April 2, 2008  
Contacts: Cornelius Blanding & Heather Gray
404 765 0991

An Interview with Cornelius Blanding
The New Field Director of the Federation/LAF

Note: In 2007 Heather Gray, the Federation/LAF Director of Communications, interviewed Cornelius Blanding, who in 2007 became the new Field Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Cornelius has a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration which he utilizes in his organizing work. For his biographical information please click here.

The role of the Field Director is to "develop strategies for creating an environment where cooperatives and cooperative state associations thrive within the Federation/LAF's mission and to play a supportive role for each in developing and securing resources needed in the field."

In the interview there is reference to the Federation/LAF’s programs which are broad in scope – in fact the programs encompass virtually every area of concern in rural communities from agriculture to housing to credit to non-farm business development. In all these areas the Federation/LAF is engaged in sustainable activities through cooperative development whether it be agriculture cooperatives, credit unions, collective housing units, and craft cooperatives. In addition, the Federation/LAF advocates for policies to enhance the quality of life for rural residents in the southeast.

Reference in the interview is also made to the Pigford v Glickman Class Action Lawsuit that was filed against the United States Department of Agriculture by Black farmers and settled in 1999 with Black farmers prevailing. The USDA agreed that Black farmers had been discriminated against in terms of receiving credit for farming and land ownership as well as program information from USDA representatives.

Q - How did you get involved with Federation in the first place?

In the 1990’s I accidentally happened upon the Federation. The work I was doing was rural development. Business development has been a passion of mine since I was very young. So when I left school, I went to work in communities in the South and with people that didn’t have business backgrounds or business expertise.  I wanted to bring my knowledge and understanding of business development to these communities.

During that work I came across the Federation – people who were working with the Federation and people who had worked with the Federation in the past. I learned more when I attended an event that the Federation held at its training center in Epes. That was my first introduction to the Federation programs and I fell in love from there. It seemed to fit with what I was trying to work on, but it went way beyond my imagination of what I thought was being done. And from that point, I started doing some work through the Federation - which eventually landed me a job with the organization.

Q – Specifically, what was it about the Federation that was being done beyond your imagination?

First of all, I was helping a farmer with a business plan who was trying to develop a farmers’ market there in Eutaw, Alabama. He was trying to get funding from the Enterprise Community (EC) which was through the Federation. President Clinton had put 3 million dollars into the Enterprise Community that was facilitated by the Federation in West Alabama. So that was kind of my introduction. From there, I met John Zippert – the Federation’s Program Director - who asked me to work with some of the other groups that were trying to get funded by the EC. He asked me because the farmer I had helped was just about the only one (if not the only one) that was able to get his application approved.

Then, I started to work on developing packages and policies for the EC at the Federation’s Training Center in Epes…and that’s when I got a chance to learn even more about the Federation. I also learned more about black farmer’s issues, the issues with rural communities, the lack of business development and what the Federation was doing to address a lot of those issues and this impressed me.

When I came to the Federation in 1997, the Black Farmer Lawsuit (Pigford v Glickman) was just beginning; so, I was indirectly bombarded with all of this……I didn’t know much about any of it at the time.

At Epes, I also saw a lot of the youth coming in and got a chance to learn about the youth programs that the Federation was involved in.

Then, I learned about the international program - which ultimately brought me to the Federation. I had no international experience prior to coming to the organization, but since then, I’ve been all over the world…..Africa, Europe, South America, Central America and everywhere between. It’s been very beneficial to me in my learning about international and domestic rural development.

Q - What in your opinion is helpful to rural communities?

I would say that co-op development is probably the strongest piece there is.  There are many groups working with farmers or working with rural communities, but the basis of the development work of the Federation is centered around cooperative development.

The basic problem that any one person or business has is usually related to the fact that they don’t have strength in numbers. When you start talking about a small business man or small farmer, they don’t have the advantages that large businesses have – they can’t get to economies of scale. They can’t even effectively bargain because usually they have less to supply than is demanded by buyers. So then you realize the importance of organizing and working together in groups. Not only does cooperative development strengthen their business capacity, it adds to the social dynamics as well - because people start communicating and working together.

When people stop working together, they lose a lot of things. In fact, when people stop working together, I think, that’s one of the greatest detriments to our communities and to rural communities in general. Not only businesses, you also lose some of the historical things that kept communities together and kept farmers strong and small businesses strong… lose a lot of that.  When you start working with other people and work out problems together, you add not only to businesses, but you add to the social fabric as well. So I think the co-op development piece is probably the strongest thing that the Federation brings to the table and that’s what’s kept the organization going for 40 years – the need for that organizing, that co-op development. Whether people realize it or not, people need to work together in order to sustain their communities.

Q - Is this something you learned with the Federation? Did you come in with that knowledge already?

No, I came in not knowing this. I’ve learned a lot from the Federation. It’s taught me organizing skills and a lot of that has carried into my personal life as well. You start realizing the importance of working with and through other people in every aspect of your life. The Federation has also become my family and been there through lot of the milestones in my life - including my marriage, the birth of my kids and everything. The staff of the Federation was involved in that and they still are. My wife and my kids talk about the staff of the Federation like they’re our family.

Q - Have you seen the benefit of cooperatives in some of the communities where you’ve worked?

Yes, I have – but let me switch this back over to the international piece, because of my experiences and my direct involvement with our international work. Bringing some of the work that we’re doing to those communities that were not involved in cooperative development prior to us starting with them has been an eye opener for me. With a lot of the groups, just observing where they started from to where they are now, you can see the tremendous impact that the Federation had on them. They’ve gotten organized and some of the things that the groups have started requesting and some of the projects that they’ve started to become involved in is directly linked to them being organized and having improved their cooperative skills – learning how to work together independently as well as through cooperatives. I think that one of the great benefits is that people don’t lose their individuality in cooperatives and as they become stronger individuals, stronger farmers, stronger business people that adds to the group.

As individuals gain more leadership skills and more knowledge of the cooperative principles they bring it to the group… and as you start identifying those leaders, other people start to follow. Whenever you bring people together, you always have these intrinsic battles of competition and people improve each other.

I’ll mention the Virgin Islands for instance. The Virgin Islands, like many other countries, didn’t realize the importance of agriculture and had abandoned the agriculture base by chasing tourism dollars. It took something as horrible as 9/11 to make them realize how important it was for them to feed themselves……because after 9/11 and because of the grounded airplanes thoughout the U.S. they couldn’t get food into the island for a couple of weeks. So now many in the Virgin Islands are saying “Well, we have to be sustainable. We have to be able to feed ourselves at least.”

The first thing the Virgin Island government recognized was the need to strengthen some of the farm groups, and by doing so it would strengthen agriculture in order to begin providing sustainable food production on the islands. The government and the people realized they needed to get back to their traditions, back to the basics. They also saw how important cooperative development was and that’s where we - the Federation - have played a central role in the U.S. Virgin Islands agriculture project.

Q – You’re talking about the importance of cooperating but you’re also talking about the importance of agriculture.

Definitely! A lot of our work is centered around agriculture cooperatives, so I think agriculture is that starting point. Developing cooperatives around agriculture can lead to all kinds of progress.

Q -  The Federation is quite comprehensive. Do you think  it covers its bases in almost every area of need?

Definitely – that’s really a definition of economic development and that’s how I define the Federation. It’s a rural economic development organization. And in economic development you have to deal with all the different aspects – everything is related in the end. To bring in a business, you have to have infrastructure….you have to have roads, you have to have a labor pool. You have to have so many things to make economic development truly happen.

I think the Federation is one of the few organizations that truly understands the many different aspects of economic development. You can’t have one piece without the other. So when you start talking about developing agriculture, you’ve got to develop a farmer. Before you can develop a farmer, you’ve got to develop his or her family. Before you can develop the family you’ve got to develop the community.

So all of this is kind of interrelated and you can’t deal with one piece without dealing with the other, because if you lose one piece of it then that circle is open and things start flowing out and breaking down. I think the Federation understood that from the beginning - the importance of having a comprehensive organization and comprehensive programs – and that is why it has lasted over 40 years.

Note: The Federation/LAF, now in its 40th year,  assists Black family farmers across the South with farm management, debt restructuring, alternative crop suggestions, marketing expertise and a whole range of services to ensure family farm survivability.