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

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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.

Black Appalachia

Joe Turner: The Decorated West Virginia Military Pilot You’ve Never Heard Of

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Joe Turner at a ceremony in his honor in 2016. Photo: Provided

The jet dropped like a silvery stone out of the sky overtop West Virginia’s capital city. It evened out just over the Kanawha River and roared down its length, water flashing in the jet’s wake. 

Crazily, the pilot charged toward a bridge over the river. Was he going to pull up?

Joseph Ellis Turner, age 11, watched in awe as the jet dashed under the bridge, not over it.

Immediately, the jet leapt skyward like a firework. It rolled once in the sky.

And was gone. 

The year was 1950. Turner, now age 79, recalled his reaction as he stood stunned by what he’d just seen the daredevil West Virginia aviator Chuck Yeager do.

“I want to be like that guy,” he said.

‘Just a Guy Trying to Survive’

Turner would indeed follow Yeager up into the sky.

The Charleston native’s career as a front-line pilot in Vietnam, as the first African-American Brigadier General in the South and as a long-haul Delta Airlines pilot would be an esteemed one. So esteemed that on August 5, Turner was inducted into the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame. 

He joins the likes of famed Tuskegee Airman George “Spanky” Roberts, West Virginia’s first African-American military pilot, and Katherine Johnson, famous for her math genius that helped NASA put humans into space and on the moon.

Don’t call Turner a hero, though. He’ll turn down the offer. “I’m just a guy out here trying to survive.”

Survive, he did. And thrive, even in the face of segregation, growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Charleston and later facing the segregation of the U.S. Army’s flight training program. 

He’ll eventually get around to telling you, in his happy-go-lucky and self-effacing way, how even segregated cafeterias helped his Hall of Fame career.

“Everything I’ve done I’ve enjoyed,” Turner said.“I don’t know how I fell into all this. I think I’ve been blessed by God because I’m not the smartest individual in the world, believe me. But it’s always worked out for me.” 

A Role Model Closer to Home

The bad-ass white guy in the jet was surely a lifelong inspiration. “He inspired the devil out of me,” Turner said.

Yet Turner has never met the legendary Yeager–though he’d like to. 

But there was a legendary black guy who was an equal, if not greater, inspiration to Turner. That is perhaps because he knew Charles Rogers personally. He grew up with Rogers after Turner’s parents split up and he moved to Fayette County to live on his grandparents’ farm for some years.

Turner tended to the pigs and horses as his grandfather trooped off daily to slip underground into a local coal mine. And he soon took notice of the older kid, 10 years his senior, who lived nearby.

“I lived right around the hill from him. I won’t say around the block,” he said, chuckling, given their upbringing amid the hills and hollers of southern West Virginia. 

Rogers was an All-American before the term was ever bandied about. He was a star in multiple sports and a straight-A student with a lifelong laser focus on God and church life who went on to graduate in 1951 from West Virginia State College (now University) in Institute. Rogers was part of a book-worthy crop of African-American officers that trained in the small college’s ROTC program, who would serve with distinction in the Vietnam War and beyond.

Turner, who followed Rogers a decade later into the battle zones of Southeast Asia, knows Rogers’ story by heart. In 1968, Rogers’ battalion was overrun by North Vietnamese on a march south along Ho Chi Minh Trail heading to Saigon. With bombs exploding and bullets flying, his 300 troops faced off with about 3,000 North Vienamese. He was shot in the face, leg and arm, but Rogers pushed through two days of hand-to-hand combat. And survived. 

Rogers was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “dauntless courage and heroism” that day. He finished his career as a two-star general. He died in 1990.

A bronze bust of Rogers is now displayed at West Virginia State University honoring the notable black soldiers and commanders produced by the school. On the “Wall of Stars” behind the Rogers bust are bronze plaques, one honoring another two-star African-American general from the Mountain State: Joe Turner.

Turner, visiting from his home near Los Angeles, was inducted into the school’s ROTC Hall of Fame in 2016 along with several other generals and ROTC graduate soldiers who went on to distinguished careers.The wall plaques laud 15 of the school’s ROTC members who achieved the rank of one-star brigadier general, two-star major general and three-star lieutenant general.

Just like his boyhood hero, Charles Rogers, Turner would achieve the same high rank by the end of his own impressive career.

‘First Class in My Own Mind’

Humid air enveloped a rural Alabama airport. The summer day was quiet. From a distance, came a buzz like a swarm of locusts.

It was indeed a swarm, not of insects but of de Havilland Caribou jets, made in Canada.

In 1962, the Caribou were a new thing the U.S. Army was testing. The STOL—Short Takeoff and Landing—planes could be put down and lifted off from a strip no longer than a few football fields.

Joe Turner, left, served as one of the U.S. Army’s first Caribou pilots. Photo: Provided

As the squadron of Caribou touched down, most of the flight crews that got out to refuel and eat were white guys. But Joe Turner was there and one other black pilot who had survived the training so far. This was the Deep South in the early 1960s. The airport cafeteria was off-limits to a black man.

Turner shrugged it off. He’d brought a sack lunch. He refueled. He took off with his mates.

“It didn’t bother me. That’s the way it was and we accepted it,” he recalled. “You couldn’t do anything about it.”

Not spending time in segregated cafeterias meant he left sooner. He got more flight time in. So, Turner finished the Caribou training before many of his classmates–certainly one of the few historical benefits from segregation’s long, painful history.

“It was great because when it came time to graduate we were finished about two months ahead of everybody else. Because we were flying all the time!”

It wasn’t as if Turner wasn’t already intimately familiar with segregation. Growing up in Charleston, he wasn’t welcome to eat downtown at local landmarks.

It didn’t bug him. He says he was never really upset by it. But his mother was.

Turner learned early on useful life lessons from her. She drove a mail truck at the state Capitol, an unusual job at the time for a black woman.

He ended up working around the Capitol, too. Then, he followed his mother into the privileged homes of the well-to-do in the South Hills neighborhood where she cleaned houses. She taught him how to do a job right the first time, he said, and how to get along with people no matter their skin color.

“It never bothered me being a second-class citizen. I mean, I was first class in my own mind, as far as I’m concerned. That’s the big thing.”

Line of Sight 

Flying Caribous in the early ‘60s was fun, Turner remembers. They’d keep the trainees flying huge distances, topping up the plane’s gas and oil tanks mid-flight from tanks in the cargo hold. 

“We didn’t know why we were doing it,” he said. “We’d just take off and go up and down the coasts. Turn around in Massachusetts, come back down the coast. Fly to Florida. Go down to Puerto Rico and land.”

It turned out there was a method to such flights, which could last up to 15 hours.

“They were getting us ready to go to Vietnam,” Turner said.“They wanted these aircraft to be over in Vietnam.”.

He began his military career as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In 1965, he got a call while on leave in Institute, just outside of Charleston, to pack up. He was bound for war.

Turner had a wife and two kids by then. His family didn’t want him to go. “But I had an obligation. I’m an officer in the Army. I’m ready to do my job.”

Turner served a tour of duty in Vietnam. Photo: Provided

All the other black pilots had washed out or quit Caribou training so Turner was the only black pilot among those who flew a squadron of the planes, hopscotching across America, then to Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and on into Vietnam.

The 16 Caribou planes and crews were sent to the country’s central highlands and the front lines. They provided support to the First Air Cavalry Division. (The division’s story was told in the movie “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson.)

Turner’s first mission was to fly a Caribou to snatch back the remains of a helicopter pilot shot down weeks before. The body bag was put in the back of his plane. “The smell was terrible,” he said.

He thought he might have more such missions. “Luckily, I didn’t.”

Training flights in America became the real thing in Vietnam’s skies. The only way for a commander to send orders to front-line troops was by line-of-sight— from headquarters to a bunch of radio antennas hanging out the backside of a Caribou.

“The commander of the division could call through to my aircraft. And the aircraft would relay it back to whoever was fighting on the ground,” Turner said.

He piloted racetrack-shaped figure-eights at 10,000 feet. The flights sometimes lasted 10 hours. America had air superiority over the Vietnamese, “so nothing was going to fly and knock us out of the air,” he said.

Ground fire was a hazard, however.

“My aircraft did get hit a few times. Small round ammunition. We didn’t have anyone killed. But you could find the bullet holes in the airplane. The crew chief would find them and patch ‘em.”

Turner once looked down and saw clouds of smoke billowing in the jungles below. “What the hell is that coming from?” he wondered aloud. “They really have a battle down there.”

But the battle was coming from up above his head.

“The B-52s had been called in. And they’re flying over our heads and dropping those bombs,” he recalled. “Did they see us? I don’t know. That’s something that made me nervous.”

Six months later, Turner moved on to serve as a signal officer with the 17th Aviation Combat Group. His second tour of duty was as commander with the Headquarters Company of the 210th Combat Aviation Battalion. It took him off routine duty over the front lines.  

“Generals would come in and visiting Congressmen would come over. We would fly them to wherever the mission was. Which was pretty good duty.”

A Wasted War

Turner retired from active duty in 1970.

“They were going to send me back a third time to Vietnam flying helicopters and I didn’t want to do that.”

Ask him today about what he thinks about the Vietnam War, and his answer, after a slight pause, comes out in a tumble of words.

“I thought it was a waste. We were getting a whole bunch of people killed for no damn reason. Because of politics is what it was.”

It wasn’t just American lives wasted, he said.

“Think of all the Vietnamese we killed. And that Agent Orange stuff we sprayed over there to defoliate the jungle, so they could see who they were shooting at? That stuff got into our system and killed a bunch of people.”

The toll from Agent Orange is personal for Turner. He’ll attend an internment in Washington, D.C., this month for his dear friend, Lt. Colonel Ron McLeod, another distinguished graduate of the Yellow Jacket Battalion at West Virginia State College.

McLeod, who served in the infantry in Vietnam, died earlier this year. He battled for decades with cancers he traced from exposure to Agent Orange.

“I really loved that guy,” said Turner. “We would talk two or three times a day.”

“It was a wasted war. Just no reason for it.” 

A Decorated Career

But even after his retirement, Turner stuck with military life as a reserve officer. He split his reserve service with a long career as a pilot for Delta Airlines, carrying tourists from Los Angeles to Honolulu, among other routes.

Turner became a two-star general in the Army. Photo: Provided

His star continued to rise in the reserves. In 1988, he became the first African-American Army Brigadier General in the South with the 335th Signal Command out of Atlanta. The reserve unit had a forward-deployed active duty unit in Iraq, providing communications for the Third Army.

He was later promoted to Major General of the unit, becoming a two-star general.

After that, he became vice director of the Information Systems for Command, Control, Communications and Computers at the Pentagon. The position was the second highest in the Army Signal Corps in the Defense Department.

He retired as a two-star general in 1998. 

Turner, a student of history, is pleased with the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame honor, which puts him in the same grouping as one of the great Tuskegee Airmen who paved the way for so many distinguished African-American soldiers.

There was a time before the Tuskegee Airmen that people said “black people couldn’t fly airplanes,” Turner said.

His 11 Air Medals, two Bronze Stars, Legion of Merit and other military accolades beg to differ, although Turner doesn’t bring them up in conversation. 

He’s just glad to be included in such impressive company on the “Wall of Valor” of the Aviation Hall of Fame.

“I feel like I’m rubbing elbows with some great people. I’m happy to be joining them.”

Douglas John Imbrogno is a freelance writer, editor, video feature producer and climate newsletter editor and podcaster. See more of his work at thestoryisthething.com and ChangingClimateTimes.substack.com 

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Black Appalachia

Author Cicero Fain Discusses ‘Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story’

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When Cicero Fain began working on his Ph.D., he took a deep look at the black community in Huntington, West Virginia. He wanted to understand where it began and what helped it to thrive. That research ultimately became his new book “Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story.”

One major factor that boosted growth in Huntington was the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad. When Collis P. Huntington decided to build a depot in Huntington, he needed workers. 

Many of the men who came were African Americans leaving the deep South. They worked for the railroad in the trainyard as well as laying track and digging tunnels in the mountains. 

Fain said one thing that surprised him is what he called the “Grapevine Telegraph.” Leading up to the Civil War, it was an informal network that allowed free and enslaved blacks to communicate and discuss their situations. 

The grapevine telegraph was most prevalent in places like White Sulphur Springs. Many of the men and women worked in resorts where they also met travelers and even earned additional money through tips. 

For Fain, one takeaway from the book is that it is important for people to recognize the contributions of the black community to the development of Huntington, the region and the state. 

“They assisted Huntington into becoming the economic and cultural powerhouse that it became,” Fain said. “I think there are real lessons embedded within that story that speaks to the ability of a people to move forward.”

The book is available through the University of Illinois Press. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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

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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.

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