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2020 Leadership Award Winners Phillip and Dorathy E. Barker

Rachel Tepper Paley

November 24, 2020

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The James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards spotlight the important and complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health. They raise awareness of these timely issues by celebrating the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more equitable and sustainable food system. Below, Rachel Tepper Paley explores the story of 2020 Leadership honorees Phillip and Dorathy E. Barker in North Carolina.

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Longtime dairy farmers Dorathy and Phillip Barker never planned to become activists. Both raised in African-American farming families in North Carolina, the pair set out to run their own operation in 1976 with the modest goal of providing for their family, which would eventually include five children. But over the years, the obstacles they faced—both as small farm operators and farmers of color—catapulted them into the world of advocacy.

Dorathy recalled the days of doing battle with a representative of the Farmers Home Administration, a now-defunct government agency that doled out loans to farmers like the Barkers. After years of renting land, Dorathy said, she and Phillip had sought to own it. But at every turn, the agency threw roadblocks in their path that seemed to target them as Black farmers, from requiring time-wasting approvals anytime they spent money on equipment to hurling racial slurs their way. Nearly every interaction made the Barkers’ blood boil.

One particular dustup still sticks out in Dorathy’s mind. In the early 1980s, the Barkers purchased life insurance through their creamery at the suggestion of some farming neighbors, an elderly white couple. “[They] told my husband, ‘You need to get a life insurance policy. All the dairy farmers have it,’” Dorathy recalled. But when a Farmers Home Administration rep came by the farm, he was enraged upon learning about the purchase. “Nobody had authorized us to buy life insurance policy through the creamery,” Dorathy said. The rep wanted to know: “How did we find out about this?”

Why should it be wrong for the Barkers to seek out a life insurance policy when it was standard for their white neighbors? Dorathy believes it was racism, plain and simple. The policy proved invaluable: when Phillip broke his back in a farming accident in 1985, doctors told him he’d never walk again. But the policy gave Phillip access to top-notch medical care, and he recuperated in a matter of months. To the Barkers, the incident underscored the importance of knowing about—and taking advantage of—resources available to farmers like them.

In 1987, the Barkers joined Reverend Z.D. Harris, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, and Reverend Leon White in founding Operation Spring Plant, Inc, a grassroots nonprofit that seeks to empower African-American, limited-resource, and other historically underserved small farmers and producers. From helping farmers apply to financial assistance programs to fighting discriminatory practices in the food service industry, Operation Spring Plant is an integral part of the North Carolina agricultural community, giving a voice to Black and minority farmers.

Farming is more important than ever in the age of COVID-19, Dorathy stressed. In recent weeks, she and Phillip have partnered with other area farmers to safely provide fresh fruit and vegetables to needy communities made even more vulnerable by the stalled economy. Her advice to everyone right now? “Put some food in the ground,” she said. “Make sure that food is not held over your head.”

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Learn more about all our 2020 Leadership Award winners.

Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.