Growing rice in Louisiana: A path to justice, for Black farmers

It’s past daybreak on a muggy July morning when Konda Mason reaches the farm, a 5-acre plot in rural Louisiana. Mindful of the heat to come, several workers are already weeding, and Ms. Mason – her daily meditation and yoga done – is ready for a busy day. She’ll field calls from farmers and suppliers, check the progress of the industrial rice mill she’s building, and meet with a journalist curious about why a Black Buddhist from Oakland, California, is growing rice in a red county of a very red state. But right now, in the calm of the still-early hour, Ms. Mason bends to pluck a stray weed or examine a new bud. 

A slender, muscled woman with waist-length dreadlocks, Ms. Mason sees the farm as the apex of her efforts as a social entrepreneur and eco-spiritual activist. Today she’s sporting a red bandanna to shade herself from the sun, but in her nearly 70 years, she has worn many hats. She’s been a concert promoter, filmmaker, and supporter of Black innovators and problem-solvers. As with her other endeavors, this new project manifests the values that have guided her life: love, justice, community, and a willingness to leap into the unknown.

“I was taught by my family that I had a role to play in making this world a better place,” Ms. Mason told listeners in her keynote address at the 2015 Wisdom 2.0 forum in San Francisco. “I’m continually digging into that and figuring out what it means and how it shows up and it changes over time.

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Impelled by love, Konda Mason has built community among musicians, social entrepreneurs, and farmers – all in an effort to make the world more just.

“The question I ask myself is, how can you go deeper, what do you have to let go of in order to do that, and are you willing to do it?”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Members of the Jubilee Justice team (from left) Myles Gaines, Juan Manuel Hernandez, and Bernard Winn weed a rice field in Alexandria, Louisiana.

This time, going deeper meant leaving her home, her sister, her partner, and her friends to promote what she hopes is a revolution in rice production. Her goal is to support a more sustainable and less expensive way to grow rice, in hopes of staunching the loss of Black-owned farmland. Working alongside an agronomist from Cornell University, she uses what’s called the System of Rice Intensification, common in developing nations but new to American farmers. Going deeper has also meant mastering the complexities of soil and weed management, crop rotation, fertilization, the milling of rice, and bringing it to market. Equally complex, of course, is working in a region where race relations are historically fraught.

A Black Buddhist

Threading through Ms. Mason’s ventures is her commitment to Buddhism. She began the practice by happenstance, but her bond, deepened over 40 years of study, fuels a fierce desire to leave the world more just and loving than she found it. The majority of American Buddhists are white or Asian; only about 3% of the community is Black. Yet despite their modest numbers, these practitioners have had an outsize impact on American Buddhism, challenging the taken-for-granted individualistic focus, white privilege, and political detachment that have characterized many sanghas (Buddhist communities). 

Ms. Mason is a leader in these changes, adopting some practices common to Asian Buddhism and others that reflect her African heritage. Chief among the latter: prioritizing community, honoring ancestors, and embodying spiritual engagement by working for social and political change. 

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