African-American farmers are helping to reshape how and what we grow in the South.
Photography by Beau Kester, Matthew Raiford and Eileen Mouyard
Chef and farmer Matthew Raiford and I seek refuge from the oppressive heat beneath an outstretched and gnarled oak. The tree is old enough to have been a seedling when Raiford’s ancestors settled Gilliard Farms in 1874. As I survey the 25 mowed acres that stretch out to towering forests that rim the property, I see both a farm and a family. There are small houses where Raiford and his fiancé, mother and grandmother all live, sustaining one another. The quiet country breeze that rustles the oak feels like a pulsing bloodline between them, and I realize I am bearing witness to the power a place can hold.
Raiford—tall and broad—naturally commands attention. But with a warm smile and serious humor, he is a big hug of a person. Beneath the oak, Matthew gazes over his shoulder and takes stock of his inheritance.
“If you told me in 1986 that I was going to come back and farm, we would be having a whole different conversation,” he muses. “I thought nothing could ever make me want to come back here. I didn’t leave just because it was the South. I left because the opportunities for me, as an African-American male, were to work at the mill or leave. I wanted to get away.”
Raiford sways heavily in his boots when he walks, reminding me of the oak that watches over the family farm and shelters every living thing—every living memory—that it holds. He is the sixth generation of his family to break this soil. While the sand gnats swarm, he tells me about how he left, joining the Army the first chance he got, but he never forgot how much he loved cooking and adored being around food. He recalls his father’s response to the notion of pursuing cooking as a profession.
“He said he’s never seen an African-American chef and there’s a whole lot of other things I could be doing with my time.”
Still, once he had served his country, Raiford headed due north—and straight for the prep tables and ovens of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Later, after receiving a scholarship from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, he attended the University of California Santa Cruz to study ecological horticulture at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Then, he returned to the land where his roots run deep and wide.
A Hard Row to Hoe
Today’s Gilliard Farms is a USDA-certified organic farm where Raiford works alongside his fiancé and business partner, Jovan Sage. Even Raiford’s 97-year-old grandmother gets out on the farm to help.
“She comes out that door and still walks, ever so slowly, over to the muscadine arbor to taste the grapes and see how they’re doing,” he chuckles. “She can taste something and know—just know—that it needs a few more days of sun, no matter if it’s a grape or a 40-pound watermelon. It’s so amazing, her understanding and relationship to things that grow.”
Nearly six million African Americans left the South during the Great Migration to the seats of industry up North—Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh—searching for a better life far away from the hard and brutal soil that still held the blood, sweat and tears of slaves. But Raiford’s grandparents chose to stay and live on the land homesteaded by his great-great-great-grandfather more than 140 years ago.
Since the 1980s, the nation has experienced a reverse migration of sorts, in which the sons and daughters of the exodus are returning to a different South for work, a sense of history and home. And some, like Raiford, have chosen to do the hard work of farming. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of African-American farmers has increased 12 percent—and 90 percent of those farmers reside in the South. Raiford is among them, and views agriculture not only as a form of social responsibility, but also as reclamation of southern soil.
As we walk toward the chicken coop, past seedlings for a variety of herbs, we share a just-picked pluot (a sweet plum-apricot hybrid) still warm from the sun. Raiford introduces me to a peculiar and aged-looking contraption that happens to be the farm’s original sugar cane grinder and boiling bowl. It still works, and the farm plans to produce sugar cane syrup using that same press. My eyes are wide as I shake my head in disbelief as if I am seeing a dinosaur. Raiford chuckles and nods, knowing how we both understand the significance of the press itself—both as relic and a symbol of the strength of family and the land we’re walking across.
Then, he breaks the silence.
“I was raised on the notion that food surpasses sustenance.”
Planting a Seed
Activist Cynthia Hayes sees Raiford and others, like “Farmer Joe” of Clark and Sons and Helen and Joseph of Joseph Fields Farms, as critical to addressing issues of food justice—not just here in Savannah but throughout the Southeast and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Hayes and I talk over coffee at the Sentient Bean, with a view of the southern end of Forsyth Park, where the farmers’ market she helped establish is held every Saturday. She laments the land African-American farmers have lost over time through government grabs, institutionalized discrimination and generation gaps.
“For blacks, the history connected to agriculture is violent and the industry of farming has not been seen as an economically valuable path,” she says.
According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, African Americans comprise just one percent of all farm owners in the U.S. The average age of the African-American farmer is 60, with nearly 40 percent over the age of 65. Hayes asserts that, to nurture healthy attitudes and sustainable practices, you have to start young.
Though raised in Ohio, Hayes spent many summers on her family’s Kentucky tobacco farm, gaining experience in cultivation. She co-founded the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON) here in 2006, and she has been helping African-American farmers unite and succeed through a shared commitment to sustainable agricultural practices. She seeks to enable younger African Americans to value organic farming—whether as growers or consumers. For her tireless advocacy, Hayes received the James Beard Foundation’s Leadership award in 2013 as well as the Southern Foodways Alliance’s John Edgerton award.
SAAFON addresses the “demand from black farmers to have education and information about organic and sustainable agriculture,” Hayes explains. “The principles and the USDA application required in order to become certified organic can be quite daunting. We’re just there to hold hands through the process. We’re here to support the farmers. Always.”
“I’m not going to lie; farming is hard work,” Raiford admits. “It’s not glamorous. You’re at the mercy of the land and Mother Nature. But hey, that’s farming. It’s life.”
What Raiford, Hayes, the Fields and the Clarks are doing is no small feat. They are helping to heal their communities through healthy food—food that nourishes our bodies as well as the land beneath our feet. They have reclaimed that land to write a different story for the South—one that we can all be proud of, one that calls us home.
“People crave to feel the sun on their face, hear those crickets, to watch the hawk fly over,” Raiford reflects. “I sit out here late at night and watch every star pop out, and I can sit here now and look through those oak trees at the most beautiful sky and know that it is hanging over an ocean. People crave the kinds of connections that help them appreciate what they are doing or buying or sourcing. We are starting to remember that we have the right to ownership.”
The Farmer and the Larder—Raiford and Sage’s new restaurant, kitchenware shop and cooking class outpost in Brunswick—stocks this sweet-spiced, tart preserve made with seasonal plum-and-apricot hybrids.
Makes 1 quart
Pint or quart-sizes large-mouth mason jars
1 cup water
1 cup organic sugar
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 cinnamon stick
½ jalapeño, seeded
1 2-inch piece of ginger, thinly sliced
1 pound of pluots or plums, cut in half and pit removed
Sterilize the mason jars according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Bring the water to a boil over high heat in a medium-sized saucepan. Add sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves.
Turn the heat to low and add the vinegar, cinnamon stick, jalapeño and ginger. Allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Put the pluots or plums in the mason jars and pour the pickling liquid over the fruit. Allow the pickles to come to room temperature, then seal the jar and place in a cool, dark place until ready to serve. Refrigerate after opening. Enjoy the sweet and the heat.