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An African American farmer's Central Valley dream

An African American farmer's Central Valley dream
Nathaniel Kennedy works on his uncle Dennis Hutson's farm in Allensworth, Calif., in July. (Gabriel Scarlett / Los Angeles Times)

When his mother’s health was declining, Dennis Hutson moved to Allensworth in California’s Central Valley. The town, founded in 1908, was created on the principle that African Americans could own property, run their own town and live peacefully while pursuing the American dream. Population 471, the town is now just 5% African American.

It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everybody. Some cite the demographic shifts of African Americans moving to cities, and others the closure of the Allensworth railroad stop, for the economic downfall of the area. There is not even a service station or corner store in the town.

Dennis Hutson directs two of his farmworkers as they auger holes for trees to act as a windbreak on
Dennis Hutson directs two farmworkers as they auger holes for trees to act as a windbreak on his farm. Gabriel Scarlett / Los Angeles Times

When his mother, Nettie Mae Morrison, moved to Allensworth in 1979, Hutson began visiting. He was amazed by the poverty and lack of economic development. A Methodist preacher and Air Force chaplain, he said God spoke to him and told him to be a positive change in the community.

Dennis Hutson preaches to the small congregation at First Baptist in Pixley, California on August 12
Dennis Hutson preaches to the small congregation at First Baptist Church in Pixley, Calif., in August. Gabriel Scarlett / Los Angeles Times

Since then, he has purchased a 60-acre farm, hired several African American farm hands, and is now on his way to owning a sustainable, organic farm. In a country in which less than 2% of farmers are African American, Hutson hopes to provide a boost to this once-thriving town.

He is doing it to honor his late mother (“the unofficial mayor of Allensworth”) and to provide economic opportunity for his African American brothers and sisters.

After a morning of work on his farm and checking his fields' water levels in the evening, Hutson rests. His wife and most of his family live in Las Vegas. He jokes that all of his decades in the Air Force and tours around the world helped prepare him for this — his most remote posting. His wife plans to join him within a year, when the farm is more functional, and they will build a home.

Dennis Hutson points to a dike in his alfalfa fields in Allensworth California on August 12, 2018. A
Hutson points to a dike in his alfalfa fields. After the harvest, the process starts over and he floods the fields for several weeks. Gabriel Scarlett / Los Angeles Times
Dennis Hutson checks irrigation valves in his alfalfa fields in Allensworth California on August 12,
Hutson checks irrigation valves in his alfalfa fields. He could not recall any rainfall over the entire summer. Gabriel Scarlett / Los Angeles Times
After a full morning of work on his farm and checking his fields' water levels again in the evening,
Hutson rests at home after a long day in his fields. Gabriel Scarlett / Los Angeles Times

In the evening, Hutson drives to the edge of his farmland to visit his mother’s grave.

“I think she would be very pleased and proud to see what we have done here,” he says. “I think that part of the reason that she hung on so long was because she wanted to see the progress here and that someone other than herself was working for this community.”

In the evening, following a long day's work, Dennis Hutson drives to the edge of his farmland to vis
Hutson at his mother's grave. Gabriel Scarlett / Los Angeles Times
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