Addressing Systemic Racism in the Food System: A Look Red Tomato’s Partnership with Black-Owned Farms and Orchards

Addressing Systemic Racism in the Food System: A Look Red Tomato's Partnership with Black-Owned Farms and Orchards

Red Tomato is part of a series of podcast episodes with “What Is American Food?,” which explores “where our food comes from and the systems and supply chain that get it to our tables.” The podcast, produced by Ali Berlow and Hannah Semler, has brought in voices from Red Tomato. “What Is American Food?” will collaborate with Red Tomato on four different stories. This post is a feature of the second episode about Red Tomato’s relationship with New Communities. Check out the first post introducing the Red Tomato food hub here. 

In this episode, hosts Semler and Berlow dig into how the entire farming community’s experiences of systemic racism have determined the food system that we currently have today.

It can be hard to perceive the ways that systemic racism affects the food you eat, whether it’s the inequitable efforts behind getting a package of pecans to market, or noticing the farmers who aren’t present at the local farmers’ market, share the hosts. Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of New Communities, Inc., and Michael Rozyne, founder of Red Tomato, built a relationship of trust around fair food supply chains.

Michael Rozyne explains, Red Tomato serves as marketing agent for a very large Black-owned pecan orchard in southwestern Georgia owned by New Communities, which is a nonprofit farm and I would say Black farmers’ rights organization. And we are the marketing agent for the 200-acre pecan orchard. Our relationship with Shirley Sherrod and New Communities is actually 20 years old.

The relationship has developed over time, and since 2019, Red Tomato has shipped pecans from New Communities and acted as marketing agent for this cooperative network of small-scale and mid-sized African-American pecan grower operations in Georgia. Equal Exchange, (Bridgewater, Massachusetts) and Happy Dirt, (Durham, North Carolina) are the main customers, and Red Tomato is also shipping to a network of small artisan bakeries in the upper Midwest thanks to a connection via Red Tomato Board member Ali Berlow and the Artisan Grain Collaborative. Pecans have quickly become a major winter product for Red Tomato, and the pecan project will continue to be important both in terms of income and in terms of Red Tomato’s mission to help develop markets for small and mid-size growers.

Below we share highlights from the episode featuring Sherrod. You can also listen to the full episode, “Red Tomato and Shirley Sherrod: Supporting Black-Owned Farms on the “What Is American Food?” site.

Pecans growing on the trees at New Communities, a Black-owned pecan orchard.

Highlights from Supporting Black-Owned Farms

Shirley Sherrod:  I grew up on a family farm, and sad to say, during those years my goal was not to stay in the South and not to stay on the farm … but during my senior year of high school, when I was looking forward to leaving the South to go to school in the North, my father was murdered by a white farmer who was not prosecuted, even though there were witnesses. I made a commitment on the night of his death to stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. That started during the summer of 1965, and here I am all of these years later continuing to work with communities and work with farmers to help with marketing, to help with planning, to help with whatever issues they are facing on their farms today. That work also led to creating New Communities, Inc., which is the first community land trust in the United States. We actually organized the land trust in 1969.

Ali Berlow: Could you describe your history and New Communities’ relationship to Red Tomato?

Sherrod: My history with Red Tomato goes way back. Back in the ’80s and ’90s when I was with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, organizing farmers into coops and locating markets they could sell in, because they were mostly locked out of markets here in this area. [I began working with Red Tomato around 2000.] In dealing with the folks at Red Tomato, one of the things they wanted were seedless watermelons, that could be delivered from our area to Boston, Massachusetts. I worked with Michael and Betty and others at Red Tomato -— you know, our farmers had not grown seedless melons before, and they certainly had not grown them to get to the market by the first of June. … With this market, we had to train and work out all of the problems of not only growing the melons but actually transporting them to Boston. Red Tomato played a key role for securing the markets in that area and helping to work out all of the problems with trucking and so forth to get those products in the stores there in that area. They also, during the winter months, would host some of our farmers to come up and talk directly with potential buyers. So they played a key role in making that project work.

Berlow: You mentioned that some of your farmers were kept out of markets in your area in Georgia. Could you describe more about that?

Sherrod: In Thomasville, Georgia, there is a state farmers’ market. It is an auction market, where farmers would bring their produce through, and buyers would bid on it and it would be sold. But our farmers, the Black farmers, couldn’t sell on those markets. Either they wouldn’t buy or they would offer a ridiculously low price. We know that white farmers were getting more, because from time to time, a Black farmer would get a white farmer to take his produce through and sell it.

Berlow: I’m familiar with the pecan growers and pecan orchardists on New Communities. At what point did Red Tomato and New Communities shift?

Sherrod: So we continued at the Federation to work with Red Tomato on getting produce marketed, but when President Obama was elected, I was chosen as [Georgia] State Director of Rural Development, the first Black person to hold that position for the USDA. … It was during that time that New Communities had won its claim in the Black farmers lawsuit [the Pigford cases], and had actually received the largest payout in that case. So, we’d lost all of the land at New Communities in ’85 due to discrimination at the USDA. We filed a claim and it took 10 years after the claim was filed to actually get justice. … I came back home [after a Breitbart smear campaign forced me out of my position] and we accelerated the effort to find more land, and we did. On that land was 85 acres of pecan trees; we added 115 acres to that. As those trees started maturing and producing, prior to getting in touch with Michael Rozyne and the people at Red Tomato, we were just taking the production to a local buyer who paid us anywhere from $1.35 per pound for pecans in the shell to maybe $2.35 per pound. … It’s very low.

As the production was growing because of the new trees and as President Trump put tariffs on China, which is where a lot of the pecans were growing, we knew as smaller growers — because you have some with 1,000; 2,000; 3,000 acres — we knew that we would really suffer. It was at that point that I investigated trying to get pecans processed; getting them processed means you get them processed into halves and pieces. So I sat down and wrote Michael and the folks at Red Tomato a long memo saying, “Michale, I’m in trouble, I need help.” … We had a conversation and he jumped right in. He contacted the folks at Equal Exchange to see if they were interested in purchasing pecans from us, and they were; they were not selling pecans at the time. So we then started talking with Equal Exchange about the purchase, and we went from $1.35 to $2.35 per pound for in-shell pecans to pecan halves being sold for $6 per pound.

… That relationship and the things that have happened with Red Tomato who marketed the pecans and Equal Exchange has led to the effort to create a cooperative, especially for Black farmers who have smaller acreage who find it very difficult to get pecans processed. This last year, I’m not certain any of them were able to get pecans processed; last year was a bumper year for pecans and we even had trouble with our processor. … In the effort to find a new processor and organizing the cooperative for smaller growers, there is a need to have our own processing facility, at the minimum to have the cleaning and processing into halves and pieces. Later, we could be looking at other products that can be made from those pieces, because we have more trouble marketing the pieces than the halves, as Equal Exchange is currently taking all of the halves.

Listen to the full episode, including the struggles New Communities faced during the early years as a result of direct and systemic racism, on the “What Is American Food?” podcast site.