We are on a very rutted dirt road near Rondo in the Arkansas Delta.
“I bet you’ve been on all the roads in Arkansas,” the driver told me.
“I have to admit, I’ve never been on this one,” I reply.
We’re looking for the Williams family farm, and soon Harvey Williams beckons us on a hot summer day. It was traditionally the land of cotton; we passed a mechanical cotton picker repair shop, although soybeans and corn seemed to dominate the landscape in the summer of 2021.
Inside the farm office, Harvey’s dad talks about the nearly 100 acres of squash he grows. There is also corn, wheat, soybeans, and about 100 acres of purple peas.
Harvey’s great-grandfather was a sharecropper on this land. On November 5, 1949, Harvey’s grandfather purchased the farm. Harvey pulls the faded deed out of a file.
In 1977, Harvey’s father took over and began to diversify. What makes all of this unusual is that the Williams family is black.
“The average white family in America is nearly 10 times the wealth of the average black or Latino family,” Elizabeth MacBride wrote earlier this year for Times of Entrepreneurship, a publication funded by the Kauffman Foundation.
“The average black family with a university educated head has less than a third of the wealth of a white family in the same situation. According to data released by the federal government, 15% of white families had a net worth of more than $ 1. million in 2016. Compare that to just under 2% of black families.
“The wealth gap is pervasive and systemic. The reasons for the disparity run deep in American society. Wealth in the order of what it takes to start a well-capitalized business is almost always built across generations. , through asset ownership and higher education, which also takes money to access it. But for hundreds of years, black families … have been denied the opportunity to own property. In the Delta, at the start of the 20th century, this refusal took the form of sharecropping. “
The sharecroppers would share part of their crops with the landowners. They were often paid in certificates which were to be used in the Plantation Commissioners. It was almost impossible to get out of debt. Harvey’s grandfather managed to do it.
“According to family legend, he spoke to a banker to find out exactly how much he owed,” MacBride wrote. “He harvested his crop and took it some distance to sell it, fetching a much higher price than its owner would have paid. The owner was in a bind. Without the crop he planned to resell at a higher price, he had almost no choice but to accept the cash in return for the farm.
The Williams family once took produce to Memphis area farmer’s markets for sale. Now they are selling to brokers. Just like at the right time, a big truck from food distributor Ben E. Keith pulls up to load the squash that was picked that week.
“After the 1980 drought, you had to either diversify or get out,” says Harvey. “My father decided to diversify. Among other things, we have started growing sweet potatoes.
“You’re always looking to diversify better,” says Harvey’s brother Kennard. “The crops you grow change from year to year. On a small farm like this, you are constantly looking for new markets. Peas, for example, will go this year to a company in Missouri.”
The father (Harvey Sr.) turns 79 in October and says it’s his last harvest. Most farming operations today are handled by Kennard. It’s squash picking season and there are 15 workers on the farm. Ten are from Mexico and the other five are local.
The four boys in the family went to school in Marianna. The shopping trips, however, were to Helena, where Cherry Street was once the largest commercial thoroughfare in the Arkansas Delta. It was, in a sense, the “big city” for Harvey, Kennard, and their siblings.
MacBride wrote: “Helena is a dark place in the haze of winter, pandemic and after years of constant decline. Some of the roofs of historic buildings collapsed after a straight line windstorm of April 2020 that took As the sun sets against the Mississippi River a few blocks away, many of the remaining stores – a small boutique, an ice cream shop that defies the odds, and a hamburger restaurant – have already closed for the night.
“But there’s a surprising sign of revival: One of Cherry Street’s old storefronts is washed with a well-designed sign that wouldn’t be moved to New York. Delta Dirt Distillery. For two years, the sign said ‘future.’ The week before Christmas, the first bottles of Sweet Potato Vodka finally arrived, produced from tubers grown in the rich farmlands of the Delta, the cases sold out within hours.
Delta Dirt is Harvey and his wife Donna’s dream. The couple met in high school. Harvey graduated from the University of Arkansas, worked his way up to food factory management, and returned to Arkansas to work in Jonesboro. Now he and Donna move from booming Jonesboro to struggling Helena to pursue their dream full time.
The sweet potatoes used for vodka, along with the corn and wheat used at Delta Dirt, are grown on the Williams family farm.
“During harvest season, we’ll bring 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes per week and 2,000 pounds of corn per week to the distillery,” says Harvey.
The by-products of the distillery return to the farm to feed the 23 cattle that reside there.
There is a batch of sweet potatoes cooking. The pleasant smell permeates the place. From the time a sweet potato leaves the farm until a bottle of Delta Dirt Vodka is at the bar, about a week has passed. Fermentation lasts three to five days.
Thomas, Harvey and Donna’s son, is chief distiller. He went to school in Kentucky in 2018 to learn the trade and started working at the distillery last year.
“The building was ready in March 2020, but they couldn’t send the people from Canada who were supposed to install the equipment due to the pandemic,” says Harvey. “Over the course of a month, we figured out how to do it ourselves. We now sell about 30 cases of vodka per week. We are in discussions with distributors and hope to be in restaurants and liquor stores across the state soon. “
Bourbon and gin will also be produced. According to Harvey, only three other distilleries in the country use sweet potatoes for vodka. The tasting room, open on weekends, has a refined atmosphere.
After years of false starts on Cherry Street, it would be fitting that a black farming family from neighboring Lee County finally spark a downtown revival.
“We’ve had people from all over the country here,” Harvey says of the 430 Cherry St. building that was built in the 1940s. It had been empty for years.
An adjacent building will house a pizzeria and gourmet hot dog shop that Harvey wants to call Delta Doughs & Dogs. A local carpenter built the bar in the tasting room, using wood from an old barn. A glass wall behind the bar allows patrons to view the distillery.
“You’ve heard of farm-to-table restaurants,” Harvey says. “It’s a farm-to-table distillery.”
MacBride said of Harvey and Donna, “They had both seen the city they liked to move further away. Small businesses of the kind that attract tourists, like the ones that stop and roam the streets from the Mississippi River boat trips or the roughly 30,000 people who come once a year for the King Biscuit Blues Festival, had to be the answer. “
“We want it to be a catalyst,” says Harvey.
Back at the farm, Kennard prepares to attend a sweetpotato lecture at Mississippi State University. Like his brother and their father and grandfather before them, he still plans, studies and dreams. I have a feeling that the history of the Williams family still has some exciting chapters to write.
Rex Nelson is editor-in-chief at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.