Eric Simpson, development coordinator of WGFC, garden plowing at This Old Farmhouse GA in Franklin, Georgia. | Images of Eric by Trarell Torrence

West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative is a grassroots, agricultural collective so influential Grammy-award winning rapper Killer Mike shouted it out on his new Netflix original series “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike.” The docuseries follows the artist and activist as he challenges social norms, attitudes and approaches to surviving in America. In Season 1, Episode 1, Killer Mike is on a quest to use only black-owned products and services to keep the black dollar in the black community longer.

He visits one of Athens’ few black-owned restaurants, Dawg Gone Good BBQ. He asks Chef B.J. Hardy if the meat he was about to dig into came from a black farming group: “Please tell me, like, this came from the West Georgia Black Farmer’s Collaborative.” Hardy replied: “No, it didn’t.” Because Killer Mike has challenged himself to live strictly off black-owned any and everything for a couple of days, he couldn’t finish his food. He got a to-go box instead.

Killer Mike (far right) in Netflix original series ‘Trigger Warning with Killer Mike.’

“That’s how impactful we’ve been not only in our headquarters of Hamilton but throughout Georgia,” said farmer Eric Simpson and development coordinator for the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative (WGFC). “Our 53-year-old agricultural co-op has traditionally consisted of local black farmers. Now it includes consumers and other community members.  Cooperatively, we work together to build opportunities through local food systems and wealth through cooperative economics.”

In recently times, the co-op has expanded. Its membership more diverse. “With nearly 70 members now, WGFC has grown to include chefs, artists, educators and activists,” said Simpson, 48, who is also a native of LaGrange. “Because there aren’t as many black farming families in the area as in the past, WGFC focuses more on local and sustainable agriculture opportunities that support small farms, farm communities and local businesses, especially in the food industry.”

WGFC’s ROLE IN THE BLACK BELT REGION

The nature of farming is different from traditional row cropping and those once super popular genetically modified crop days. “We’re operating more organic — non-genetically modified — in our farming efforts now,” said Simpson. “We have a stronger presence in direct sales through large farmers markets and in helping our members market their products and services easier and faster using social media.”

Simpson dedicates much of his time coordinating business partnerships and community events for WGFC. The goal: create new business opportunities and collaborations for the organization. A few areas of agriculture interest WGFC educates members and the general public about:

1. Environmental, rural and urban gardening

2. Starting your own farm — from crops and animals to personal and commercial

3. How to can and preserve foods

4. Growing and preparing herbs

5. Techniques to cooking crops coming straight from the land

6. Producing services that financially benefit you and your community

“We hold monthly meetings to disseminate this information to our membership and the public,” he said. “We even host our annual Small Farm and Community Conference every February to connect members and the general public to trending topics in agriculture.”

Simpson taking notes during 2019’s Small Farm and Community Conference.

The co-op often collaborates with state and federal experts in the industry to keep members informed about policy changes, job opportunities and strategies to continue to build community through sustainable farming and cooperative economics.

WGFC’s ROLE TO ADVANCE NEXT-GEN FARMERS

The co-op also understands the importance of educating its members and local farm community about what’s known as cooperative economics — a survival technique of working together and sharing resources. “This subject and practice remains unfamiliar to the majority of our communities,” said Simpson. “WGFC is all about exposing our members to these types of concepts through conferences. We also look for scholarship opportunities to help fund and advance their agricultural knowledge.”

Simpson added: “In order to keep our legacies of preserving the land going, we need our young folk to step up and become equipped with the necessary skills to keep cooperatives going. We also have to make sure we open up educational opportunities for them.” WGFC’s current membership ranges from age 21 to 86. An ongoing initiative for the co-op is introducing youth and younger adults to agriculture, showing them how farming can become fun while creating financial stability.

“A farmer willing to put in the work has no limits in what he or she can earn,” said Simpson. “It all depends on the scale of one’s operation. The sky is the limit, especially when you’re part of a co-op, too. We’re for service, and along the way, we’re helping young farmers and community members build their business by cultivating the land.”

WGFC’s ROLE IN INCREASING LAND OWNERSHIP

Like many black families of the Black Belt Region, Simpson and his family not only worked the land but grew up on it. “I lived on my great-grandfather’s 96-acre mixed farm, which had fruits, hogs and chicken,” said Simpson. “When I got older, I went off to school and started working. I’m back home now.” Today, Simpson is continuing his family’s legacy by operating a 19-acre organic farm of chickens, goats, berries, figs, apples, pears and even a catfish lake. After years of public employment, Simpson longed to return to his Black Belt roots as a land owner like his great-grandfather.

Blacks owned less than 1 percent of all privately owned rural land in the United States at the dawn of the 21st century, according to a 1999 Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey. This number hasn’t changed much. “That’s why it’s important for young people to reconnect to the land and take it serious,” Simpson said. “The fact is: Blacks are still struggling, and we’re still losing land in our communities. Through WGFC, our younger generations have the benefit of entering the business side of agriculture early.”

Simpson was disappointed he didn’t know about WGFC until 2012. WGFC has had a strong history in his local community since 1966 and is one of the state’s oldest black farming cooperatives. WGFC was one of the founding cooperatives that established the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund — an organization that has dedicated decades to developing cooperatives and credit unions that create economic self-sufficiency among farming families, especially African-American ones.

The late Ralph Paige served as executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and was neighbor to Simpson. Paige was the one who motivated Simpson to join WGFC. “Ralph Paige is known for his extensive work with saving black land,” said Simpson. “Land is an asset. It has and will always hold value. Co-ops such as ours and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives ensure our communities have a fighting chance to become economically independent.”

BECOME A MEMBER: Annual membership: $20 | Meeting Location: 7516 U.S. Hwy 27, South Hamilton, Georgia, 31811 | For more information: Call 706-881-1249