In the late 1950s, a group of African-American farmers banded together, against adversity, to create, own and operate a packinghouse known as the Mana-Hill Co-op.
With the help of Emmett McCray, one of the most influential agriculturalists in Manatee County, the Mana-Hill Co-op was able to succeed. McCray's agricultural background developed during his time spent studying agricultural education under George Washington Carver from 1931-36 at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala.
At the Tuskegee Institute, McCray participated in numerous studies conducted by Carver. The majority of the studies tested the effects of alternative crops, such as peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, to determine if the quality of life and soil could be improved for Southern farm families.
Following graduation from Tuskegee, McCray began teaching vocational agriculture before enlisting in the U.S. Navy Seabees in 1942. After serving in World War II, McCray obtained a master's degree in agricultural education from Florida A&M University and began his 25 year career at Lincoln Memorial High School in Palmetto.
During his time at Lincoln, McCray taught the students vocational agriculture, served as the faculty adviser for New Farmers of America, and taught evening vocational agriculture classes to adults. Many of McCray's students were inspired to become farmers and stayed in the area managing small farms of 10-20 acres.
This local farming community was successful until 1949, when for "political reasons" the local farmer's market shut down and the African-American farmers were forced to sell their produce in the Tampa markets. The long commute created a financial hardship for the local Manatee County farmers and, out of necessity, led them to explore a cooperative mindset to help improve their financial situation.
The first attempt at the
co-op made by the Manatee farmers consisted on relying on larger farmers in the area to take their produce to the Tampa market. This plan was found to be unreliable. The next step taken by many of the farmers was to approach the packing houses directly, but with each attempt their products were refused.
Finally, a group from McCray's 1957 evening vocational agriculture class discussed the idea of creating a packing house run by a cooperative of farmers.
The creation and success of The Mana-Hill Co-op relied on eight members, each contributing the sum of $250. Attempts were made to secure a loan from Farmer's Home Administration for a packing house in 1969, but they were not successful until McCray retired from Lincoln in 1971. Now McCray could devote all of his time to obtaining the necessary funding for the packing house.
During the Co-op's first season, May 1972, the farmers operated out of a rented warehouse, purchased second-hand machinery, and used hand carts to haul the crates, while individuals' trucks were used for deliveries.
The Co-op was able to secure more funding and loans from several sources, including Southern Cooperative Development Fund. This funding allowed the Co-op to break ground on a new packing house in December 1972. The second-hand equipment remained, and within the first two years the farmers not only had excellent yields but also were able to receive high prices for their produce.
Farmers who participated in the Co-op were also able to increase their acreage, which led to greater crop production. Over the next decade the Co-op was a great success. While membership changed over time, in 1982, the eight members of the Co-op farmed 375 acres and grossed around $2 million.
Unfortunately, the information we have at this time on the Co-op is limited. The Manatee County Agricultural Museum is looking for more information about the Co-op from those who were involved or know those involved.
Former students of McCray's are also encouraged to contact the museum to let us know about their experience of learning under McCray's tutelage. We are working on an exhibit about Mr. McCray and the Mana-Hill Co-op for February 2015, and could use stories, photos and artifacts. Call the museum at 941-721-2034 or email Melissa.Dagenais@manateeclerk.com.
Melissa Dagenais, curator of the Manatee County Agricultural Museum, loves learning about history and can never decide which period to focus on.