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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

A Holy Collard Patch

“They don’t like touching each other.”

Mr. Jay was responding to my question as to why he grew his collards in a large array of containers fashioned from milk crates, each spaced about a foot apart. “Give them some room, compost, and a good watering once a week.”

Jay Parson, a Ft. Myers urban gardener, was generous with advice on how to grow collards as well as other greens should anyone stop to inquire.

His home, on a quarter-acre lot, stood out from the others in the neighborhood. Instead of grass, Mr. Jay grew collards, mustard, and turnip greens during the cooler months followed by okra and field peas during the long, hot summer.  Each collard plant grew in a milk crate container while the mustard and turnip greens had been sowed into raised beds of soil enriched with an abundance of composted chicken manure that his backyard hens provided.

A hand-lettered sign stood out front, advertising numerous products that Mr. Parson grew and sold.

During the late winter of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic stalling out the economy, our new ministry, Cultivate Abundance, was desperate for local produce to share with the Immokalee farmworker community. With America’s food system limping along and food banks becoming over-extended, we were struggling to grow and collect enough healthy, local produce to meet the needs of hundreds of clients each week.

Fortunately, by March 2020, Cultivate Abundance received a couple of grants, including one connected to Englewood Baptist near Kansas City, that enabled us to purchase local food for distribution. Our immediate challenge was to find available sources of produce.

Initially, nearby 12 Seasons Farm had plenty of produce to sell as their market for quality, organic produce had collapsed due to the COVID-related closure of local hotels, restaurants, and farmer's markets. However, as 12 Seasons scaled back operations during the hot months, we needed to find another local food source.

I had met Jay Parson the year before when a friend took me over to meet him. He patiently answered our questions about his crop of greens before he and his wife, Gloria, headed out for the Wednesday evening church service at St. John First Missionary Baptist where he served as a deacon.

By the time I dropped by his place again in the summer of 2020, his greens were no longer seasonally available. However, they had plenty of okra and field peas. We agreed on a price; at least 25 percent higher than the local market price (yes, I’m a terrible businessman). Except for a time or two when our funding was low, or brief periods when his crops weren’t ready, I would show up every Thursday morning to buy the produce.

Mr. Jay and Gloria were in their early 70s and still quite robust. Gloria managed the business end of the operation whereas Mr. Jay handled the crop production.

Any notion that I would quickly pick up freshly harvested produce went out the window the first Thursday. Mostly a one-man operation with a lot to harvest each week, Mr. Jay was perpetually challenged to keep enough people around to help out. Inevitably, I would arrive to find okra, peas, or greens that still needed picking. So that I could make additional stops before heading to Immokalee with the bounty, I would wade into picking and prepping the produce before weighing it all and writing a check.

It was during those extended harvest and weighing sessions that I got to know Mr. Jay.

I learned that he was born and raised in a rural community not far inland from Myrtle Beach, SC. He was one of 21 children. He told me how his parents, descendants of enslaved people, sharecropped on a plantation to produce enough food for the family as well as cash crops, mainly cotton, so that they could make needed purchases and save up enough to buy their own land.

Poverty contributed to a high degree of self-sufficiency as they grew corn for food and livestock feed, sugarcane for syrup, and vegetables while raising pigs (which needed protection from alligators), cows, mules, and chickens. They even grew rice.

The better he got to know me, the more candid he was about the inequity and injustice faced by his family and community in the lowlands of South Carolina.

Mr. Jay described how expensive groceries, fertilizer, and other necessities were monopolized by the local establishment while each fall they were cheated out of a fair price for their cotton crop. Such practices - widespread and well documented - were designed to keep Black families in debt, leaving them with few options other than contributing to the local pool of cheap labor.

During the winter of 2021, Mr. Jay suffered an odd misfortune. As raccoons and possums were attracted to his backyard chickens, he would set traps to catch the thieving animals. Each sold for $30, his customer base being older folks in the neighborhood who still knew how to make a good meal out of wild game. Unfortunately, one of the trapped raccoons bit off the tip of his middle finger when he grabbed the top of the cage. The injury landed him in the hospital for a few days. 

The same year, Gloria was diagnosed with cancer. She died several months later.  

After that, Mr. Jay’s health went into decline. He was much less steady on his feet and at least once I had to help pull him up off the ground.

Continuing weekly produce pickups, I would help harvest or cull out any less-than-palatable greens that Mr. Jay’s assistants, Johnny, and Cat Man, might have tossed into the harvest bin.

Occasionally we would renegotiate prices and I would reassure him of my commitment to pay 25 percent above the current market price. All would be good for a while. But I knew that his memories of the cheating South Carolina establishment had left him with suspicions.

When I asked Mr. Jay whether folks in his home community ever stood up to the establishment, he said it was impossible. The racist system was not only rigged but violently enforced.

One summer day when we were harvesting okra, he told me that when he was five, a young man in their community had been lynched, hung from a tree. When I asked him if he remembered the name of the murdered man, he immediately answered, “Nook Bryce.” He also replied, “No,” to my follow-up question as to whether they reported the incident to the local authorities. That would get you in trouble.

Mr. Jay and I had some things in common. We were both Carolinians. We both loved to grow good food to feed others. We enjoyed each other’s company, and we were both Baptists.

What we didn’t have in common was racial experience.

As a North Carolina mountain boy born in 1962, there is no way I can fully comprehend all that Jay Parson, born in 1948, witnessed and experienced in the Jim Crow South. Whereas there were few barriers to my quest for university degrees, he couldn’t read. And though I’ve been treated decently by law enforcement around the world, he had been severely beaten by the Ft. Myers police not long after he moved to southwest Florida in the late 1960s. 

My long-term association with Mr. Jay and his friends was interesting and often fun. But sometimes I would leave his place troubled.

I was bothered by all the ways that his community had remained underserved. I deliberated whether I should be buying produce in one food desert to take to another. And as I heard Mr. Jay’s stories, I was confronted by my own privilege and racism.

I bought the final batch of collards in early May of last year. Mr. Jay was preparing to put in a summer crop of okra and peas, and he said that he’d call as soon as they were ready.

I waited. I knew that he never answered his phone. Plus, there had been previous stretches of no contact.  

Finally, in July when I went back to his house, no one answered the door. Disturbingly, nothing was growing on his property. I called Ellen to report what I had seen. With a quick internet search, she found Mr. Jay’s obituary. He died in late May of 2023 at the age of 75.

I believe that cultivating Beloved Community might include being mentored by a collard green farmer. More importantly, it means being educated, enlightened, and challenged by people, like Mr. Parson, who continue to struggle under systemic racism in its various forms.   

I have no doubt that Mr. Jay’s collard patch was holy ground.

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