was among the sites raided by immigration authorities in August, part of the largest workplace sweep in decades. No company officials have been charged.

This article was co-published with The Clarion-Ledger. It was originally published by ProPublica.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Continue Reading

Black Appalachia

LISTEN: Being Black In Appalachia, A Conversation With Author Crystal Wilkinson



Photo: Unsplash
Listen to the broadcast version of this interview, originally aired on West Virginia Morning on Oct. 2, 2019.

Author Crystal Wilkinson is the 2019 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence at Shepherd University.

Wilkinson’s second book Water Street was chosen by the West Virginia Library Commission as this year’s One Book One West Virginia common read.

Author Crystal Wilkinson. Photo: Courtesy of Wilkinson

Wilkinson was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1962, but she grew up in Kentucky with her grandparents Silas and Christine Wilkinson.

Her grandfather was a farmer who grew tobacco, corn and sorghum, and her grandmother worked in the homes of local schoolteachers in Casey County.

Wilkinson studied journalism at Eastern Kentucky University, and then she received her MFA degree in creative writing at Spalding University in Louisville.

Wilkinson is a member of the Affrilachian Poets founded by Frank X. Walker.

In 2000, Wilkinson wrote her first book, Blackberries, Blackberries; in 2002, she published Water Street; and in 2016 she published The Birds of Opulence.

Wilkinson is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky in the MFA in Creative Writing program.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Continue Reading