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Empowering Agriculture: A Black-Owned Grain Storage Facility Marks New Era in Mississippi Delta Farming

Cleveland, MS (February 12th, 2024). Read the article at LISC Stories.


In 1860, as America stood at the brink of Civil War, Bolivar County, MS, was among the country’s top cotton producers. This was due to the Mississippi Delta’s rich soil, ideal for a thirsty crop. It also reflected enormous amounts of labor—season after season of clearing, ditching, sowing, and hand picking. According to the federal census of 1860, 10,471 people lived in the county at the time. More than 9,000 were enslaved Black and “mulatto” persons. They did the work. White large landowners reaped the financial rewards.  


Even after Emancipation—in fact, well into the 20th century—Black Delta farmers were subject to exploitative systems of sharecropping and tenancy that often left them in debt to landlords and suppliers at the end of a year’s effort. In 1900, just 12 percent of African-American farmers in majority-Black Bolivar County owned their land, compared to 44 percent of the county’s white farmers. In more recent decades, powerful outside investors compete with Black farmers for ownership of the fertile ground beneath their feet. However as of 2017 more than a quarter of Bolivar County’s agricultural “producers”—farm managers and decision makers, who in many cases are also owners—identified as Black or African American, versus just 1.4 percent in the country as a whole.   


Delta Diamond, established in Bolivar County in 2021, is one business that is helping upend the legacy of inequity in American agriculture. A terminal grain storage and handling company, Delta Diamond is believed to be the first Black-owned facility of its kind in the country. It occupies a key position in the agricultural supply chain, able to connect Delta growers with new efficiencies and opportunities.  



Delta Diamond CEO, Leigh Allen, comes from a long line of Mississippi Delta farmers

The company’s co-owners, CEO Leigh Allen and Russell McCants, who manages operations on site, bring experience, credibility, and connections that set Delta Diamond up for  success. McCants has a decade’s experience managing grain elevators on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Allen’s resumé includes a dozen years working in the U.S. Senate, on the Agriculture Committee and as advisor to former Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln; more than two years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Obama administration; six years as executive director of the National Black Growers Council; and consulting for major agribusiness firms. A native Arkansan, Allen also has a strong personal connection to Delta farming.


Betting on this leadership pair and their important enterprise, LISC, through affiliate LISC Fund Management, LLC, and its Black Economic Development Fund (BEDF), invested in Delta Diamond’s operation with a $500,000 loan. Promoting Black ownership—of businesses, land, homes, and other wealth-building property—is a leading strategy of LISC’s Project 10X, an effort to advance racial equity in America. “We are focused on making life-changing investments for entrepreneurs and their communities,” says George Ashton III, managing director of LISC Strategic Investments, “and Delta Diamond represents that kind of opportunity—a ground-breaking African American-owned business that will not only provide value to farmers and rural communities of the Delta but also help cultivate the next generation of minority agribusiness professionals.”


LISC sat down with Allen to learn more about his history and his goals for Delta Diamond.



 

LISC: Let’s start with a little family history. There’s a wonderful old photo posted on your company website. Can you tell us what we’re looking at there?


Leigh Allen: To the left is my late grandfather Roy Allen, and to his right is my late Uncle Bud. This was taken down in Arkansas County, Arkansas. They were bringing in harvest to the mill, and that's the structure in the background, that tall structure—storage for crops and grains.



Leigh Allen's grandfather, Roy Allen (left), with Leigh's uncle Bud (right) working on a farm in Arkansas.

So you’ve got deep roots in agriculture and in the Delta.


My paternal grandfather's family has been involved in agriculture and farming since the Civil War. The Phillips family—that was my great-grandmother’s name—came over from Georgia after the war. They started in Virginia, went to Georgia for a short period of time, and then Texas before finally settling in Arkansas, in an incredibly fertile area where the soils were supported by the Arkansas, Mississippi, and White rivers’ convergence nearby, and farmed there along the lower White River. The land was originally obtained in part via the Arkansas Swamp Land sales, which ended in 1968, and some of that ground is still in family hands to this day; we've been producers in the Delta essentially for every generation since then.


However, I grew up in central Arkansas, not in the Delta. My late grandfather urged everyone out of the Delta, and essentially off the farm, [to seek education and livelihoods]. It was just a matter of economics. The economy was built around agriculture, and as mechanization of the industry quickly advanced it reverberated throughout the Delta in particular. Town sizes diminished. My father went to college at Central Arkansas. Many of the extended family went on to Arkansas AM&N, which is now University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a historically Black college. There were 10 kids and all 10 left.


I would go back to the farm in the summers and holidays. As I found out later, I was the only grandchild that my late grandfather would happily take out on the farm and scout rice, check on soybeans, call ducks by hand, and so forth. It just stayed with me. I just had a natural affinity for the outdoors and agriculture.



Part of Delta Diamond's grain storage facilities

The Mississippi Delta was a source of foundational American wealth that was essentially stolen from the Black people who cultivated the land—through enslavement, the sharecropping system, etc. Where do you situate your family’s story in that narrative? Is it unusual to have been able to own and farm this land for generations?


Unfortunately, it is unusual. My family took two different, I guess, approaches to it. Some of the family essentially sharecropped for other folks, worked in the local Riceland mill, and then for some of the family, like I said, there was land that was owned. Because it was a big family, it wasn't enough land for everyone to work on the operation, so many ventured North to Chicago as part of the Great Migration.


I've got a cousin, James, who is a recently retired agriculture teacher and also has managed to run the farm. I assist him with programmatic knowledge, my extensive relationships in agriculture, and so forth. He does the farming and I just try to assist when and where I can. Just in December, I went to the farm and assisted him with some computer data input for a cover crop program that we believe will be beneficial for the continued sustainability and preservation of natural resources. He has been on the forefront of stressing the importance of conservation, and I share that focus.


Let's talk about Delta Diamond. For those of us who aren’t very knowledgeable about how food gets from field to table, can you explain the role Delta Diamond plays?


It's the Delta, so you've got some of the best farming ground in the country. It should be noted that it can also be some very unforgiving land at times. Some unique commodities are grown there. Probably the most unique on a large-scale production level would be rice. The Delta historically was swampland that was just cleared out. It holds water well and thus is a natural environment to grow rice. What we  plan to receive at the facility includes rice, corn, soybeans, wheat, and yellow field peas. In short, we can take a wide variety of grains and do so in a manner that differentiates between GMO and non-GMO crops. It comes on trucks—we’re just two blocks off U.S. Highway 61. Once it’s received, we have the ability to clean, dry, treat, and store the grain, with over 400,000-bushel capacity.



 

“As area growers are able to find new ways to succeed, it will not only benefit us, but the community as well.”

— Leigh Allen, CEO, Delta Diamond

 

After harvest concludes, the further you go into winter and spring, the Chicago Board of Trade market price for grains increases. Most producers do not have on-farm storage. So, with the accessible storage at Delta Diamond, you have the ability to store for an extended period of time and later sell into the futures markets and make that small differential on the price. That's where we get into the marketing of the grains. We're located 17 miles from the Mississippi River Port of Rosedale. We'll be shipping out on barge through that port. We have applied for and are currently awaiting our Mississippi Grain Warehouse License and Mississippi Grain Dealer’s License, which will allow us to purchase, sell, and trade grain on the markets.


Due to farm consolidation, with entities like real estate investment trusts (REITs) buying land in the Delta, there are fewer small growers, and for a variety of reasons including lack of equitable access to government loans and benefit programs the number of Black-owned farms in particular has dwindled dramatically over the last century. Is there a way Delta Diamond lifts up smaller growers and Black-owned operations?


It's a multi-pronged approach. Having a grain elevator is the first step. This is the first African-American-owned facility of its kind east of the Mississippi and maybe in the country. I think there's value that's generated just from representation. We also just received our Mississippi seed dealer license. I believe that's the first time there's been any African-American-owned retail seed company countrywide. There's a lot of firsts that are happening through these activities.


Our customer base is everyone in the area. We take grain from everyone. A rice field or a corn field or cotton field doesn't know whether the farmer is Black, white, or anything else—it performs according to weather and the effort that the producer puts into it. I know producers in that area that have a 300- or 400-acre farm, and others that have farming operations that are well north of 10,000 acres. We provide a locational advantage; we represent in most cases upwards of a 35-mile round trip savings that producers would enjoy by going to our facility versus those that are out at the river. You're saving time, you're saving fuel costs—and at harvest time that makes a big difference. 



 

“We are focused on making life-changing investments for entrepreneurs and their communities and Delta Diamond represents that kind of opportunity.”

— George Ashton III, managing director of LISC Strategic Investments

 

You mentioned getting licensed as a grain dealer. That means you could potentially connect Delta growers with lucrative global markets. Is that the idea?


Correct. We’re exploring the domestic opportunities in addition to international opportunities. A few years ago, I consulted on transactions for a very large producer and smaller producers. So, I've done domestic deals, but I've also completed trades to Mexico and Asia. I'm fortunate to have longstanding relationships to large buyers in Asia as well as the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, which we will engage. Just yesterday morning I returned from speaking with one of the top five largest food companies in the world. Those conversations went very well, and they provided me with three opportunities to partner with them. I'm looking forward to it.


You’re also talking about specialty crops like non-GMO. Is it your role to just find the buyers or also to help area growers figure out how to produce those crops?


It's both. First, it's understanding what grows well in the area. It may even involve research field trials, which I've helped spearhead there on non-GMO corn, non-GMO soybeans, as well as yellow field peas. You want to prove that they can grow well because the last thing you want to do is have a producer be subject to something that's just not going to be successful in the conditions.


I believe there's a market for non-GMO, and I've talked to a number of food and agriculture companies that do have an interest in that. When and where it makes sense for a producer to grow those crops, they oftentimes come with a premium that growers are able to benefit from.


Bolivar County has a high poverty rate, 29 percent. Do you see potential for Delta Diamond to help with local economic development?


It's something that's constantly on my mind. There has been a lot of population loss and job loss and loss of tax base in many communities in the Delta, particularly as agriculture is switched to a more mechanical and more corporate-based entity, with REITs and insurance companies coming in and buying lots of land. You've got folks that have been buying tens of thousands of acres in the Delta. It really drives the price demand and puts the small, family-owned farmer in a precarious position.


Nonetheless, one thing that really attracted me to Bolivar County was the existence of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mound Bayou is arguably the most famous African-American farming town community in the United States, and they still have a large number of producers that are thriving. We'll be working with them. We'll also be working with a local research development center—Alcorn State University, which is an HBCU and has their research farm stationed in Mound Bayou, just seven miles from our facility.


We have 2.9 acres for expansion and we’re already exploring feasibility plans with it. There’s the opportunity for temporary job growth created by construction and also just full-time employment there in the community. It’s a small number now—six employees—but by the end of the year could easily be twice that.


At the end of the day, row crop production is driven by volume and scale. As area growers are able to find new or alternative ways to succeed, it will not only benefit us, but the community as well.


To learn more about the Black Economic Development Fund, click here.




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