Rafe Rivers and Ansley West Rivers cultivate community through sustainable farming and the arts. By Feifei Sun. Photography by Parker Stewart
It’s a breezy and overcast spring afternoon, and Rafe Rivers is inspecting some recently planted cherry tomatoes in a greenhouse on Canewater Farm, the 50-acre property and farmland he owns with his wife, Ansley West Rivers. “If these had been outside in the field, they would have gotten rained on today,” he says, as he leans down to pinch off a tiny green sucker branch that’s just started to flower. “Tomatoes hate humidity—you know, it’s actually really hard to grow organic tomatoes here on the coast.”
Keeping tomatoes alive in the Lowcountry’s unrelenting heat is one of many small miracles Rafe and Ansley have managed in the five years they’ve owned Canewater Farm, located about an hour south of Savannah in Darien, Georgia. Surrounded by sprawling marshland, a clear view of neighboring Sapelo Island, and countless moss-covered cedar and live oak trees, Canewater Farm is as stunning as it is storied: Once home to Native American tribes, the property became a rum distillery and sugarcane plantation in 1806. After the Civil War, the land was purchased by a woman who named it Driftwood Plantation and kept it in her family for more than 100 years before Rafe and Ansley acquired it in 2013. To achieve their goal of building a sustainable farm, the couple had to completely change some aspects of the property: Canewater Farm had previously been used as a planted pine tract, which required them to timber 20 acres of pine to turn it into the 20 acres of farmland it is now. They avoid using any synthetic chemicals, herbicides or pesticides in their crop production, and practice cover crop and compost methods, instead of nitrogen-filled fertilizer, to sustain its soil. Today, the Rivers grow more than 100 varieties of 30 crops on that land, supplying organic kale, radishes, onions and other vegetables and herbs to nearly 20 restaurants in Savannah alone—including the Grey and Green Truck Pub—as well as almost 30 more eateries in the broader Lowcountry region. Locals can also shop Canewater Farm products, including grits, fish fry and cornmeal, at Forsyth Farmers’ Market, as well as Brighter Day Natural Foods Market, Smith Brothers Butcher Shop and Byrd Cookie Company. “One of my favorite things is seeing all the families come to the farmers’ market with their big bags, buying groceries for the week,” Rafe says. “The idea that we’re feeding families and helping them get healthy, nutritious food harvested just the day before—it makes me feel really good.”
Bringing their organic farming operation to life required conscientious and necessary changes, but Rafe and Ansley left other aspects of the land intact. After talking to several contractors who favored demolishing the property’s 19th-century main house and cabin for new structures, the couple finally found someone who shared their vision: to restore and rehabilitate the original buildings for their family home and office and studio space. “It didn’t make sense to us to tear down what was here,” Ansley says. “There was so much character and beauty in the wood. It’s funny because so much of design today is about making brand new things look older, lived in—and what we had was the real thing.” The couple replaced damaged walls in the home with pine wood cleared for the farm, while kitchen shelves crafted from onsite cedar trees hold canned and pickled vegetables from their farm. A breezeway, where they spend most of their time listening to NPR and cooking dinner, houses a farm sink from the original structure.
Rafe and Ansley can’t say they ever pictured themselves in Darien; they thought they might end up in Montana, or Idaho, or in the Rocky Mountains. But every other aspect of their life—farming, art and family—is something they’ve been working toward for the better part of two decades.
The couple, both 35, grew up in Atlanta, where they were high school sweethearts. “I’d been in love with him since fifth grade,” Ansley recalls. “I lived near the baseball and football fields, and I’d watch him play. Of course, he didn’t know who I was until my freshman year.” They met at a Pearl Jam concert, and then a few weeks later at a dance, he asked for her number. The couple dated through the rest of high school, and for part of their time at the University of Georgia, where she studied photography and he pursued business and environmental ethics. It was at UGA, during a sustainable agriculture class, that Rafe was introduced to Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, an impassioned look at the cultural and historical context of farming and its demise in modern times. “Growing up in Atlanta, I was a city kid—I had no concept of agriculture,” he says. “When I started learning about it in college and doing my own research, I fell in love with the idea of growing your own food, and not relying on food coming from other countries or food that had been grown with chemical fertilizers. These days, there’s a lot of discussion about organic farming, but at the time, it was an epiphany for me.”
That realization would be the catalyst for his career: Rafe eventually studied at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and worked on various sustainable farms in New Mexico, California and Vermont. While out West in 2007, he also reconnected with Ansley in Wyoming, where she was on a photography assignment and he was working as a river guide. They were married in Teton Valley, Idaho, in 2010, and are now parents to 3-year-old daughter Emmalou, who can already discern a ripe tomato. A second baby is due this summer. Meanwhile, Ansley has followed her own passion, earning an MFA in photography at the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco, and developing a body of large-format photographs that have been shown in nearly 50 exhibitions across the country.
Nearly all of their experiences, both individual and shared, are reflected in Canewater Farm. It was at the farm Seeds of Change, in New Mexico, for example, where Rafe came to appreciate how cover crops can bolster soil. During his time at Fifth Crow Farm, in California, he admired the fact that student farmers were still paid for their work, since so much farming education operates through an apprenticeship model. Today at Canewater, Rafe is proud to pay nine employees who he considers family: “There wouldn’t be a farm without them.” Meanwhile in addition to her own photography career, Ansley works on the farm’s design and branding. Her strongest influence, however, may be the Thicket Residency, which brings artists, writers and other creatives to a cozy white ranch house on the property, where they make work based on Lowcountry themes.
“I love the intersection of agriculture and the arts—the idea that physical landscapes have been such an inspiration to both farmers and artists,” says Ansley, whose current personal work explores seven U.S. rivers (see page 34). “It’s special to be able to do something that combines my and Rafe’s passions.” The Thicket has hosted 20 residents so far, with participants hailing from as close as Florida and as far as China and the U.K. After a brief hiatus for much of the spring—the Rivers home served as a location for Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s forthcoming movie Gemini Man, starring Will Smith—Ansley is eager to start hosting artists again this fall.
Things at Canewater Farm are always expanding—the residency, the vegetables, the family, the plan. Over the next few years, Rafe wants to grow new crops, like sugar cane, build his own greenhouses, add more employees, and figure out a way to bring affordable organic produce to low-income communities. But first, he has a more immediate challenge. “We’re close to maxing out the land we can grow on,” he says, “so we need to add space, or get more efficient with the space we’ve got.” After all, their life needs room to grow in the coming years. There’s the business. Their residency. Their kids. And, of course, those cherry tomatoes.