Veteran Meleade Wasson returns to her hometown of Naylor, Georgia, to revive the family farm established by her mother Collis Mae McQueen and father Earnest McQueen
Returning to Naylor, Georgia, was not the plan Meleade Wasson imagined after being away from her hometown for three decades.
The 51-year-old left home at the age of 19 to join the military. She wanted to see the world, leaving behind the rural farm in Lowndes County where she grew up.
“Growing up I didn’t think it was a great experience, but now looking back on it, they were the best experiences of my life and I didn’t realize it,” Wasson said.
She admits that as a child she worked on the farm to earn money for school clothes, but she didn’t appreciate the lessons she learned until later in life.
During her years away, Wasson earned a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in business and lived in more than six states. Throughout those years, she frequently returned home and worked alongside her parents in the fields where they grew peanuts, corn, cotton, soybeans, tobacco and some vegetables.
In 2000, her parents built a new home on the 60-acre farm. Ten years later, Wasson’s mother, Collis Mae McQueen, was diagnosed with cancer so Meleade moved back to Naylor to care for her. In 2011 Collis Mae died.
“It was heartbreaking to see her go through that,” Wasson said. “It affected the family because she played a key role in holding everything together.”
Her father was also grieving the loss of his wife and farming partner of more than 40 years. “Daddy didn’t really try anymore after that,” Wasson said. “It was just left up to me and my son.”
Determined to keep the legacy going, Wasson decided it was time to focus her attention on the family farm. “I had to make this farm become operational again,” she said.
It was then she decided it was time to restart what her mother and father began. To begin this process, she reached out to FVSU Cooperative Extension, the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and local farmers in Lowndes and Lanier counties. Wasson was already aware of their work because her mother had been active on the advisory board for Lowndes and Echols counties. Her dad also served as president of the Lanier County Farm Bureau. That’s when she met Joy Moten-Thomas and Stefan Price, both with FVSU Extension; Charlie Grace of NRCS; and Nikki Thomas of FSA.
“They encouraged me to take advantage of the programs that are out there for underserved communities, especially black female farmers and veterans,” Wasson said.
Initially, Wasson wanted to refinance a 0 percent equipment loan for a higher rate to avoid expensive monthly payments that were a challenge for the small farmer because her income comes in during harvest, not monthly. Unaware of her options, Wasson reached out to Nikki Thomas, district director for District One of the Farm Service Agency. Thomas provided a one-on-one consultation that helped Wasson get what she needed while still keeping the 0 percent interest rate.
“She pointed out that it’s better to try to keep the 0 percent interest than try to come under the equipment loan with FSA,” Wasson said.
As a result, Wasson learned that she should request FSA to make the annual installment as part of her operating request, so she could still keep the 0 percent interest rate.
“If Nikki Thomas was not in that meeting, I wouldn’t have known that information,” Wasson said.
Thomas, an FVSU alumna and the first African-American woman to serve as a district director for FSA, said she’s encountered many small farmers who don’t know all their options or don’t understand the assistance available.
“I have a lot of experience in that area, so I was able to offer solutions,” Thomas said.
“We’re here to provide technical assistance and information to help farmers make the best management decisions for their farm. It’s a new day at FSA. Our new state director is very focused on outreach, assisting minority farmers and providing customer service.” In addition to the equipment loan, Wasson also received assistance through a cost-share program that helped her purchase a $30,000 solid set pump well irrigation system.
“I was thinking I had to pay all the money up front, and if you’re thinking that, you won’t apply to the program,” she said. “That’s why you need FSA.”
Wasson said not knowing how the process works or understanding how to secure microloans, cost share programs, farm operating loans and equipment operating loans can result in losses for farmers, specifically small Black farmers.
According to the American Economic Association, Black farmers in the United States lost roughly $326 billion worth of acreage during the 20th century. Land loss is a contributor to the racial wealth gap in the United States and an issue that has marred the relationship between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and minority farmers. Wasson said that FSA could help by implementing a standardized process.
“FSA could reduce miscommunication by streamlining and clarifying their processes. The biggest challenge is knowing what’s available,” Wasson said. She said she felt overwhelmed and became frustrated many times because there was not a standard operating procedure.
“How can you know if it’s not told to you that you can save your farm, get these programs and be fronted the money?” Wasson said. She said there are many underserved farmers who don’t get this information and end up taking a loss.
“If every farmer had the opportunity I had with Nikki from FSA, I don’t think we’d have as many farmers losing their farms,” Wasson said. “I think they would have a better chance of maintaining their livelihood.”
Going forward with funding and a pond setup for an irrigation system, Wasson said she feels she is moving in the right direction. “Because these people have been in my life, I am able to stay above water right now,” Wasson said.
In addition, Wasson said her dad is very supportive of everything she’s doing.
“It looks like he has renewed energy,” she said with excitement. “He’s been very inspirational on giving me insight on what to expect and how crops will react to certain chemicals. It’s great to see the family farm operational, being maintained and the legacy still intact.”
Wasson said she is proud of the decision she made to come back and renew the family farm.“I think my mom would be excited and amazed that I came back to farm,” she said with a laugh.