Article By: Sherry Lucas, The Clarion-Ledger
Fourth generation Petal farmer Ben Burkett will be honored for his positive impact in support of the American family farm.
Ben Burkett, a fourth-generation Petal farmer with leadership and member roles in state, national and international organizations supporting small and medium-sized farmers, will be honored with a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in October.
Burkett, whose 40 farming years started at age 21, is the state coordinator with the Mississippi association in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and president of the National Family Farm Coalition; he serves on the food sovereignty commission of La Via Campesina (the International Peasant’s Movement).
“I didn’t even know they had a leadership award,” said Burkett, long familiar with the annual James Beard chef and restaurant awards commonly known as the “Oscars of the food world.” “It means a lot to me, just to say I’m a James Beard awardee.
“I might can get into some good restaurants,” he said with a hearty chuckle, “going in to eat and to sell.”
Burkett is honored for the positive impact of his support of the American family farm and advocacy for the rights to wholesome food and clean water, air and land.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, which grew out of the civil rights movement to help black farmers keep their land, has 75 cooperatives from Texas to North Carolina. Burkett’s cooperative, Indian Springs Farmers Association in Petal, has 33 members — all small- to medium-sized family farmers with acreage ranging from 5 to 1,000 acres and everything in-between.
“We grow together, and we do the market together and we have our packing and grading facility,” he said of the group that started in the 1970s with both black and white farmers among its eight original members. “Our membership always has been, from day one, both.”
Burkett travels nationally and internationally in his work with the National Family Farm Coalition, but “I don’t go nowhere this time of year,” the make-or-break time for farmers.
His own farm is 300 acres, with collard green and okra top among the 16 different vegetables he grows. His daughter Darnella Burkett Winston takes the tradition to a fifth generation.
The “eat local” movement has opened up avenues for small operations, boosting the profile of local farmers and the proliferation of farmers markets. “They’re all over the state now,” said Burkett, with the cooperative selling mainly at the New Orleans market for its proximity. “We started one in Hattiesburg (on Thursdays), and it has really jumped off this year.
“There’s still a need there to be able to sell to Wal-Mart, Kroger, Winn-Dixie, U.S. Food Service.”
They also sell to a number of high-end restaurants in New Orleans — nothing new to the cooperative that’s been doing it since the early 1990s. Already in that city’s Whole Foods, they’re working toward selling to the new Jackson store, too.
The James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards, co-hosted by Good Housekeeping and now in the fourth year, recognize food movement leaders.
Fellow 2014 recipients are New York Times author/journalist Mark Bittman; Movement Strategy Center Fellow Navina Khanna; writer/journalist and University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Pollan; Bronx urban farmer and community activist Karen Washington.
Recipients will be honored Oct. 27 at a dinner that’s part of the James Beard Foundation’s fifth annual Food Conference, “Health & Food: Is Better Food the Prescription for a Healthier America?,” in New York City. Honorees are chosen by past Leadership Awards recipients, a group that includes first lady Michelle Obama and chef/author/culinary pioneer Alice Waters.
“I just count it as a blessing,” Burkett said.
Contact Sherry Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 961-7283. @SherryLucas1 on Twitter.