Despair & hope in the Delta.

Traveling from Appalachia to the Arkansas Delta was a shock to me. I thought I was prepared to see poverty – heck, I’ve been seeing poverty this whole year of travel with Heifer – but there was something about the sheer desolation of the town of Hughes, Arkansas that just about broke my heart.

The Delta stretches across the far eastern part of Arkansas, in the vastly fertile bottom lands of the Mississippi River where giant agribusiness farms of 10,000 acres prevail. Yet in an ocean of agricultural fecundity, Hughes is a food desert – its only grocery store burned to the ground.

Delta folk are predominantly African-American; brought to the region as slaves, they worked as sharecroppers for decades after the Civil War, then as agricultural day laborers until farm mechanization reduced the need for human labor. Now unemployment in the Delta stands at about 40%, prostitution and drug use are rampant, food insecurity of children is about 25%, and even the Blue Devils Hughes football team is a fading memory on a rusting water tower.

Main Street, Hughes

But as Perry Jones, Director of Heifer USA reminded me, “This is the before photo. We’re just getting started here, and things are going to change.”

Sweet girls of Hughes saying, “Take my picture! Take my picture!”

Heifer’s Seeds of Change program will focus five years working in 9 counties in the Arkansas Delta to create community food enterprises (and jobs) growing healthy, local, organic food and linking small-scale farmers to larger and diverse markets in nearby Little Rock and Memphis, where local food is sought-after and valued.

That sounds good on paper, but it’s the people making it work who turned my feelings of despair into something approaching optimism. Perry himself is a fire hose of positivity. Having spent 14 years working for Heifer in Bolivia, Jones still believes he has the “best job in the world” and that “if you give people the chance for a dignified, self-reliant life, they’ll lunge into that opportunity.”

Gardener William Eldridge

And indeed, we saw some of that lunging. William Eldridge, a local gardener, introduced himself to us on the street while I was taking photos and was eager to drag us over to see his garden.

Edward Rucker, Heifer Production Manager in Hughes.

Edward Rucker, Heifer’s Production Manager, grew up in the area and is recruiting local growers like William, assisting them with farm trainings and marketing, and searching for a place to establish a Farmer’s Market to sell local produce. The East Arkansas Enterprise Community, established in 1995, is partnering with Heifer to offer technical and financial assistance to these local growers and to help dispel negative notions that keep people from farming. Notions like working the land is tantamount to slavery, or that giving up government assistance to work is too big a risk (any income can cause essential benefits to be taken away). These are real issues and can only be resolved with proof that success is possible.

Local sweet potatoes, a high value crop in the Delta.

And that’s what Perry and his team are out to do: create a model of economic, social and environmental health in a place where it has never existed. Like in the new Hughes Community Garden, overseen by Reverend W.E. DuBois — 90 years old and “retired” from teaching agriculture in the nearby community college.

Reverend W. E. DuBois and his garden

It’s been said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, and I’m praying that’s true. It’s high time for a Delta dawn.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

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36 thoughts on “Despair & hope in the Delta.

  1. So many of us are intent on helping abroad, we forget how much poverty there is right here in the USA. Thanks for the wonderful post Betty!

  2. Laurie and Jack

    I gave to Heifer for Valentine’s Day but will give again for the holidays. This is because your America reporting has resonated deeply. Now, please have Tanya Tucker stop singing Delta Dawn in my head.

    • I know … isn’t it just … addictive?? I apologize – and I’m so happy that you felt as I did about the Delta folks .. how beautiful are those young girls, and can you imagine growing up in a place where almost everybody else has left??

  3. Aww, how nice! As simple as a garden. love it. Somebody blessed me as I get to hear your stories and many are about pride!

  4. I am so proud of Heifer for doing this work at home (and of you for telling all these beautiful stories). I loved this pos etven though I finished with a feeling of utter shame.

    • Thanks so much, honey – that means a lot to me. But as somebody once said to me, shame is a useless emotion — so maybe what we’re supposed to be is MOTIVATED. (and you taught me that, anyhow… Mr. Action !!!) xooxox b

  5. I’m holding a lot of hope for the Delta. I love the picture of those girls!

    • That’s what I am holding onto, too, JM — they were so cute and sweet and full of girlish hope … which is almost impossible to believe, given that their town is an almost total wasteland. BUT … when you see somebody who is 90 feeling so spry and hopeful, and then these girls … and then Edward … and Perry .. and then, you know … I just can’t help feeling hopeful! Thanks so much for your positive feelings … as usual!! xooxox b

  6. YOU ARE SO AWESOME.

  7. Reblogged this on misslisted and commented:
    And now I will take a break from my recent fluffy ranting to show you a blog post that is described well enough by it’s own title. The part that gets me is that people can live surrounded by acres and acres of food grown by giant corporations, and still be hungry. Super empowering to grow your own food.

    • Hey, we all need fluff and food, right?? (at least I do …) There is something so terribly poignant about driving through miles and miles of farms and then entering a town that is literally a food desert .. with NO availability of a grocery store or farm stand or anything but a liquor store. I mean .. in America?? Thanks for your heart, misslisted!!

  8. Anyone and everyone can grow a garden, even if it’s in small pots in a window. I never thought I could grow melons, but my garden is rampant with them this year, simply by sowing seeds and giving water :)

    The beginning is the hardest part. I hope the Delta can climb onboard and run with it!

    • I totally agree – so why am i growing nothing but marigolds?? (ahhh .. because I’m not there to water??)
      You are really getting to the heart of the matter but first, you have to believe it’s worth it, right? And that’s what is happening — the seeds of confidence, first. Love your insight!!

  9. Reblogged this on elroyjones.

  10. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Thanks, Betty. I have been very grateful for all the knowledge you have shared. God Bless the rest of your year!

  11. Jo Prostko

    Making a donation today in honor of those good folks in your photos, Betty. Thanks for putting faces on our fellow Americans who are suffering but who are keepin’ on keepin’ on.

  12. We don’t like to be reminded that there’s poverty like this in America. Its so inspiring to know what Heifer International are doing to help feed the hungry in our own country. It’s so simple: give the people permission to dig the earth and plant vegetables in their OWN gardens.

    • It’s a terrible feeling to see the fertile (or used to be before all the chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers) land surrounding these small towns, and yet almost a total lack of food or anything fresh IN the towns. Yeah — getting back to growing is SUCH a huge issue, and getting the land to do it!

  13. larooby

    Brava, Betty! Thank you deeply for keeping us in touch with the state of our ‘family of man’, setting out the view from out there, flying the flag of hope,not despair. Thanks to Heifer for everything they do and for giving you the conch to call us out here.

    • Dear Larooby — I love that you use the phrase “family of man” because that’s EXACTLY what I feel I am experiencing all over the world! Thanks so much for reading!

  14. There’s something awful about the agri-business mega farms. Especially juxtaposed to this extreme poverty.

    • I agree — on the one hand, it’s allowed America to produce SO much food, on the other — there’s this. We have to try to mitigate some of the harm; it’s not one way or the other!

  15. Martha Radatz

    Oh my, Betty. So important for us to see this is not just in Romania & Rwanda, but right down the street!

    • Seeing Hughes was a huge shock for me. Even more than Appalachia, which I came directly from, Hughes just seemed utterly desolate and forgotten — and those people living there, well, I just didn’t know how they were surviving.

  16. Beautiful photos of a sad situation. The people have beautiful smiles.

  17. Lisa, I really wished I could have spent a LOT more time in Hughes and really had the chance to get to know the people, how they feel about their time, what makes them stay (“everybody who could took a bus ride outta here” one person said) and how they exist. I did find them so beautiful, too!!

    • Mike

      I recently came across the news report from THV regarding your recent visit to Hughes, AR. What makes this so interesting is that I am a 1991 graduate of Hughes High School, a time when the town was not as poverished as it is today. To go further, my company provided the engineering services for the Heifer International Headquarters when the facility was constructed back in 2006, and assisted in the facility becoming one of three LEED certified platinum buildings in Arkansas. A great honor. Today, we are continuing our efforts with Heifer International by providing our energy services in helping to make the facility even more energy efficient, in which we remote-monitor the buildings HVAC systems on a daily basis and provide remote adjustments as necessary for optimal performance. We work directly with Erik Swindle, the Facilities Manger there and have all developed a great relationship. In fact, we were just at the facility yesterday for lunch, showing potential partners the uniqueness of the facility, not just the systems and cosmetics, but what Heifer does on a worldwide level.

      This week has been an interesting week for me regarding my ties back to Hughes. I am also member of the local chapter of USGBC (United States Green Building Council), that of which promotes sustainable buildings and LEED certifications) serving on the steering committee. This week at the State House Convention Center was the AAEA (Arkansas Association of Education Administrators) conference. There, I manned a booth for USGBC for a couple of hours to promote our organization and the Green Schools Challenge. The Green Schools Challenge is an open competition to every Arkansas school in which the school develops a project to help make its school more sustainable. Such examples included simple tasks as providing recycling stations to providing new landscape to help eliminate heat island affect, all the way to elementary students making sure lights were turned off and thermostats for heating and cooling systems were turned up/down during unoccupied hours for classrooms and providing report cards to those teachers on how they did. This year will mark our second year, as we had 41 schools participate last year, and we all saw the light bulb turn on in the children’s heads. One unique aspect of the competition, is that the school is paired with a mentor, a professional in the sustainable industry. I was a mentor last year with a background in mechanical engineering, energy, and sustainability in which I have designed HVAC systems for commercial buildings, been involved in over two dozen LEED projects, and perform energy analysis of buildings to predict their energy efficiency within the buildings design.

      While at the booth, of the dozens of people I talked to and the hundreds I saw, I spoke and met the new principal of Hughes High School, . . .of all places. I convinced Mr. Saulsberry to participate, as I was enthused to help the school and be their mentor. Then today, I ran across the news footage of your visit to Hughes, and the relationship Hiefer has with the Hughes community. I was floored, as started to see this “circle” of caring and helping. See, when I graduated Hughes High School, I new I had to leave to make something of myself. My family did not own farmland there, and were fortunate to acquire jobs in Hughes that the community can not just eliminate. My mom and dad were 15 and 16 when I was born, and lived in Hughes most of their lives by that age. They started working early in Hughes and still maintain those jobs today at their ages of 54 and 55. (Yes, I am 39 years old. ) Unfortunately, my parents divorced after 30 years of marriage but maintain a relationship because of my 17 year old sister (whom does not go to HHS, but goes to West Memphis due to the deterioration of the school system). My dad still lives in Hughes, and works for Hughes Community Water Association and has been for the past 30 something years. My mom lives in Marianna, AR but still maintains her job a Fidelity National Bank in Hughes, for the past 30 something years. Needless to say, I didnt’t want to drive a tractor for the rest of life so went to college at University of Central Arkansas to major in Art Education. I later transferred to University of Arkansas at Little Rock, but focused my education to mechanical engineering. I now have been in the business for about 12 years and have designed HVAC systems and performed energy services for buildings all over the US and the world. I have been pretty sucessful in a sense, compared to probably some other HHS classmates that never left Hughes. You can also say, I never looked at going back to Hughes after about 10 years when I left to go to college. You see, I visited and still visit Hughes to see my parents, Every time I return, i see the once lively downtown, slowly falling down. The images in the news video, depict nothing of how the town was 21 years ago. Recently when I visited my father, I noticed that the baseball field that created so many memories for so many people, was plowed, and soy beans were growing where I hit my first home run. The baseball field is as if it never existed. It was tuff to see.

      So now, you might can see thru all the verbage, that I feel that perhaps this is an opportunity to help a community that I probably somewhat abandoned. It gave so much to me growing up, why shouldn’t I give back? Was there a higher purpose for me leaving Hughes to do what I do today? Perhaps. I would have never thought that in some indirect way, that I was already helping the community by helping Heifer. If you think about it, it all comes back full circle. I may be blowing things out of proportion, but every day, I do what I can to make Heifer International one of the most energy efficient buildings in Arkansas. We are saving energy, ….saving the planet. Little did I know, that Heifer is saving a dying community that was once dear to me.

      Well, I could go on and on about this. I do plan to do what I can for HHS during the years to come, which in turn, I think will help the community. To help it become more sustainable, to educate the children on what they can do to be more sustainable, and to relay the message that a small town boy go out in the world and make something of themselves and pay it forward by helping their once forgotten community revive itself.

      I want to thank you, Perry, and Heifer for what you are doing for Hughes, and the world. If there is anything that I can possibly help with or volunteer, please let me know. I would love to relay this down to my three daughters and let them see their own potential in making a difference in someone’s life or community.

  18. WOW — Mike, I am so so SO happy to hear from you, to know that you have made such an impressive transition from Delta to your current job as HVAC tech (and working on the Heifer LEED Platinum building — amazing!!) I am going to send your letter to Perry and the folks at Heifer because I think you would be an incredible peer counselor/mentor to the young kids in Hughes who could really use a role model and supporter … to show them that they can achieve more than what they see around them everyday. I have to tell you that it broke my heart to be in Hughes and imagine it once prosperous and thriving and ALIVE … and I know it must be ten times more difficult for you to go back and see it gasping its last breath. I am really PROUD of you for making such a big impact on the environmental front with your LEED work … and I am going to personally email you to see if I can connect you with Perry and the Heifer USA team! Thanks a million for writing!

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