Rivers' life of service recognized during Black History Month
- By CHRIS ALDRIDGE
- Kentucky Agricultural News
During Black History Month, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is recognizing the contributions of Black Kentuckians to the agriculture industry.
For most of his 72 years, Louie Rivers Jr. has lived a life of service.
Rivers retired from Kentucky State University’s (KSU) Cooperative Extension Program in 2019 after 25 years of helping the state’s farmers, especially those who had smaller farms, limited resources, were minorities, returning veterans or females. Before that, Rivers served his country for two decades as a U.S. Army officer, including two stints at American bases in Germany and South Korea.
In 2019, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles recommended then-Gov. Matt Bevin appoint Rivers to the State Board of Agriculture, where the Franklin County resident continues to serve Kentucky’s farmers at-large.
“Agriculture is the most important profession a person can be in,” Rivers said. “We all have to eat to exist.”
Rivers grew up on a 182-acre farm in Bamberg County, South Carolina, in the low country between Charleston and Columbia.
“We were the farm family of the year in Bamberg County in the mid-1960s,” he said, remembering helping his father raise hogs, beef cattle, soybeans, and cotton. “When I grew up, I wanted to be a farmer.
“That farm helped me go to college. My dad raised enough hogs to pay for the education of me and my six brothers and sisters.” Rivers graduated from South Carolina State University in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, then earned a master’s degree in dairy science at the University of Florida in 1972.
“I was the first black person to receive a master’s in dairy science from Florida,” he said proudly.
Rivers, who attended Florida on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, entered active duty as an Army second lieutenant in 1972. The next year, he married a woman whose father was also in the military.
“My wife grew up in Oklahoma and had no idea about living on a farm, but she knew what the military was like,” Rivers said. Fearing moving her to the farm would be culture shock, Rivers put his farming aspirations on hold. When he retired from the military in 1992, he returned to agriculture, working for extension programs in Georgia and South Carolina.
“I just wanted to help the farmer,” Rivers said. “The farm is where my heart is.
“In 1994, (former KSU Extension director) Dr. Harold Benson hired me to come to Kentucky to run their small farm program,” he added. “My intention was to be here four years, but I spent 25 years at the university and raised two sons, both of whom went to school at KSU.”
Rivers’ oldest son, Louie III, went on to get his doctoral degree from Ohio State University and is a professor in North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resources. Younger brother Rob, who was the first Bill Gates Scholar from Kentucky and received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in England, is a program director in the Office of Minority Health Research Coordination at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
As proud as he is of his sons’ accomplishments, Rivers’ achievements are also extraordinary. During his time at KSU, Rivers secured and managed more than $12 million in extramural grant funding. He was honored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with the 2017 Excellence in Extension Award, recognizing extension workers with visionary leadership, a track record of excellence in programming, and positive impacts on their community.
“I was the first person from an 1890 land-grant HBCU (historically black college and university) to win the award,” Rivers said of the presentation, made in Washington, D.C.
“I enjoyed helping the small farmers of Kentucky,” he added. “I worked with them, trying to improve their lives.”
In 1997, Rivers worked alongside Dr. Marion Simon to found the Third Thursday Thing workshop series. It continues today on the third Thursday of each month, providing small farmers across Kentucky with hands-on training and multidisciplinary research in horticulture, organics, livestock, pasture, forestry, aquaculture, apiculture, and cropping systems.
“KSU’s extension program has helped small farmers by providing them with so much education that it’s hard to put a value on it,” Rivers said. “It opens so many doors that many farmers are not aware of and allows them to go places that they would not have an opportunity to go if they have not participated in our programs.” Rivers and Simon also co-created the annual Small, Limited Resource, and Minority Farmers Conference, where participants learn how to access USDA resources, including Farm Service Agency loans.
“The KSU small farm conference is the largest annual gathering of African-American farmers in the state, and is designed to provide a mix of resources and networking opportunities for local farmers,” said Dr. Kirk Pomper, KSU’s director of Land Grant Programs. “Statistically, we know that, on average, participants of the small farmers program have shown an annual increase of $5,000 in income on their farms. It’s no wonder that Mr. Rivers is personally and professionally respected for his work in Kentucky amongst stakeholders and university educators alike.”
Rivers said the biggest change that occurred during his 25 years at KSU was the tobacco buyout, which caused many small minority farmers to diversify into beef cattle or vegetables for direct sale at local farmers’ markets.
Rivers said his greatest regret was the lack of long-term planning by many of Kentucky’s black farmers before they died.
“In most cases, their family members sold the farms,” he said. “They didn’t value the land and appreciate the struggles that their parents and grandparents had gone through to keep that land in the family.”
Rivers has made sure that won’t happen to the South Carolina farm that he grew up on and inherited. He has already deeded it to his two sons in equal 91-acre tracts.
“They both know they’ve got to keep it,” Rivers said, adding that he wants the land to be passed on to his grandchildren. Louis III has two sons, ages 6 and 2.
“There’s gonna come a time when farmers are going to be more important than they are right now,” Rivers predicted. “More and more people are eating local, thinking about their health, and wanting to know where their food comes from.”