Tilling the Delta dirt

By: Opinion Rex Nelson

We're on a heavily rutted dirt road near Rondo in the Arkansas Delta.

"I bet you've been down every road in Arkansas," the driver says to me.

"I have to admit that I've never been on this one," I reply.

We're searching for the Williams family farm, and soon enough Harvey Williams is waving at us on a hot summer day. This traditionally was cotton country; we passed a repair shop for mechanical cotton pickers, though soybeans and corn seem to dominate the landscape in the summer of 2021.

Inside the farm office, Harvey's father talks about the almost 100 acres of squash he's growing. There's also corn, wheat, soybeans and about 100 acres of purple-hull peas.

Harvey's great-grandfather was a sharecropper on this land. On Nov. 5, 1949, Harvey's grandfather purchased the farm. Harvey pulls the faded deed out of a file folder.

In 1977, Harvey's father took over and began to diversify. The thing that makes all of this unusual is that the Williams family is Black.

"The average white family in America has 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 where the head of household has a college education has less than one-third the wealth of a similarly situated white family. According to data published by the federal government, 15 percent of white families had a net worth of over $1 million in 2016. Compare that to just under 2 percent of Black families.

"The wealth gap is pervasive and systemic. The reasons for the disparity are deeply woven into U.S. society. Wealth on the order of what it takes to launch a well-capitalized business is almost always built across generations, through ownership of assets and higher education, which also takes money to access. But for hundreds of years, Black families ... were denied the opportunity to legally own assets. In the Delta in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, that denial took the form of sharecropping."

Sharecroppers would share a portion of their crops with landowners. They often were paid in scrip that had to be used at plantation commissaries. It was almost impossible to get out of debt. Harvey's grandfather somehow managed to do so.

"According to the family legend, he talked to a banker to figure out exactly how much he owed," MacBride wrote. "He harvested his crop and took it some distance away to sell, achieving a much higher price than his landowner would have paid. The landowner was in a bind. Without the crop that he planned to resell at a higher price, he had almost no choice but to accept the cash in exchange for the farm."

The Williams family once took produce to farmers' markets in the Memphis area to sell. Now they sell to brokers. As if on cue, a large truck from food distributor Ben E. Keith pulls up to load the squash that has been picked that week.

"After the drought of 1980, you either had to diversify or get out," Harvey says. "My father decided to diversify. Among other things, we started growing sweet potatoes."

"You're always looking at how to better diversify," Harvey's brother Kennard says. "The crops you grow change from year to year. On a small farm like this, you're constantly searching for new markets. The peas, for example, will go this year to a company in Missouri."

The father (Harvey Sr.) will be 79 in October and says this is his last crop. Most of the farm operations are handled these days 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 at Marianna. Shopping excursions, though, were to Helena, where Cherry Street was once the grandest business thoroughfare in the Arkansas Delta. It was, in a sense, the "big city" for Harvey, Kennard and their siblings.

MacBride wrote: "Helena is a bleak place in the mist of winter, pandemic and after years of steady decline. Some of the historic buildings' roofs caved in after an April 2020 storm of straight-line winds tore through town. As the sun sets against the Mississippi River a few blocks away, many of the stores that remain--a small boutique, a defy-the-odds ice cream shop and a burger joint--have already closed for the night.

"But there is one surprising sign of renewal: one of the old storefront windows on Cherry Street is washed with a well-designed sign that wouldn't be out of place in New York City. Delta Dirt Distillery. For two years, the sign said 'coming soon.' The week before Christmas, the first bottles of sweet potato vodka finally came. Produced out of tubers grown in the rich Delta farmland, the cases sold out within hours."

Delta Dirt is the dream of Harvey and his wife Donna. The couple met in high school. Harvey earned a degree from the University of Arkansas, worked his way up to managing food plants, and moved back to Arkansas to work in Jonesboro. Now he and Donna are moving from booming Jonesboro to struggling Helena to pursue their dream full time.

The sweet potatoes used for the vodka, along with the corn and wheat used at Delta Dirt, are grown on the Williams family farm.

"During the harvest season, we'll take 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes per week and 2,000 pounds of corn a week to the distillery," Harvey says.

Distillery byproducts go back to the farm to feed the 23 cattle that reside there.

There's a batch of sweet potatoes cooking. The pleasant smell permeates the place. From the time a sweet potato leaves the farm until the time a bottle of Delta Dirt vodka is at the bar, about a week has passed. The fermentation takes three to five days.

Harvey and Donna's son Thomas is head distiller. He went to school in Kentucky in 2018 to learn the craft and began 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," Harvey says. "Over the course of a month, we figured out how to do it ourselves. We're now selling about 30 cases a week of vodka. We're talking to distributors and hope to soon be in restaurants and liquor stores across the state."

Bourbon and gin also will be produced. According to Harvey, only three other distilleries in the country use sweet potatoes for vodka. The tasting room, which is open on weekends, has a sophisticated feel.

After years of false starts on Cherry Street, it would be fitting if a Black farm family from nearby Lee County finally spurred a downtown renaissance.

"We've had people from all over the country in here," Harvey says of the building at 430 Cherry St. that was built in the 1940s. It had been empty for years.

An adjacent building will house a pizza 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 customers to see the distillery.

"You've heard of farm-to-table restaurants," Harvey says. "This is a farm-to-table distillery."

MacBride says of Harvey and Donna: "They had both watched as the town they loved had slipped further. Small businesses of the kind that draw tourists--like those who stop and wander the streets from the Mississippi River boat tours or the 30,000 or so people who come once a year for the King Biscuit Blues Festival--had to be the answer."

"We want this to be a catalyst," Harvey says.

Back at the farm, Kennard prepares to attend a sweet potato conference at Mississippi State University. Like his brother and their father and grandfather before them, he's always planning, studying and dreaming. I have a feeling that the Williams family story has some exciting chapters yet to be written.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.