Bob J. Nash, born and raised in Texarkana, Ark., served as undersecretary of agriculture for rural and community development under President Bill Clinton. Nash visited Florida Food & Farm on Oct. 25. / J.D. Vivian

Editor’s note: This is the first half of a story on Bob J. Nash, who was born on a Texarkana, Ark., farm in 1947. Part 2 will run Friday, Nov. 4.

Bob J. Nash learned about difficult work during his childhood in Arkansas. “In the 1960s, we had to climb trees to ‘whip the limbs’ with long sticks to make the pecans fall off. It was hard, scary work.”

That work — as well as other tasks a farmer’s child had back then — provided important impetus for Nash, 69. “We didn’t get paid. We had to go directly from school to the farm to work. Those were the biggest motivators for me to get off the farm and go to college.”

By the early 1960s, machines had been developed to shake the trees to make harvesting the pecans easier. “But we didn’t have those.”

Nash was born and raised on the “low-lying, bottom-land” farm that his great-grandfather, Jack Nash, had bought in the early 1890s in Texarkana.

The oldest of seven, Bob Nash helped to grow and harvest crops including cotton, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupes, and to tend to livestock. “We had a smokehouse for hams, bacon and pork skins. We’d eat some and sell some.”

Working together

Life on a farm is never easy, though working together helped. All the family members assisted, with the kids and mother, Eva Jo Nash, washing dishes and doing other chores. Because they also needed cash, Bob’s father, Jacob Nash Jr., worked in a nearby bullet factory in addition to farming.

Farm life was especially difficult for African-American farmers, Nash explained. “There was ‘racism by institution’; banks wouldn’t lend money because we were black.”

The Nashes also faced discrimination when selling their produce. Like many farmers then, Bob’s grandfather, Jacob Nash, delivered his crops to wholesale buyers in “croaker sacks” — made of coarse but strong material, such as burlap.

“But we were cheated,” Nash said. “We were paid less money than white farmers for sacks of the same size and weight.”

So Grandpa Jacob got creative. For example, “He would wet some of his pecans to raise the weight,” Bob recalled. “But he put them in smaller sacks.” That way, buyers couldn’t compare the weight of pecans in two croaker sacks of the same size.

Happy times for Bob J. Nash

Despite the hardships the Nash family faced, many of Bob’s memories are pleasant. Because they had a 2-acre area to grow sugar cane, they had a steady supply of molasses. Some they sold; some they pressed and cooked themselves, to use as a flavoring.

They also had about 2 dozen beehives, which provided honey.

Career highlights

After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, Nash attended the University of Arkansas and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. In 1972, he earned his master’s degree in urban planning.

He later served as then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s senior executive assistant for economic development. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Nash undersecretary of agriculture for rural and community development, a post he held until early 1995.

From April 1995 to Jan. 20, 2001, as assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel, he directed the recruitment, nomination and confirmation of presidential appointees for the Clinton administration.

In that position, Nash led the administration’s efforts to hire a diverse workforce that represented all Americans.

Next segment: The problems black farmers faced — even into the 1990s.