Small producer Ben Burkett at the Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative Association Ben Burkett knows his vegetables. He’s a fourth-generation farmer raising vegetables in Indian Springs. But that’s only the beginning. Forty years ago, Burkett and a group of farmers organized a cooperative to help sell vegetables to a wider market. They formed the Indian Springs Cooperative, currently with more than 36 producer members spread over six counties. The group owns a packing facility and reaches markets in Memphis, New York, Boston and Toronto, including schools. “We started with eight men,” Burkett says. “We got a grant under the Nixon Administration for $250, and that was the beginning.” In 1976, the group of eight reorganized as a new cooperative. “I came in 1979. We bought a truck and started hauling our produce to Chicago, cutting the middleman out, and helping our farmers make a profit.” At one time, the Indian Springs Co-op had 56 members; now there are 34. “We still send produce to Chicago, but we also ship as far as Ontario, Boston, New York and Detroit. Our biggest times are the holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Fourth of July.” The cooperative not only markets produce, but also serves as a purchasing cooperative to help farmers buy seed, fertilizer and chemicals at a lower cost. Small producer Ben Burkett at the Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative Association driving his tractor The Indian Springs Cooperative is one of 17 within the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, where Burkett serves as current state coordinator. The state association provides everything from technical assistance, sustainable production, marketing and community food security. “We’ve got veggies year-round,” says Burkett. “Number one is watermelons and second is collards.” But there’s also okra, peppers, spinach, broccoli, cucumbers, squash, eggplant and peas. “The soil is good, and it’s a culture thing,” says Burkett. “We all love vegetables. Over the years, it’s been constant – vegetables are our life.” Burkett raises soybeans, eight different vegetables and nuts from 100 acres of trees. “I had 19 pecan trees before Katrina, but lost them all – I’ve planted 11 back. My trees were 70 to 80 years old.” Small producer Ben Burkett at the Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative Association According to Mississippi State University, produce crops, excluding sweet potatoes, bring about $48 million to farmers. The value of sweet potatoes in the state is responsible for an additional $79 million. “Everyone wants local, and there just aren’t enough farmers raising vegetables. It’s all small-scale, specialized growers.” In addition to vegetables, farmers in the co-op raise fruits and nuts such as strawberries, apples, peaches and pecans. “There were times farmers couldn’t get their produce to a market – they were isolated,” says Burkett. “But now the market is coming back with the cooperatives, which can sell to Wal-Mart and Kroger. We’re trying our best to get into all the schools as well.” In regards to suppling fruits and vegetables to schools, Burkett says they are constantly working on it. “So far, we’re in the Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi and five charter schools in New Orleans.” His favorite vegetable to raise – and eat – is collard greens. “I put them in a pot with pork or turkey meat, water and olive oil, or I’ll put them in the fryer with bacon grease for breakfast,” Burkett says. “I’ve been eating them all my life.”

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