Most 5-year-olds would have nothing to do with manual labor. A day on their bikes, playing with friends or climbing trees would be more reasonable. But strolling through peanut fields to assist his father, a former sharecropper, gave Joe King an invigorating feeling that hasn’t died.
Having no idea his small frame wasn’t meant to withstand long hours in the sun, King pleaded with his parents to go out into the field.
“I cried to help my momma and my daddy to hoe peanuts,” said King. “They thought it was just a joke. They gave me a little hoe. At the end of the day I was still out there and they were so impressed. That was the beginning of Farmer Joe.”
His parents thought he would not last a day – but Joe King has lasted six decades. In addition, he’s become one of the most celebrated personalities in Savannah.
You can find Farmer Joe Saturday mornings at the Forsyth Farmer’s Market. His big personality, smile and the way he takes care of his customers has earned him the trust and love of Savannah residents. No one can miss his big voice as he is constantly singing his own tunes.
While his biggest seller is pecans, he also provides produce such as kale, mustard greens and collards. But his favorites to cultivate are cucumbers, squash and peas, to name a few. King has been a regular representing Clark and Sons Farming at the Forsyth Farmer’s Market and has been there almost the entirety of the market’s existence. His popularity goes far beyond the market, too, having appeared on billboards and magazines.
A native of Toombs County, Ga., King spent most of his life on the same dirt road in Portal, Ga. and came from a family of sharecroppers, including his father, the Rev. James King, and uncles.
King admired his fathers’ contributions to the farm and refused to leave it. He purchased a double-wide trailer in 1988 that sits just a short distance away from the farm. And his wife Rosaland Lee King was no slouch when it came to farm life either.
“My wife grew up on a farm and they learned how to drive big trucks and tractors,” said King. “Her daddy was a sharecropper too.”
Having farmed for six decades, King has certainly seen the times change and is concerned about the plight of black farming, especially financially. But farmers can exhale knowing help is on the way. The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act was included in the federal spending package Joe Biden approved in March. The $4 billion dollars worth of assistance will help Black farmers pay off loans, purchase supplies and with other farming needs. An additional $1 billion will go toward college scholarships, the USDA to provide grants for farmers, and more.
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But King also thinks schools should implement programs to teach young people just how enjoyable, sustainable and rewarding farming can be. As part of the suggested bill, funds would go out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities to educate and provide research opportunities. King said he is desperate to see agriculture continue, especially since it seems Black farming is going extinct.
“I’m all for it,” said King. “Anything. I’m grasping at it like a man drowning. Anything that will help us out. Give it a try at least.”
Barriers for Black farmers
But King also admitted there are self-inflicted wounds in the Black community regarding why some farmers did not last. He recalled mismanagement of funds as one reason Black farmers struggled, saying a lack of knowledge regarding financial wisdom could be to blame.
“I would observe some stuff sometimes,” said King. “When the white kids got paid on Friday, they took the money and put it in their pockets. They might spend seven or eight dollars at the store over the weekend. Our kids would go and spend every penny they have. And then come back and ask for money to buy soda and crackers Monday morning.”
Although King was not a victim of discrimination as a Black farmer, he certainly noticed it from afar.
“You have to work twice as hard and sometimes regardless of how educated you are, if you go to the bank, you’ll be turned down quicker than your counterpart,” said King.
But not everyone has managed to escape discrimination. Helen and Joseph Fields, owners of Joseph Fields Farming, have had their share of battles as African American farmers.
“Well we went through that with the Small Business Administration,” said Joseph Fields. “That is behind us now. I have served on the farm committee now for several years. The Lord has risen us above that. There are still a lot of hills we have to climb. I try not to dwell on the negative. We’ve had our struggles. But the Lord has put some good people in my path.”
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In a world where it is much easier (and more profitable), to be the next YouTube sensation, King finds young people have a tough time tilling the soil to no avail.
“The first thing I would tell any young person is, ‘sit down and count up the cost,’” said King. “Some of the questions I ask is how concerned are you about sticking to it during the hard days? Expect disappointing years during the process.”
King said younger and more capable bodies are in urgent need. Certain labor that may take weeks could be done in just days if there were more youthful workers. In some cases, it could take two weeks to cover 2,000 acres.
“Twenty years ago, for 2,000 acres, we would work 16-18 hours,” said King. “But we are getting older and we were hoping the younger generation would take that same land with better equipment and get it done in two days. It is important for the agriculture departments at schools to encourage them.”
Farming and the pandemic
Another issue plaguing farmers as a whole is COVID-19, as the pandemic has impacted the revenue of famers. King said some people are afraid to come out of their homes because of the virus.
“There is less activity because of them staying in the house,” said King. “I noticed the other Saturday at the market, even though it didn’t rain, we didn’t have as many customers as I thought we’d have and we don’t have nearly as many people as we did before the pandemic.”
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Joseph Fields is a third-generation farmer and the two are a masterful duo and the fan favorite at the Farmers Market. Their business thrives mainly because they both invested their time into producing organic produce. And while their business has picked up as of late, Helen Fields said they felt the impact of COVID-19 early on.
“In the beginning it was less (foot traffic), but now it is about the same amount as it was before,” said Fields.
To this day, King still works on the farm part time. There is something about a hard day’s work that he enjoys, as well as cultivating something in the ground and watching it spring to life. He recalled when his grandmother tried to help him get into college and an opportunity arose for him to join a friend in the Marines. He said no to both. He wanted to pay homage to his father, whom he said made a great influence on his life.
“I can’t think of nothing else that I want to do besides farming,” said King. “I have tried different things. I cannot stay in a building working in a factory. I had a crop in the field of tobacco and peanuts. They were so pretty. I could not see myself leaving those crops.
“My daddy was my hero. I was so impressed by the way daddy brought us up on the farm and how much effort he put into it and the food that was put on the table that I wasn’t interested in change or going to college. My daddy left the best legacy.”