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Georgia Pecans and New Communities Making a Difference

There is nothing like a healthy scoop of butter pecan ice cream in the summer or a hearty slice of pecan pie during the winter holidays. The tree nut carries with it a sense of nostalgia and a decent dose of health benefits. But in a small town in southwest Georgia, the pecan carries with it a deeper significance through an organization called New Communities, Inc. Before diving into the history of the organization and their pecans, we wanted to give you a little background about the nut that is often synonymous with the Southern culture.

A Brief History of the Pecan
Depending on where you live in the United States, you either say “pee-CAN”, “pick-AHN”, or “pee-KAHN”. The word, however, dates back to a time before we developed our dialects. The pecan is the only tree nut that is indigenous to America. The Algonquin tribe called the tree nut “pecane”, which is where we get our modern-day word. Native American tribes incorporated pecans into their fall diets and eventually started planting pecan trees and trading them with Europeans. Thanks to Indigenous tribes, pecans have become one of the most desired American crops locally and globally.

Pecan tree on New Communities Inc. well before the pecans are ripe. New Communities farms 800 acres of land, which includes an expansive pecan orchard. Photo via New Communities Inc.

Pecan trees need fertile soil, a warm climate, and adequate access to water, hence why pecans thrive in the southeastern part of the United States. Out of the pecan-producing states in the southeast, Georgia produces the most, accounting for one-third of the country’s pecan production. Albany, located in southwest Georgia, is known as the “pecan capital of the world”  because of the sheer number of pecan trees in the area. Albany is also home to New Communities, a grassroots organization that has worked for more than 40 years to empower African American families in southwest Georgia and advocate for social and racial justice.

New Communities Inc. founding member, Shirley Sherrod, stands for a photo for a piece written by Debbie Elliott for NPR!

New Communities in southwest Georgia
In 1969, New Communities was born as a farm collective to provide a safe haven for the Black community. Land ownership was vital for their health, safety, and self-sufficiency, as many Black families were facing eviction from their houses and land. Modeled after the kibbutz cooperative land movement in Israel, New Communities was the first land trust in the United States and was the foundation for the land trust movement. Forty years later and despite a long road of adversity, Charles and Shirley Sherrod, founding members, are still committed to empowering the community through agribusiness, education, social awareness, and wealth building.

Before losing their original land in Lee County, New Communities Inc. operated a smokehouse, greenhouse, and a farmers market. Photo by Dawn Makarios via Equity Trust.

In the beginning, New Communities owned 5,375 acres in Lee County of which they farmed 1,800 acres. After a severe drought in 1985, the organization was refused emergency loans and lost everything. They were eventually granted some restitution thanks to a landmark court case. Although they didn’t get back their original acreage or its equivalent value, they were able to purchase the 1,638 acre Cypress Pond Plantation. It was on this former plantation that they were able to re-build their dream and vision. With their new land, New Communities set out to be a catalyst for healing in the community and for growth in individuals.

Cypress Pond Plantation
Cypress Pond Plantation was owned by different families during the antebellum period, all of which owned numerous enslaved people. At one point, the daughter-in-law of the largest slaveholder in Georgia’s history owned the plantation. Somewhere down the line, hundreds of acres of pecan trees were planted, as Georgia was shifting from cotton to pecan production. Before New Communities purchased the plantation, the pecan trees were vastly overgrown, as well as the farmland in general, due to neglect. Like they did from the very beginning, New Communities saw an opportunity for growth.

The Cypress Pond Plantation house was built in the early-to-mid 1850s. The antebellum mansion was fully restored before New Communities Inc. purchased the land.

New Communities in 2020
One of the many ways in which New Communities works to bring their modern-day vision to life is through farming. New Communities farms 800 acres of the plantation, including the once-neglected pecan orchard. The farm serves as a place where the community can learn and develop new agriculture techniques and technology. Reading the backstory of New Communities, you will see the beautiful, historical juxtaposition of the land on which they chose to settle and to heal. Not only do they produce revenue-generating crops, but they also provide opportunities for important conversations around black-land loss, food-related disparities, environmental and economic justice, and racial reconciliation.

Happy Dirt and New Communities
We have partnered with New Communities for four years to share their pecans with new markets who are passionate about supporting the organization – their farmers and their mission. Seeing that their farm is located in the heart of Georgia’s most fertile pecan land, we knew their pecans would be some of the best. The deep story behind New Communities makes their pecans even more special, and we’re proud that they are part of the network of farmers that we support.

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