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Organic Synthesis: Towards An Inclusion Of African Americans In Organic Farming

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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.

Here is a bit more on the Raiford’s and their centennial organic certified farm:

In a gesture of true Southern hospitality, Matthew (who is also a chef) was wonderful enough to create this seasonal recipe–perfect timing for when you might be wondering what to do with all those leftover pumpkins.

Chef Raiford’s Roasted Pumpkin

Medium Sized Pumpkin

1 lb. goat cheese

4 cups heavy cream

pinch of grated nutmeg

½ stick of butter, cut into pieces

½ cup Honey

1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 French baguette sliced thick


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Using a sharp pointed knife, slice around the stem of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle.

Scoop out pulp and seeds and save the top.

Heat cream until just warm then pour inside pumpkin. Crumble in goat cheese, nutmeg and butter.

Place pumpkin on a sheet pan replace pumpkin top and place in the oven

Bake for 1 hour and check for doneness. Pumpkin is ready when inside of pumpkin is soft and easily scoop out.

Remove from oven, add honey and cinnamon and scoop inside of pumpkin into cream.

Place pumpkin in a bowl, serve with a crusty baguette.

Image Credits: U.S. Department of Agriculture,, author.

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. Mcorbett 8:56 am 11/5/2013

    I know! I know!! Let’s mandate a higher percentage of African American farmers! Problem solved!

    By the way, Layla, what’s the percentage of African American anthropologists?

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  2. 2. pmustain 4:42 pm 11/5/2013

    Mcorbett, there’s nothing in this article even remotely suggesting any sort of mandate. Not sure what your comment’s getting at…

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  3. 3. Mcorbett 5:16 pm 11/5/2013

    “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.”

    Overlooking the slander of a entire region of the nation, there it is in black and white: Government agencies are failing. The measure of this failure is that “African Americans …. are particularly underrepresented within organic farming”. The measure of government success, therefore, is to increase that representation … a mandate.

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  4. 4. pmustain 7:05 pm 11/5/2013

    Nope. Still doesn’t make any sense. Nothing in this article from the author or her subjects suggests that any failures of the government should be remedied by government action in the form of any sort of mandate. Unless you’re not talking about a government mandate, in which case your comment makes even less sense.

    Whose mandate are you talking about? Is it the “mandate” of SAAFON’s mission?

    “Project Goals:

    -To provide small and limited resource farmers with trainings, technical assistance, and information to grow organically.
    -To ensure the farmers in the network have access to available programs and services provided by universities, extension and research centers, agricultural organizations, and regional mentoring programs.
    -To develop a farmers’ collaborative and network for the purpose of marketing their organically grown products locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally
    -To educate African American farmers about the importance of maintaining the cultural heritage of our foods through seed saving, planting techniques and archiving of historic information and publications.”

    I see nothing problematic about their “mandate”.

    Finally, there’s nothing slanderous about this article. Are you referencing Ms. Hayes reference to the reality of having to deal with the still prevalent problem of racism? If so, your comment is borderline offensive, dismissing a very real problem facing millions of people. If not, your comment just doesn’t make any sense. Either way, this forum would be better off without that kind of negativity.

    This is a great story about a positive group of people working together to help their communities and their environment. There’s no need to sully it with contrarian rubbish.

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