Mules and horses are still commonly used for plowing on small farms in this area. Many homes still lack indoor plumbing.
But here and there among the very poor are small signs of progress toward pushing back the bounds of rural poverty. For Nathaniel Drummond progress came in an unconventional form: a gift of pigs received through an nonprofit, private organization that has been fighting poverty in the southern region for 17 years -- the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC).
Mr. Drummond has farmed most of his life, working the 19 acres of land around his house that belonged to someone else. (By contrast Midwestern farms are measured in the 100s to 1,000s of acres.) But Drummond knew that he was nearly ready to retire, and he wanted something to pass on to his children. About five years ago the FSC offered him a chance.
By giving him some pigs and showing him how to raise them, the FSC helped him begin to add profits from the sale of pigs to his meager income. Earlier this year Drummond used his savings for a substantial down payment on the 19 acres of land he has long farmed. He plans to pay off the balance soon.
Standing in one of his pig pens, wearing blue overalls and a blue-checked plaid shirt recently, he described the extra income as ``the good Lord's blessing.'' With a big smile that revealed many missing teeth, he said of his land purchase, ``I felt like a new man.''
In another part of the county, John Townsend, an elderly black farmer, pauses at the aluminum gate of his tiny feed lot as he lets his small herd of cows out to pasture.
Several years ago he too received a gift of livestock through the FSC. After a period of breeding and raising the five heifers and bull that were given to him, Mr. Townsend sold some cows to boost his income a little just before he retires.
``It was tough,'' he said, to buy the 40 acres of farmland he acquired nearly half a century ago. With exaggeration that nevertheless hints at the hardships he went through to obtain and hold on to his land, he said: ``I half-starved and went half-naked.'' Of the land purchase he said proudly, ``I done it.''
But such examples of progress are vastly outnumbered by this region's examples of enduring hardships, poverty of a level most Americans have never seen -- conditions typical of a significant part of the rural South.
Sumter County has a sprinkling of large, plantation-style homes, a goodly number of brick houses and mobile homes, but most of all -- off the main roads -- housing that ranges from inadequate to nothing more than shacks.
A new report from the United States Census Bureau shows how little the national poverty rate of 15.2 percent in 1983 tells about areas like this. For beneath that statistic lies this fact: The poverty rate in the South outside of metropolitan areas (with 50,000 or more population) is 15.2 percent for whites but 44.3 percent for blacks. Many counties in this area have a proportionably high black population, and in some counties blacks are a majority.
The South also is the region with the highest concentration of black-owned farms. A 1982 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights showed a national decline in farms owned by whites from 926,000 in 1920 to 57,000 in 1978. The report also predicted ``there will be fewer than 10,000 black farmers by the end of the next decade.''
The civil rights report also said black farmers were often victims of ``racism'' by being denied a fair share of government assistance available to white farmers. In addition, the report said tax benefits, lending practices, and agricultural research are ``geared to large-scale farming,'' while most blacks own small farms. The commission recommended more federal assistance to black farmers, especially through the Farmers Home Administration (FHA).
But the financing level of FHA and other domestic programs affecting the rural poor remains uncertain as Congress and the President seek to trim budget deficits. Federal housing assistance programs earlier were cut back sharply under the current administration.
Cuts in housing programs are having a ``devastating effect'' on rural areas, says David Raphael, executive director of Rural America, a nonprofit membership organization that tries to help rural poor.
``There's no guarantee we [in the US] are doing much to eliminate poverty,'' Mr. Raphael says. Often all that is accomplished is to make conditions ``more humane'' for the poor, he says. ``We need some new and fresh thinking'' on the subject.
Raphael views the FSC as ``the most enduring, persistent, effective organization working with people whose need are just massive.''
Organized in 1967, the FSC was receiving around $2.5 million a year, most of it in federal funds, in the late '70s. Since then funding has fallen to around $700,000 and many of its cooperatives are only barely ``hanging on,'' says John Zippert, director of programs at its Epes, Ala., headquarters here in Sumter County.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted an investigation into the FSC's use of federal funds from 1979 to '81 but filed no charges. Mr. Zippert says the FSC was suspected of using funds to organize blacks to vote and win elections. He denies this, but says the organization did and continues to encourage its members to register and vote.
The FSC currently offers technical and financial aid to some 30 agricultural cooperatives for black farmers, 10 handicraft cooperatives and 20 credit unions.
This reporter did not attempt to make an evaluation of the FSC programs, which are spread out through about 10 states. No federal evaluation has been made, according to Zippert. But Raphael, of Rural America, observes about the FSC: ``The rhetoric and the goals are there. I'm not sure the accomplishments -- particularly economic -- are there.''
Raphael suggests a need for more emphasis on developing nonfarm jobs in rural areas. One method is to encourage a developer to renovate an old warehouse or an abandoned small town industrial park to enable small companies to use the premises, he says.
Federal low-interest credit is needed by small farmers, says Zippert. Rural extension agents also could help to develop markets for small farmers, such as food fairs, farmer's markets and tenant organizations in cities (the poor selling directly to the poor), he adds. Otherwise, Zippert says, those farmers willing to help themselves can do little more than survive.
William Eubanks, an agricultural specialist for the FSC, suggests a need for community or jointly owned tractors and other major farming equipment that could be shared among small farms like the one owned by Mr. Drummond. Provision by the FSC and other groups of seeds, fertilizers, and insecticides on a short-term basis would help some farmers break the cycle of poverty, he suggests.
On a drive through part of the area here, Zippert said he thinks an ``error'' of his organization has been its lack of an overall plan. The cooperatives that have survived, he says, are usually ones that have relied more on their own self-help efforts and less on outside funds. So the FSC is increasingly requiring more local contributions by the cooperative members themselves on projects, he adds.
Another person who has been doing her part to improve her lot, with the FSC's help, is Amanda Foster, a widow living in Cuba, Ala. The FSC gave her a motorized hand plow (that looks like a big garden tiller) and some chickens. Mrs. Foster has done the rest.
``I raise my vegetables and fill my freezer,'' she said here recently, standing behind her brick house, near her big garden. ``I raise plenty of chickens. I have plenty of eggs.''
Mrs. Foster, her hands jammed into the back pockets of her blue jeans, explained that she receives about $330 a month in social security and food stamps. She lives with her 13-year-old grandson and owns two acres of land.
``I hope I'm making a little progress,'' she says. Chart: Indoor plumbing in the US. Number of dwellings lacking some or all plumbing. Source: Census Bureau
% of lack of plumbing 1960 10,591,192 18 percent 1970 4,672,345 7 percent 1980 2,333,690 2.7 percent 1983 estimated 2,233,000 2.4 percent