Any movie casting director looking for a perfect representation of a small family farmer would be thrilled if a Ben Burkett showed up. Usually dressed in a bib overall with a work shirt under it and a baseball cap on his head, Ben, 63, is one of the original vendors at the now-20-year-old Crescent City Farmers Market, on the corner of Magazine and Girod Streets in New Orleans’ Warehouse District.
As a young man, Ben planned to leave Mississippi and follow his friends up to the big cities of Chicago or Detroit. But his family persuaded him to bring in just one more badly-needed crop first. Before he even realized it, it was that experience that ensured he would become a lifelong small farmer; the fourth generation to work the land of his family farm in tiny Petal, Mississippi, population almost 8,000.
For Ben, farming is a continuum, a legacy to be handed down. “It’s a continuous thing that needs to go from generation to generation to generation,” he says. “For small farming, it’s the only thing that will work, because once you stop it’s too hard to start it up again.”
While Ben is a living example of that philosophy, he has watched as the number of small farms, especially those of African American farmers, has diminished across the South.
Still, working through the early ‘70s, Ben says he made good money, enough to pay cash for a new pickup truck. It wasn’t until the late ‘70s, as cotton crops brought in less and less money, that he watched farmers all around him go bankrupt. Many left. For Ben, it was a time to think up new ways to hold on to his land and that of others — cultural legacies, he says, that were all worth saving.
So Ben began organizing his neighbors into a collective group. Pooling their money, they created the Indian Springs Farmers Co-op. Soon after they bought two trucks and began hauling water melons, greens and other crops up to Chicago. It was a long way to go to sell their wares but whole groups of transplanted Southerners were thrilled to buy from them. They still travel up there and back to this day.
Then, in 1995, the Crescent City Farmers Market opened in New Orleans. Working with Richard McCarthy, CCFM’s founding Executive Director, now Director of Slow Food USA, Ben had to labor to persuade other reluctant farmers to bring their crops into New Orleans each Saturday morning. Perceived as a dangerous city with too much traffic, rural vendors had little expectation of success in the Crescent City. Even Ben was surprised at what happened.
“That first day, my brother and I, we had brought up bunches of greens to sell,” he recalls. “The market started out at 8 in the morning, and by 10 we had completely sold out. I was amazed.”
Pretty soon, the word was out that coming to New Orleans was a good thing. And the rest, as they say, is history. For Ben, one amazing thing happened after another. Invited to speak about farm cooperatives in countries across the world, he has been to so many foreign countries he has stopped counting.
“I’ve been to 26 countries,” he says. “I guess the one I really enjoyed the most was Zimbabwe. We went to several villages. Either you go by donkey cart of you walk. I walked; donkey carts are too slow for me.”
And then there was the time one of Ben’s regular customers at the Crescent City Farmers Market nominated him to serve on the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Advisory Board. “I served a three-year term,” Ben says. “I got to be in the room with Alan Greenspan.”
An innovator and a leader, Ben has been an important part of the farmer market.
“You know the saying ‘buy fresh, buy local’ has been going on in New Orleans for hundreds of years,” he says. “For traditional small farmers such as myself, well it’s possible because now there are so many small farmers markets round. But the Crescent City Farmers Market was the first.
On Saturday, October 10th, Ben will join other longtime vendors, CCFM faithful market supporters and those just wanting to celebrate a delicious and friendly 20th anniversary at the Midnight Market, address. While the Patron Party is already sold out, there is still room for the 7-10 event featuring 20 restaurants and music by King James and the Special Men (tickets, $46.89, available here).
For information about Midnight Market, visit the Cresecent City Farmer’s Market official website.