Brother and sister farmers Matthew and Althea Raiford and their centennial organic certified farm.
George Washington Carver is widely known for his contributions to agriculture in the twentieth century. In the South, crops were predominantly monocultures such as cotton but Carver advocated a change to a polyculture that included more diverse crops including peanuts, soybeans and pecans. Carver and his work demonstrated that a shift away from monocultures could be beneficial beyond crops; diversity is essential to both farmers and farming.
Despite contributions made by African Americans, the most recent Census of Agriculture found that of the 2.2 million farms in the United States, 83 percent have white males as principal operators; African Americans constitute only 1.4 percent of principal farm operators and are particularly underrepresented within organic farming.
This wasn’t always the case; in 1920, the number of African American farmers in the US was at its highest when they constituted 14.3 percent of farm operators. Several factors contributed to this decline, including the general decrease in small farms, the shift to the mechanization of cotton, New Deal farm programs that mainly favored white landowners and, more recently, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture used discriminatory policies against black farmers from 1981 to 1996.
Minority Report: The number of African American farm operators is currently estimated to be less than 2 percent.
Organizations like the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network(SAAFON) are working to address the disparity that exists for African Americans within organic farming. SAAFON was founded by Cynthia Hayes and Dr. Owusus Bandele nearly six years ago, following a training on organic production and sustainable agricultural practices. At the time, there were no African American certified organic farmers in several southern states, yet the training indicated there was an overwhelming interest in becoming certified.
Often times, many of the farmers were already practicing organic farming methods. As Hayes told the James Beard Foundation, “You talk about composting…my uncle had a stinky pile. That’s what we called it.”
Although organic farming techniques may be something many African Americans are already familiar with, they sometimes lack the certification and also face additional challenges in an already difficult field. Hayes explains, “The basic challenges faced by all small scale producers are the same: lack of resources, lack of water, too much water, drought, diseased crops, increase in fuel cost, diminished production. The additional challenges for African American farmers is marginalization. The failure on the part of governmental agencies and primarily white agricultural organization to provide the training and information necessary for Black farmers to be successful in organic production. In the Southeast the issue of racism is still very prevalent and a challenge we deal with every day.”
In order to address this, SAAFON facilitates the process of obtaining organic certification by providing training to underserved farmers. Currently, SAAFON has 121 members, with over 50 who are USDA certified organic, with an aim to add ten farmers to their network each year. They’re also broadening the areas they work in; in February of this year, they launched their Caribbean Initiative which expands their alreading existing work providing outreach and education within the Caribbean.
In addition to providing certification, highlighting the historic contributions of African Americans within organic farming is also a central part of SAAFON’s mission. And there are some pretty fascinating stories to be told.
Brother and sister farmers Matthew and Althea Raiford were the recipients of SAAFON’s Booker T. Whatley Award, which honors Black Farms that have been retained by one family for over 100 years. Their 25 acre farm, Gilliard Farms, has been in their family for over six generations. Located in Brunswick, Georgia, the land has been free from synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers since their family acquired it in 1876. Matthew and Althea are both military veterans who also shared another commonality: the dream of returning to their roots, continuing the family’s farming tradition of farming and investing in the community in which they were raised with projects including their Community Supported Agriculture program.