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Posts Tagged ‘Gullah/Geechee’

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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Lowcountry South Carolina was and still is rice country. Along the coast where the land is marshy and the heat is sticky, you can find a tiny grain growing that carries a story, a culture and an immense impact on today’s diet all over the world.

The culture of rice is beautiful worldwide. In places like Asia, India and Africa, rice carries significance for family traditions, spiritual ceremonies and culinary legends. Part of the history rice carries in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, however, also has a side that is not so beautiful. West Africans were skilled in cultivating rice on their land, and so when they were brought here and forced into slavery in the South, they were put to work in the malaria and mosquito infested swamps along the coast to start rice fields. With the skill and hard work of African slaves, the rice industry boomed and funneled money into the South’s economy. The success in rice launched the entire country’s agricultural industry and still today, the credit and benefits reaped never reached African-Americans.

Driving through the Lowcountry (named for its low land elevation), the remnants of rice and agriculture’s story here are visible everywhere, but you have to search for that deeper history for Africans and agriculture.

I found some of it on Freewoods Farm in ­­­­­­Burgess, South Carolina, north of Georgetown, SC, which is “the capital of rice”. O’Neal Smalls and his sweet sister, Geneva, have started this living farm museum to preserve the history of Black agriculture after the Civil War in the South. They are farming in the traditional way, using two mules (named Pete and Jake!) for plowing the land. They are raising vegetables, hogs and chickens and are also making homemade sugarcane syrup from cane they grow on their land. Their father used to own the exact land that they now cultivate. It was important to them to preserve the history of the area and remind us all of the importance of agriculture for Black people in this country.

As Geneva said to me, “ A lot of our history is not in the textbooks. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, you had 4 million slaves with no place to go, no one to put them up and they were just told that they were free. And really what saved them was land.”

Gullah culture

Further down the road lies Charleston, SC, which was the port where 3 out of 4 slaves brought to this country entered and were processed and auctioned (You can visit the Old Slave Mart Museum as I did while there).  Charleston is also one of the hubs of Gullah culture. Gullah culture is rooted in West African culture and has been preserved in the low country and Gullah islands of South Carolina. Much of that culture is centered around the language, rice, agriculture and traditional recipes.

I went to Gullah Cuisine, a Gullah restaurant in Charleston, owned by Charlotte Jenkins who has been cooking Gullah foods since she was 9 years old with recipes from her grandmother and great-grandmother. Their signature dish is the Gullah Rice, which is Gullah Spiced Rice with Chicken, Pork Sausage, Shrimp & Vegetables. I talked with her nephew, who helps run the restaurant there, and he thinks that the recipes for Gullah Cuisine are not just recipes but lessons. “What we want to do here is keep the Gullah culture alive. We’d like to have a school here and get the kids more involved in the culture and teach them the history.”

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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