Profile: Ben Burkett
By Jake Miller
While I was reporting this spring’s feature on the growing movement for a healthy, sustainable food system, I spoke to Ben Burkett. Ben is a family farmer from Petal, Mississippi. Over the years I’ve spent writing about food I’ve met Ben a few times and have heard enough of his story to know there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye or the ear.
In addition to raising snap beans, yellow squash, okra, turnip greens, jalapeno peppers, and other vegetables that he sells through the local co-op and several farmers’ markets in New Orleans (all of which he helped found), he is president of the National Family Farm Coalition, is an active member of the Via Campesina (an international organization of family farmers, peasants and other small to medium sized producers), has served on the board of the Community Food Security Coalition, and has participated in meetings of groups like the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. When I asked him recently how a small-town family farmer from southern Mississippi found himself center-stage for huge debates about the future of domestic and international farming policy, he said something about being in the right place at the right time.
But what struck me was that his real secret was simply trying hard, doing the right thing, all the time. When he set out to find a way to keep his farm profitable after the crash in cotton prices and the credit crunch that decimated family farmers in the 80s, he didn’t use clever marketing tricks or try to find some advantage he could use to beat his neighbors; he helped found a co-op so that they could all earn fair prices for their produce and then helped start the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans. Farmers bring fresh, healthy, delicious vegetables directly to consumers, consumers pay premium prices for premium food, and there’s no middle man to take a cut of the profits.
Ben has volunteered as a visiting master farmer in communities in Africa, Europe, and Latin America. He’s supposed to be a teacher on these trips, but he’s also a student. “I usually learn more than I teach,” he says. During these farm exchanges, he’s picked up techniques for managing his co-op’s accounting and using organic pest management techniques to protect crops without using harsh chemicals.
That’s one of the most powerful lessons from the burgeoning contemporary food movement: if you treat your customers (as well as your crops, your livestock, your partners, and your neighbors) with respect and make an effort to give them what they need, they will flourish, the whole community will grow stronger and you will benefit from that growth.
Jake Miller is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. He has cultivated tomatoes in his window, basil on his porch, and worm compost under his desk.