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Planting seeds for the future at South Carolina's first Black Farmers Conference

You reap what you sow

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Tues. March 26 marked the inaugural South Carolina Black Farmers Conference, organized and hosted by Fresh Future Farm's Chief Farm Officer, Germaine Jenkins. The one-day gathering brought together a mix of educators, food justice advocates, and black farmers with a simple goal. "I hope that what comes out of this conference is that we can connect and look at some of the innovative work that other farmers in other places are doing," Jenkins says.

Warm and soft-spoken, Jenkins started growing food out of necessity. A single mother at the time living in a food desert, as defined by the USDA, she moved to Charleston to pursue a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales University and wanted to be able to put together well-rounded meals for her kids.

"I've got a kid with extreme food allergies and the grocery store that is three miles away from where the farm is currently just doesn't accommodate any of those needs."

From there, the idea for Fresh Future Farm (FFF) was born. For the past five years, the farm, which sits in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood of North Charleston, has acted as a sliding-scale grocery store, community hub, and nonprofit, working to leverage unused city assets to create food and job opportunities in other low-income communities without access to full-service grocery stores.

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

Guests of the conference started their day with an early morning tour of the farm and, from there, traveled downtown to Society Hall for presentations from local and national leaders in the black farming space. Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black, a memoir/how-to guide for aspiring black farmers, provided the keynote address. Her remarks charted her personal journey to farming and traced the origins of farming techniques, such as permaculture and vermin composting, back to Africa. For example, Penniman notes that during Cleopatra's rule, it was forbidden to kill worms in Egypt because of their vital role in enriching the soil. In addition, artist Jonathan Green delivered an opening address focused on the history of black farming in the Lowcountry from slavery to present-day pot gardens.

While the goals of the conference might seem simple enough, it is important to note that, historically, little about black farming in the United States has been easy. Although black people have been farming in the U.S. for about four centuries, the organized opposition to black land ownership and the systematic discrimination against black farmers in the agricultural industry has made it exceedingly difficult for black people to own and retain farmland. Indeed, it has only been a little over 20 years since the class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, prevailed, alleging racial discrimination against black farmers at the hands of the United States Department of Agriculture in its allocation of farm loans and assistance. The case resulted in one of the largest civil rights settlements in American history.

Today, Jenkins' humble hopes belie a complex, long, and deep history that renders the gathering of black farmers to connect with each other and share resources and experiences nothing if not radical.

Although African Americans currently make up about 13 percent of the population, they own less than one percent of rural land. But that hasn't always been the case. In 1920, that number was a little over 14 percent; that percentage of land ownership can be attributed, at least in part, to reconstruction. In her paper, "Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty," Dorceta E. Taylor offers some helpful background on the impact of The Freedmen's Bureau Act of 1865, specifically, on black land ownership in the Carolinas:

"The Freedmen's Bureau Act of 1865 called for 40-acre parcels to be carved out of abandoned plantations and unsettled lands and sold to former slaves. That year, about 40,000 blacks were settled on tracts on the Carolina Sea Islands and cultivated thousands of acres of environmentally vulnerable lands in swamps, tidal flats, river bottomlands, and flood zones."

At the inaugural Black Farmers Conference, guests started their day with an early morning tour of the farm - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • At the inaugural Black Farmers Conference, guests started their day with an early morning tour of the farm

Those numbers have dwindled due to a combination of factors, including heirs' property and the migration of many African Americans to Northern cities between 1916-1970, responding to social, economic, and environmental factors. Nonetheless, conference attendee Dr. Nadjah Thompson continues to farm her family plot on Saint Helena Island.

"First, like most young people who leave a rural area, you leave feeling like 'I'm never coming back to this old town'. In fact, I have a diary, a journal that I kept in high school, and it actually says, 'I'm never coming back to this dusty old town'."

And leave she did, to study public policy at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Later, she obtained a master's degree in adult education and distance learning from the University of Phoenix, and a Ph.D. in public policy and administration at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"After I had my son," she says, "I would bring him back home and the longing for home kicked in." She jokes that her colleagues would poke fun at her for returning to Saint Helena on weekends like it was Virginia Beach. Now, she works as a professor to help pay the bills, and farms her family's land, known for its okra which she sells at various farmers' markets in the area.

The day of the conference, Thompson was joined by several other Saint Helena residents, including her aunt and uncle, and a former director of the Penn Center, an African-American cultural and educational center near the community of Frogmore.

"Saint Helena has this really strong farming history, a really strong black farming history. And, it is different than a lot of areas in terms of land ownership," says Jenkins.

Penniman - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Penniman

She credits the Penn Center with keeping Saint Helena farmers and friends connected. She approached the conference in Charleston with fresh excitement, though, as an opportunity to meet and network with farmers from other cities. Penniman, for example, in addition to her book, runs Soul Fire Farm, a community farm based in upstate New York committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. And Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network works with the community farming enterprise D-town farms in Detroit, Mich.

But Thompson's homecoming story seems unique, since the problem of getting younger generations to engage in black farming traditions and practices was raised multiple times throughout the day. This resistance is attributed, in part, to the association of farming and land work with slavery. Says Yakini of working with young people at D-town, "We can almost be assured that in the first half hour there will be some reference to slavery."

Artist Jonathan Green also notes, "We need to educate our children about why we eat what we eat and where it comes from." However, the goal, according to Green, isn't simply to gripe at ne'er-do-well youngsters about their history, it is a matter of life and death.

"All it takes is one strain of a virus and it is going to wipe out the entire crop. And when that happens, McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, all of those places are going to cave. This is the key to survival."

Penniman runs Soul Fire Farm, a community farm based in upstate New York - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Penniman runs Soul Fire Farm, a community farm based in upstate New York

His remarks struck an ominous chord, echoed in reflections of other conference participants that augured a future where small black farming, in addition to preserving African-American and West African traditions, might be all that stands between black people and oblivion.

"We've got to get the mechanisms in place so that it's not so hard when you can't get food from Publix," Thompson forecasts. "Right now you can, but that is going to change. I am predicting it. And it is going to be ridiculously expensive and our community does not have a lot of economic resources."

Yakini notes that the concentration of African Americans in urban centers makes them particularly vulnerable to calamity, as their food and food distribution sources are by and large owned and operated by other people. "It really speaks to people having control of the food system, not just having enough food," says Yakini.

The seams are already starting to show. During her keynote address, Penniman described urban farming with her daughter when she was a little girl. Penniman would take her daughter with her, transforming vacant lots in urban communities into community gardens. When she took her daughter for a routine checkup, the doctor said she had toxic levels of lead in her blood. It was from the soil. Her story stands out as a stark illustration of how black, brown, and poor communities from New Orleans to Flint shoulder the impact of manmade and natural disasters.

Addressing that imbalance of power, Yakini says, is difficult in a capitalist framework where "land is seen as something that goes to the highest bidder." But, he says, collective action is key. "Most of us are trying to survive day-to-day and week-to-week. And so we don't have the economic clout to attack these things individually. It has to be done collectively." 

For more information on any of the farm projects referenced in this article visit freshfuturefarm.org, d-townfarm.com, and soulfirefarm.org.

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