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Archive for September, 2012

I mentioned Gullah culture in a previous post when I’d first arrived in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, which is a hub for many Gullah/Geechee people. But in my next two posts, I want to highlight two family farms running amazing businesses and preserving their family history in the heart of the Gullah islands.

Joseph Fields Farm

Helen and Joseph Fields at their home on Johns Island, SC

“I’m a third generation farmer. Born and raised on the farm. My family’s been doing ‘organics’ here since the 50s, maybe 40s too, ’cause we used chicken manure and cow manure. But then I started doing conventional farming. Now I’ve switched back to organic because those chemicals, they cause cancer,” Joseph Fields.

Joseph and Helen Fields are farming the Fields family land on Johns Island, SC, which has been in the family since the 1800s. “My parents told us to hold onto this land, because land is hard to hold onto. The kids will lose it somehow during the years, through tax or other problems, so that’s what we’re trying to do, is hold onto it,” says Joseph.

And that’s exactly what they’ve done. Joseph and Helen have been farming the land for about 40 years, and about 11 years ago they began learning about modern organic farming through the Bioneers Conference and got certified with the help of the Southeast African American Farming Organic Network. Now, they’re selling organic produce through several farmers markets, to some local schools and most recently their produce is going to Whole Foods!

I drove around the farm with Joseph for the afternoon, who told me stories about growing up on the land, about his family’s Gullah culture and about how he and Helen met so many years ago. He had quite the sense of humor, so his stories were interjected with my laughter, but he also had quite an array of knowledge on farming.  As he pointed out the various crops growing on their plots spread out over the 60 acre land, he shared with me some of the practices they use – like black plastic mulch for their tomatoes and drip tape pumped from their well.

I got to meet some of Joseph’s apprentices, or young farm hands, working and learning from Joseph. Both were in their 20s, one a student, and both were white. I asked Joseph how many of his apprentices over the years are Black, or people of color. He said “none.”

Farming in the middle of Gullah nation, where agrarian roots and food traditions are so strong, and yet the question remains: Where are our young brown people on the farm??

These posts are just small excerpts from the upcoming COLOR of FOOD/ photo documentary book! I just arrived back home from the 5 month tour interviewing farmer to farmer. So I will continue to post photos and stories here and on thecolorofood.org site! Bear with me as I am way behind on posts, still catching up from having limited web access on the road. Currently still posting from my time with mainly Black farmers in the Southeast, but more posts from Hispanic and Native farmers in other parts of the country are to come!!

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This is the last ‘Behind the Wheel’ post, as I am now off the road from the Color of Food / photo documentary tour, and am back home working to put the stories and images together from all the farmers of color I interviewed, so they can be shared far and wide!

This morning, I returned from the mechanic with heartwrenching news. In fact, I feel like I should have been wearing black with a prepared eulogy in hand.  Lucille, my home and the Color of Food headquarters for the last 5 months, is dead.

Miss Lucille was the 1990 Oldsmobile station wagon that carried me safely across the United States this summer to interview over 60 farmers for my photo documentary – the Color of Food.  She, after being garaged most of her life, drove thousands of miles for five months straight, endured over 100 degree temperatures, traversed dirt roads across rural America, climbed the steep mountains of the West and ventured through the isolated prairie lands of our Native reservations. And she did it all with style and grace.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve become attached to a material thing, so much so that I’m even blogging about it. But this beast of an automobile morphed into a real person for me and others who had the privilege to know her out on the open road. This car really had her own personality – she did things her way and took her sweet time doing it- but she gave me a priceless gift.

Not only did Lucille keep me safe for every moment on the road(living up to her namesake, B.B. King’s guitar who he claims saved his life), but she was responsible for getting me face to face with the many farmers this country needs to know:

Black farmers in the South who invited me into their homes and shared with me photos of their ancestors, stories of first buying their land, struggles of escaping disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the pride of providing for their families and communities from their own land.

Hispanic farmers on the border of Mexico transitioning from farmwork to owning and running their own farm businesses, or those that are farming the same land their family has farmed for 300 years, growing traditional foods and irrigating with the same indigenous practices that have been used in their region for hundreds of years.

Asian farmers who are introducing their traditional foods and vegetables into communities where food diversity is severely lacking, as are healthy alternatives.

Native American farmers who are proving that dry farming (no irrigation) is not only possible, but a way of life for many indigenous cultures in the driest parts of our country; while others fought battles with water rights in the face of drought -which is an extremely significant issue with a global farming community facing drought, climate change and an opressive movement of GMO/drough resistant seed takeovers. These farmers  invited me, an outsider, in to learn about sacred traditions with corn, traditional foodways and ceremony.

I never would have had the chance to spend this time visiting with and learning from so many of this country’s amazing and resilient communities and the people who are feeding them, had it not been for Lucille. She started as a gift from those who supported the Color of Food’s fundraising efforts, and now with her death (which only occurred once she was sure she’d gotten me safely back home), she’s ending as the gift that made this whole project possible. She worked hard to ensure all of these voices were captured, so I will work hard to make them heard.  

Thanks Lucy. I will miss you dearly.

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