J.B. Brantley strapped the cotton down by wagon. Hauled his cash money crop by mule. One hundred bales of it — the difference between food on the table or not during the 1950s. Fall’s daybreak run from 781 JW Warren Road in Dublin to the local gin fed his 10-member farming family for months. “Oh, we ate good off that bale,” said Lassie B. Thomas, Brantley’s fourth oldest daughter now age 83. “It paid the bills.” Cattle, cotton fields, a peach orchard, and sections of corn stalks and velvet beans kept the Brantleys a self-sufficient lot.
Momma tended the chicken coop and mastered fishing on their man-made pond. Everyone knowing exactly how to survive farm life and a segregated South on 600 acres. Brantley rented. Never sharecropped. A genius entrepreneur who created cotton-picking jobs for both Black and white residents of Laurens County throughout the Golden Age of Capitalism into the Civil Rights Movement. He moved “fast” as Thomas described her father’s work habits. In ways unheard of for his generation in Southeast Georgia.
“Daddy was a smart man,” said Thomas. He owned vehicles and property before most Black people in his community. White folk in the area didn’t like it either, Thomas stressed. In Brantley’s will, he deeded the property equally to his eight kids. And if the five surviving kids ever want to sell their portions, they can only do so with another family member.
Brantley’s great-grandson and Lassie’s grandson, Edwin Thomas Jr., tucks these stories, lessons and farming practices into his back pocket. Reminders of the benefits to sustaining Black land. The 33-year-old urban farmer applies family principles of generational knowledge and wealth through his new agribusiness CJ’s Produce. A medley of backyard and community gardens he designed and manages in downtown Savannah with his 4-year-old son, CJ.
RETHINKING URBAN DECAY
CJ’s Produce planted 2017. First sowing and reaping veggies in backyard raised beds at Edwin’s Garden City home. Warden over the weeds and watering, preschooler CJ helps Dad with upkeep. “See my tomatoes?” the busy little one asked while pointing and skipping around the garden beds. “They’re ready.” And CJ doesn’t like for anyone to pick anything in his garden. He will let you know. He likes to do the job unassisted.
Ten minutes away at 2301 Harden St. a family friend offered a 60-by-90-foot plot to Edwin after learning about his green fingers. Edwin accepted. For two reasons: to stick to his family ag roots and introduce CJ to new types of urban farming. An area punctured by 20th-century ramshackle houses, scattered litter and random graffiti is what the solid-framed farmer signed up for. One of the city’s roughest inner-city streets and food deserts of The Cuyler-Brownville Historic District — a formerly affluent African-American community now overrun by blight.
“It’s not where you expect to see a garden,” said Edwin. Yet the district was once known for housing the best Black educators, physicians and civil rights leaders. Those who organized and elevated the next generation of African-American students and influencers. The merging of two land developments, Cuyler-Brownville formed when freed slaves of the Black Belt Region’s barrier islands and nearby farms relocated after the Civil War. CJ’s Produce does it part to rebuild community, conversation about food security and connections to Black residents’ prosperous past.
Renaming the neighborhood plot and teaching tool George Washington Carver Community Garden since the space models the innovator’s crop-rotation method. The garden currently produces collard greens, green bell peppers, squash and okra for community members to pick and eat. Live weekend demos at the garden introduce them to the process of growing healthy food. Straight from the land. Patience and daily care all that’s required.
“It’s about better eating options,” Edwin said, “and the importance of agriculture as a profession.” Full time the tactical farmer works in the aviation industry. He pours much of his money — and energy — into coordinating activities at the community garden. Ag owner to organizer, Edwin suddenly found himself in the middle of many moving parts. He needed additional help in this fourth year.
REVISITING AN OLD FRIENDSHIP
They looked out for each other throughout undergraduate school at Fort Valley State University (FVSU). A Savannah bred thang. Edwin and Leslie Weaver crossed courses at the land-grant institution. But after the four years were up, Edwin went his way. She another. Years passed. Then, the pandemic happened.
“I was pushing my natural fruit popsicles, C-Pops, on social media,” Edwin said. “ She reached out and purchased a bundle.” Catching up followed. Edwin realized Leslie was the help he needed to manage CJ’s Produce. Specifically outreach and programming to address neighborhood food insecurities. A product of farmers and gardeners from Burke and Ware counties, Leslie launched her ag career after college as a 4-H program coordinator.
Her post at FVSU’s extension focused on healthy living initiatives. Teaching students the value of agriculture in technology, Black traditions and, ironically, in urban settings. “I always reminded my students: The youngest farmer is 65 years old,” she said. “Who is going to continue to feed us?” Leslie now serves as Chatham County’s family consumer science and expanded food and nutrition agent for University of Georgia extension.
She supervises the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. The nation’s first nutrition education program to assist low-income families and youth. Originated to reduce nutrition insecurities for these specific groups. Nearly 80 percent of the program’s families report living at or below 100 percent of poverty. Roughly 70 percent of minority status. Leslie’s background made her the ideal candidate to become CJ’s Produce first director of operations.
This summer she helped Edwin secure a partnership with nonprofit Forsyth Farmers’ Market. Located in the county’s historic Forsyth Park, the market earned a grant from Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. in 2013 to retrofit a truck. Repurposed as a mobile market. CJ’s Produce is now found on Farm Truck 912. Weekdays the delivery service sells Edwin’s and other vendors’ fresh fruits and veggies in grocery gaps like Cuyler-Brownville. The mobile market takes traditional forms of payments. It also accepts and doubles SNAP/EBT benefits.
REDESIGNING COMMUNITY FOOD DESERTS
Food deserts are environments that lack sufficient fresh and healthy foods. Commonly in poverty-stricken areas. In America, 23.5 million citizens live in food deserts. At least more than a mile away from a grocery store and without a car. Those who live in places with the lowest nutritious provisions are less likely to maintain quality diets. And oftentimes develop chronic diseases healthier eating could have prevented.
Prior to the pandemic, 13.7 million or 10.5 percent of U.S. households lived food insecure during 2019. That U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data meant more than 35 million Americans were unsure about the source of their next meal. And on the fence about if they could secure enough meals to meet their lifestyle needs.
Black American communities are affected more than others ethnic groups. USDA data from 2019 shares 19.1 percent of Black households faced food insecurity that year compared to 15.6 percent Hispanic households and 7.9 percent White households, which were below the national average. Majority Black neighborhoods of Chatham County are closer to a fast-food joint before a supermarket. Why CJ’s Produce joins neighborhood associations, nonprofit organizations, mobile markets and government initiatives across the nation to improve nutrition to food swamps.
A new resource Edwin takes advantage of to increase exposure of CJ’s Produce and attention to local food deserts is U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grant project Black Farmers’ Network. He became one of three 2021 recipients of the network’s Marketing & Branding Makeover. Helping to position the innovative producer for agribusiness success in a digital economy. “I see expansion, new awareness about CJ’s Produce coming,” said Edwin. “Us in small grocery stores from Savannah to Dublin.”