By Damion Smalls
North Charleston’s Chicora-Cherokee area urban garden and grocery store Fresh Future Farm (FFF) brought together dozens of agricultural entrepreneurs and advocates locally and nationally to the inaugural South Carolina Black Farmers Conference March 26. With the theme “Growing Farmers in Community,” FFF Chief Farm Officer and co-founder Germaine Jenkins knows all too well the importance of food security in underserved communities.
Chicora-Cherokee is a food desert, a residential district lacking proximity “to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The CDC also reports that “many Americans living in rural, minority, or low-income areas are subjected to food deserts and may be unable to access affordable, healthy foods, leaving their diets lacking essential nutrients.” Jenkins uses her time and resources to bridge the food gap with the services rendered by Fresh Future Farm.
In February, FFF’s grocery store introduced a sliding scale neighborhood discount initiative that allowed for customers to either pay full price at the register or request the markdown that Chicora-Cherokee residents receive in an effort to further support patrons of all income brackets. “Although our prices are competitive with traditional grocery stores, a customer who works at a neighboring school pointed out that she paid less at area big box stores. We could either talk down to folks about economies of scale or we could lower our prices. I chose the latter,” Jenkins said at the introduction of the sliding scale initiative.
“The SC Black Farmers Conference represents an opportunity to bring world renowned food activist experts to Charleston. Food production has the capacity to strengthen economic development, health and wellness while improving the environment in underserved urban and rural communities,” Jenkins stated in the welcoming program.
The event began on the grounds of FFF at 2008 Success St. and held the bulk of its sessions downtown at the South Carolina Society Hall on 72 Meeting St. Jenkins led attendees on a tour of her fertile and efficient farm, an area that has transformed in the last few years from a produce stand by a basketball court to a neighborhood market that sells locally grown fruits and vegetables, eggs from its chicken coup, toiletries, kitchen staples, canned goods, cleaning products, soft drinks, and more.
Once the event made its way to the Society Hall following the farm tour, Jenkins and Fresh Future Farm co-founder Todd Chas welcomed those in attendance. The jovial and conversational crowd then lent their ears to the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” performed by local singer Rico Love.
Special guests at the conference included preeminent Charleston artist Jonathan Green, Organizational Concepts/Adult Learners Now CEO and President Dr. Kim Long, Orangeburg agricultural consulting firm Pace & Associates of SC LLC CEO Wilfred L. Pace, Transformation Yoga owner Kennae Miller, Erica Allen from the Urban Growers Collective, Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman, and Charleston music legend Ann Caldwell. Green, known for his work in the community in the arts, education, and the Lowcountry Rice Project, relayed his knowledge of the history of Black farming in South Carolina.
Noting the heavy West African influence on the state’s prosperous farming industry during colonial times, Green stated that West African contractors (utilized before enslaved Africans toiled the land) laid the foundation for plantations and cities with their aquacultural ingenuity. Green preached the nobility of the legacy of Black farming, which even embodied a level of pride that enslaved farmers had in their crops such as Carolina Gold Rice, melons, okra, and corn. “Farming is embedded in Black culture,” Green said. “Small farming is the key to survival,” Green believes as he positioned that small farming created Charleston’s now-famous cuisine.
Green when on to speak on how slave owners took away the religion (Islam) of the enslaved Africans and much of their customs. However, the enslaved Blacks used farming and food to connect to their seemingly frayed, but rich African culture. “Rice money built Charleston and still sustains it today,” he affirmed to the audience.
Leah Penniman is the co-founder, co-director and program manager of Soul Fire Farm, a community farm located in Grafton, New York. The organization uses activism, education, community building, and sustainable agriculture to fight injustice and racism that are both long steeped in the food system of the United States. Penniman is also the author of the groundbreaking 2018 title, “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.”
Like Jonathan Green, Penniman is well-versed in the history of Black farming. She addressed the extensive agricultural achievements of Blacks by dropping several gems for the conference’s audience to mentally absorb. Several examples were Black inventor George Washington Carver’s early implementation of compost piles, African farmers creating the first farming tools, enslaved Africans being chicken farmers, and the Yoruba people of West Africa being able to test PH levels in soil by taste with extreme accuracy. Another historical highlight was the contributions of the trailblazing Black educational center Tuskegee Institute, who start the organic trend in farming, extension agency, land trusts, and food hubs. Some unfortunate facts told by Penniman were that the peak of share cropping systems was also the peak of lynchings of Blacks as well and that farm labor has always been exploitative in the U.S.
Soul Fire Farm operates in a food apartheid, which writer Jacqueline Bediak has described as “a relentless social construct that devalues human beings and assumes that people are unworthy of having access to nutritious food. Food apartheid affects people of all races, including poor white people, although Black and brown people are affected disproportionately,” she explains.
With twenty-two years of farming experience, Penniman uses her skills and immense knowledge to attempt to take the trauma away from Black farming’s history by changing the narrative of hundreds of years of torturous slavery that disfigured African life. “It’s time to take back the wisdom we’ve lost,” she says. Fresh Future Farm sells copies of “Farming While Black” for $30.
Popular Charleston-based salads and wraps chain Verde, Fleet Landing Executive Chef DelJuan Murphy, revered Gullah Chef BJ Dennis, and local Black-owned dessert services Daddy’s Girls Bakery and Park Circle Creamery contributed to the conference’s scrumptious spread. Leafy green bowls, oysters on the half shell, fish, red rice, gumbo, Charleston chewies, ice cream and various appetizers were served to a sociable crowd who were entertained around lunchtime by Deninufay African Dance & Drum Productions. The local performance group wowed onlookers with its youth-driven melodies, choreography, and beats that got people out of their seats and onto their feet.
Partners of the SC Black Farmers Conference comprised of GrowFood Carolina, Black Minimalists, Limehouse Produce, Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities (LAMC), Studio Jey, Xeller, and the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN).
Fresh Future Farm began its spring fundraiser March 26. Running through April 30, the So Sew Fresh campaign aims to raise $15,000 to help maintain the farm’s aspirations of providing jobs, another Black Farmers Conference, and nutritional, yet affordable food for the Chicora-Cherokee area and beyond. Jenkins was overjoyed at the turnout and crowd-pleasing success of the conference as she hopes to continue to boost the Black farmer renaissance currently underway in South Carolina. Donations, which would support smalls business, Black farmers, and women entrepreneurs, can be made at freshfuturefarm.org.
Additionally, FFF has partnered with Transformation Yoga and Evolve Charleston to host “Enough: Food Apartheid” April 20 at 9 AM at the farm. Tickets are $10 and can be paid for at FFF. The goal of “Enough: Food Apartheid” is to bring the community together in support of Fresh Future Farm through yoga, volunteerism, fellowship, and resource sharing.