SAAFON: Fostering Indigenous Food Crops and Culture on the African American Farm

*AUTHOR BIO

“Growing farmers is the key, farmers are the fabric, and that’s just the way I look at it, it’s like a quilt; we are just building a quilt of farmers. That is what we are doing.” — Cynthia Hayes


In 2006, the late Cynthia Hayes joined with Dr. Owusu Bandele from the Southern University Agriculture Center to set up the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON). Hayes’ family had a more than eighty-year history of tobacco farming in Kentucky, and she herself had worked with local farmers in Jamaica, where she spent nine years.


Marshview Community Organic Farm’s Young Farmers of the Low Country on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, after a day of seed planting.  ©Marshview Community Organic Farm
Marshview Community Organic Farm’s Young Farmers of the Low Country on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, after a day of seed planting. ©Marshview Community Organic Farm

Organic Certification Training


When she moved to Savannah, Georgia, Hayes, together with Bandele, organized organic certification training and workshops so that value could be added to African American landowners’ produce. The SAAFON network was born to support and maintain these expanding relationships.




Building on an Important Legacy


Today, SAAFON is led by executive director Dr. M. Jahi Chappell. He has a rich background in areas such as food security, agriculture, and conservation biology, among others. Chappell, who is building on the legacy of Cynthia Hayes, expresses his passion for working with farmers: “I’m dedicated to creating a world where we protect and enhance the dignity of the natural world and the people in it. Agriculture and food have been called the most profound way people interact with the environment—we are literally taking the natural world into our body and turning it into ourselves, as our food becomes what makes up our body.”


Since its beginnings, SAAFON has focused on small successes, building a network of fifty-five core members and at least that number of prospective members. Their farmers, whose ages range from under twenty to over eighty, own 4,188 acres, with the average landholding consisting of forty-eight acres. They are based across ten US states and the US Virgin Islands—from Virginia and South Carolina to Florida and Tennessee.


Adding Value to Organic Produce


Products grown include flowers and vegetables. Value is added not just through organic certification but also tailoring produce for specific purposes. For example, at Abanitu Organics in North Carolina, the medicinal properties of their mushrooms are featured and flowers and herbs “multitask as bee pasture, food and habitat for beneficial insects.” Much of their produce appeals to those visiting farmers’ markets.


Returning to Ancestral Roots


A Marshview Community Organic Farm field of yellow squash and zucchini.  ©Marshview Community Organic Farm
A Marshview Community Organic Farm field of yellow squash and zucchini. ©Marshview Community Organic Farm

SAAFON’s members, young and old, are united by a commitment to ancestral ways of farming passed down through the generations. They practice subsistence farming and afroecology—a theory describing how Black people in the US can reconnect with their African or Afro-indigenous agrarian past through traditional planting and harvesting techniques—keeping cultural practices alive through storytelling and passing on memories of lineages and places.


Black agrarianism, outlined in SAAFON’s research document, acknowledges that people’s relationship with the land goes beyond transactional value, and that community and kinship are part of land stewardship. Economic viability, biodiversity, and ecology are equally important, and many generations need to be involved.


Sharing Sustainability Training and Gullah Cuisine


SAAFON member, Sará Reynolds-Green, runs non-profit Marshview Community Organic Farm on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. Young farmers, aged ten to eighteen, tend its five acres under adult guidance. Working after school and on weekends, they plant, nurture, and harvest crops, such as corn, tomatoes, watermelon, and okra, as well as Carolina gold rice.

Red Peas The red pea variety of Cowpea is an endemic heirloom of the Gullah people.
The red pea variety of Cowpea is an endemic heirloom of the Gullah people. ©Wikimedia
Okra were brought to the Sea Islands of the American south via the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The red pea variety of Cowpea is an endemic heirloom of the Gullah people.
Red Peas and Okra were brought to the Sea Islands of the American south via the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. ©Wikimedia

The farm aims to equip the farmers of the future with knowledge and expertise, develop organic food sources, and promote sustainable agriculture. Traditional Gullah style cooking (see video)—a fusion of west and central African cooking techniques and ingredients from South Carolina’s coast and sea islands—is also shared with the local community through the farm’s home-cooked meals program.

Frogmore stew
Frogmore stew is a signature Gullah dish—a boiled, one-pot mixture of crab, shrimp, sausage, corn, and spicy seasonings named after a small town on St. Helena Island, the center of Gullah life. ©A13ean/Wikimedia

Moreover, Reynolds-Green raises awareness of the history of the Gullah people through original plays and performances in which the young farmers are involved. She is deeply concerned about passing on the legacy of organic farming to the younger generation, a task she describes as “challenging, and also rewarding.”


Helping Farmers Grow Healthy, Culturally Appropriate Food


SAAFON is creating a community land trust to obtain, preserve, and manage Black-owned agricultural land in the southeastern parts of the US. The organization’s direct support helps farmers with business planning, grants, capital loans, education, and training. Its long-term aims include setting up a database to support the right to sustainable, healthy, culturally appropriate food. Collective strategies organize farmers so they can work together and share resources and knowledge. In addition, SAAFON provides spaces for sharing and learning while promoting intergenerational exchanges.


Sharing Knowledge


One example of the collective way in which SAAFON works is through brigade work. In May 2021, farmers took part in the Georgia Farmer Brigade initiative. Each brigade—six to eight farmers—visited host farms to help with a variety of projects. They took on tasks like staking tomatoes, weeding garden beds, and painting buildings. Apart from taking care of farmers’ needs for help, members could also connect with one another to share information and knowledge, have conversations about growing up on a farm, and document family histories.


Looking to the Future


Chappell’s vision for the future: “The only way to a better system, one that honors both the Earth and all of its living things, including people, is for the production of food and agricultural products to be recognized as an honored profession, one deserving of dignity, as part of a society that makes it economically, culturally, socially, and environmentally sustainable to be a producer.”

 

Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.


Editorial Note

Source: The Earth & I interview with Mrs. Reynolds Green.