The outstretched limbs of Savannah’s live oaks sent dappled sunlight along a wide promenade separating two rows of farm stalls in Forsyth Park. The Saturday morning farmers market was in full swing, with boxes heaped high with red peppers, collard greens, and bright orange carrots.
Hilton Graham was doing a brisk business in just-picked organic produce from his nearby Telfair County farm. Arranging bunches of greens, he gestured to his two teenage helpers to assist a waiting customer. “It’s a great day for a market, and as crazy as this place gets, it still gives me peace of mind being here,” Graham says.
In a city where more than half the population is African American, the park’s weekly farmers market is evidence of a slow reversal of history. As recently as 1963, Graham, a 61-year-old African American vegetable farmer, wouldn’t have been allowed to enter this park, let alone run a successful vegetable stand. Now, however, Forsyth Park is a true community space that’s helping to put a new face on the organic food movement.
Excluded for decades from public funds that helped white farmers prosper, black farmers have been left out of the growing ranks of organic farming, a movement that is giving small farmers across the country a chance at success. But by taking matters into their own hands, black farmers have formed the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON), helping members convert to organic agriculture and organizing a farmers market in a park that was once off-limits to them.
“When black kids were all grown up they left the farms for the cities to get jobs,” Graham says. That is part of the reason, he explains, why there are only 29,000 African American farmers left in the United States, down from nearly 1 million in the 1920s. Another reason, which Graham is more reticent to discuss, is the legacy of discrimination and neglect from government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Graham is one farmer who stayed behind to secure the heritage of black-owned farmland in the South. Continuing the work of several generations of his family, Hilton raises timber, cattle, and collard greens for wholesale commercial markets, and several acres of organic vegetables for sale at farmers markets.
Nothing comes easily to any farmer, but black farmers must add racism to the list of battles they wage, along with droughts, floods, and pests. “We had a Republican world whose mission it was to kill the small farmer,” Graham says. “The big farmers were getting $8 a bushel for their soybeans, but I was only getting $4. It doesn’t take one long to figure that out.”
There is no single path to prosperity for farmers today, but many are going organic. Between 2002 and 2007, according to the USDA Agricultural Census, the number of organic farms nationwide increased from 12,000 to 18,000, by far the most significant growth in any agricultural sector. The USDA organic seal is no guarantee that a farmer will become profitable, but it does give its bearer access to markets that often earn the farmer a premium price, whether it’s Whole Foods or the neighborhood farmers market.
But until recently, few black farmers were going organic. Cynthia Hayes, a longtime Savannah resident and activist, teamed up with Southern University agriculture professor Owusu Bandele to form SAAFON, what is believed to be the nation’s first black farmer-controlled organic organization.
The circumstances facing black farmers, Hayes says, were different enough to warrant the development of a separate program: Many African American farmers felt they couldn’t get culturally sensitive assistance from other, white-led organic programs. “We weren’t comfortable with the way that private groups were addressing the need,” Hayes says. “And this feeling was reinforced by the public sector, whose agricultural extension agents were telling black farmers they couldn’t afford to go organic.”
There was another factor that was just as dominant in SAAFON’s decision to go it alone. “Our farmers have a lot of pride,” says Hayes, “and they wanted a chance to do it their way.”
Under the auspices of SAAFON, Hayes and Bandele established a four-day training program. The program helps farmers transition from conventional to organic growing methods and complete the USDA organic producer application. One part of the curriculum, for example, teaches farmers to substitute animal manures and approved biological insect control for petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. The program also provides SAAFON trainees a historical review of African American farming in the South, reminding them that “organic” was the form of farming embraced long ago.
While expert trainers and a strong curriculum are essential to the program’s success, Hayes likes to reinforce the importance of peer support and the shared cultural experience. “It is common for most of the participants from previous trainings to mentor and support the new trainees. A real bond of solidarity develops among all the farmers.”
At the first training session three years ago, 15 farmers showed up—three times the expected turnout. That session went so well that SAAFON was soon invited to South Carolina, where they trained another 15 farmers. Today, 41 SAAFON members are USDA-certified organic, and another 10 will join their ranks shortly after the next class in March 2010. SAAFON has 120 members in all.
It doesn’t do a farmer much good to be certified organic without access to a market that can command a higher price, thus farmers markets have become critical for small farmers. “The first two years as a certified organic farmer I had no outlets, which meant I had to sell at a conventional price,” Graham says. So SAAFON decided to reach out to Savannah residents of all races, joining forces with others in the city’s “foodie” community to form the Savannah Food Collaborative. The coalition then spent five months lobbying the city for approval for a farmers market at Forsyth Park.
As Savannah’s geographic center, Forsyth Park is the city’s most accessible physical location, allowing the farmers market to serve everybody, not just elite shoppers.
The park “is the place where everyone feels comfortable. It’s our ‘melting pot,’” says Teri Schell, a homeless advocate and founding member of the farmers market.
Though the city is known for its parks and meticulously restored ante-bellum mansions, Savannah also has typical urban challenges: gentrification has pushed up the city’s housing costs; the poverty rate is 23 percent, and more than 28 percent of the city’s children are enrolled in the food-stamp program.
“SAAFON wants to assure access to local, organic food for everyone,” Hayes says.
Initially, city officials were wary of allowing farmers to sell their fresh produce in Forsyth Park. A farmers market was not in keeping with their image of the historic venue. But eventually, SAAFON and the Food Collaborative convinced city officials, aided in no small measure by Mayor Otis Johnson, who has made health policy a priority of his administration.
Since it opened in May 2009, the market has influenced the community in other ways. The Wholesome Wave Foundation—created by the late Paul Newman’s business partner, Michel Nischan—gave the market a grant to double the amount of fresh produce purchased by families who use food stamps. This healthy eating incentive has boosted sales for farmers while increasing consumption of fresh produce.
Not long after the market opened, the county’s health department established the bi-weekly Health Pavilion, an educational complement to the market’s robust offering of fruits and vegetables.
Hayes is proudest of the revitalization of black agriculture. Many of SAAFON’s members have returned to their roots after years of living in the North. SAAFON has also attracted former conventional growers who had changed careers because they couldn’t make a living in agriculture. “They are returning,” says Hayes, “because organic farming is allowing them to make money.”
Her long-term challenge, however, is making farming attractive to young African Americans. Hayes and others are working with the 1890 Land-Grant Institutions, better known as Historical Black Colleges and Universities, to provide training and resources to a new generation of African American farmers. Through the work of one of SAAFON’s partner organizations, the Southeastern Green Network, students at these institutions are learning how they can make their campuses, including their dining halls, more sustainable. Hayes hopes that their interest in the environment and health will lead young people to farming. “Youth find organic food a little more ‘jazzy’ than conventional food,” she says. “It just might be the way that more of our young people find their way back to the land.”
At a recent Saturday market, Mary Curley sat at her table, displaying at least two dozen varieties of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. At 70, Mary is the oldest of these African American farmers, and has the smallest farm among them, a quarter-acre. A beatific smile lights up her face as she recites the names of her organic offerings, urging customers to sniff and taste each one: Japanese orange, Thai basil, lemon grass, Cuban oregano, pineapple sage, and serrano, habanera, and banana peppers.
Curley grew up in Savannah in the 1940s and ‘50s and, after teaching for years on the West Coast, returned in the 1990s to a vastly different Savannah from the one she left. “I grew up during segregation when I wasn’t allowed in this park. Now I’m here, and I think that’s wonderful.”
Mark Winne wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mark is cofounder of the City of Hartford Food Policy Commission, the Connecticut Food Policy Council, End Hunger Connecticut!, and the national Community Food Security Coalition, and author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon, 2008).