In the late 1950s, a group of African-American farmers banded together, against adversity, to create an owned and operated 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 be a success.
McCray’s agricultural background developed during his time spent studying agricultural education under George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1931-1936. 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, Florida.
Emmett McCray in Okinawa during World War II
During his time at Lincoln Memorial High School, McCray taught the students vocational agriculture, served as the faculty advisor for New Farmers of America, and taught evening vocational agriculture classes to adults. Many of McCray’s former 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 establish a cooperative solution to help improve their financial situation.
McCray’s night class for local farmers to promote continuing education for
farming techniques and practices.
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. However, 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 of individuals 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 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.
Interior of Mana-Hill Co-op, 1978
The Co-op was able to secure more funding and loans from several sources, including Southern Cooperative Development Fund (SCDF). 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, in a bad year.
In the early 1980s, Mana-Hill looked to expand beyond their current production and establish new agricultural ventures. They began to explore a partnership with the SCDF to purchase and develop 1,600 acres in east Manatee County for a farming project. The Manatee County Commission blocked the development without a sufficient cause and the SCDF won a discrimination charge lawsuit against the Commission. This lawsuit along with several other financial issues including a significant decrease in governmental assistance and loans as well as reported member greed led to demise in the financial profitability of the Co-op. Mana-Hill closed its doors in 1985.
Emmett McCray with boxes of Mana-Hill tomatoes, 1978.
Emmett McCray worked with the Co-op until they closed. He was also heavily involved in the community and was a driving force in the founding of the Memphis Fire Department in the late 1950s. McCray served as Fire Chief for the all-volunteer force from 1958 until the force merged with the Palmetto Fire Department in 1963.
Emmett McCray was featured in an article about the Memphis Fire Department. He stands in front of the barbecue stand that help support the fire department in the 1950s and 1960s.
He received many awards for his contributions to the community including the Agriculturist of the Year in 1991 from the Kiwanis Club, African American Hall of Fame in 1993 in Pensacola, and the Palmetto Youth Center named the E.A. McCray Sports Complex to honor his long support of the Center. McCray passed away in 2004, but those who were taught by McCray were deeply impacted by his mentor-ship and continue to hold him in high esteem.