Wednesday, February 21, 2024

How this 150-year-old Gullah Geechee farm on Georgia’s coast is driven by ancestral culture

By: Denechia “Neesha” Powell-Ingabire

Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Georgia is pulsing with life. A coop filled with chickens soon to be sold through a CSA. Pastel eggs soon to be sold, too. Five spotted kunekune pigs. A teaching area where they experiment with crops. Mint, milk thistle, turmeric, aloe, lavender, lemon balm, lemon grass, ginger, rosemary, oregano. Figs, beautyberries, Persian limes, and Santa Rosa plums fruiting on trees. Burdock root next to motherwort, olive trees next to parsley and basil because they grow well together. Cayenne peppers and jalapenos. White amaranth to keep pests away.

If you get a chance to visit the farm on Georgia’s coast, Matthew Raiford, a bespectacled 55-year-old man with deep brown skin, the back of his head shaved, and long locs, will tell you his ancestors practiced the same regenerative organic agriculture as he does today: using pieces of plants and vegetables to grow new ones, composting organics to feed the soil, growing crops without irrigation, and never using chemicals.

Raiford is the great-great-great-grandson of Jupiter Gilliard, a former enslaved person who in the 1870s amassed 474 acres in a freedmen community. His children are the seventh generation of his Gullah Geechee family to cultivate the land and reap its harvest (Gullah Geechee describes the descendants of enslaved West Africans who live in insulated communities along the United States’ coast between Jacksonville, North Carolina and St. Augustine, Florida, and their distinct arts, culture, language, and spirituality derived from their African homelands).

Gilliard gave most of his land to extended family before he died, passing on 40 acres to his two sons. In 2011, Matthew’s great-aunt Ophelia (Gilliard’s great-granddaughter) who he knew as Nana deeded 12 acres of that land to him and his sister, Althea Raiford. After decades of traveling the world, Matthew returned home to embrace his ancestral duty of tilling the land. In year one, Gilliard Farms became one of the first certified organic farms in Georgia. In year two, the state awarded them the designation of Centennial Family Farm, only the tenth Black farm to receive the honor.

The Union School located at Gilliard Farms is a historical landmark. Photo by Keamber Pearson.

“I am the prodigal son who returned, only with my arms wide open for the land I thought I had left behind,” the “CheFarmer,” author, griot, and food advocate writes in his 2021 cookbook, Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer, co-authored with Amy Paige Condon (“bress ‘n’ nyam” is Gullah Geechee for “bless and eat”).

Matthew is keen on giving tours during community events on the farm. He might start by instructing you to close your eyes and imagine what it was like there 100 years ago before cars and highways, when Black children walked up to 20 miles to get to Union School, which still remains on the property. The school is now a retrofitted house occupied by Matthew’s 78-year-old mother.

Next, he’ll probably show you what regenerative organic agriculture looks like. Cutting the stems of scallions, drying them, and putting them back in the ground to grow new ones. Growing new sweet potatoes from the sprouts of old ones. Everything from oyster shells to fish bones is composted and broken down by black soldier flies. These methods are even older than the sugarcane press brought to the farm by Raiford’s great-grandfather in 1919.

Matthew Raiford leaning on ancestral farm equipment at Gilliard Farm. Photo by Keamber Pearson.

Black people have always known how to grow and cook healthy food, Raiford says. Take pot likker for instance, the liquid left over after cooking down collards, a forever favorite in African American families. Raiford, who not only grows collards but is also researching them as a Mellon visiting scholar at the New York Botanical Garden, says drinking pot likker is good for fighting colds and resetting gut health. He plans to write a cookbook that includes how the name “colewort” transmuted to “collards” over time and the historical relationship between collards and Blackness.

Moss laden trees are a signature feature of this historic property. Photo by Keamber Pearson.

“We’ve been eating right. We came over here with that knowledge. Then we’re told, ‘Pot likker? You must be poor.’ No, I must be healthy. Poor ain’t in it. Healthy is in it,” he said.

Farming is in their DNA

Matthew owns and operates the farm with his sister and his wife, Tia Raiford. Black people, young and old, sometimes ask him why he’s doing “slave work.”

“My sister and I have both had people say to us, ‘Y’all going home to do that slave work?’ What do you mean by slave work? Because we’re going back to grow food so that you can eat. I’m not sure that’s slave work,” Matthew said. “Even when we were still in Africa, we farmed. We were engineers, technologically driven. We built things not through the direction of some colonizer but through the direction of the lens of where we were.”

Matthew is a builder who’s lived many lifetimes in one. Youngest boy in the family who came up in the kitchen. Desert Storm veteran. Culinary Institute of America graduate. Executive chef. Professor and culinary program coordinator. As the owner-operator of The Farmer and The Larder, a now-closed restaurant in downtown Brunswick, he earned a 2018 semifinalist nomination for a James Beard award, the food world’s equivalent of the Oscars. A toffee-colored woman who wears glasses, Tia has also lived many lives and traveled around the world, including working in Beijing, China as a senior executive chef at the 2008 Summer Olympics and creating culturally relevant culinary programs for Philadelphia schoolchildren. The fifty-year-old also identifies as a CheFarmer in addition to being a food educator and yoga teacher.

Two kunekune pigs at Gilliard farms. This breed is native to New Zealand. Photo by Keamber Pearson.

Despite being two generations removed from Alabama landowners and sharecroppers, she spent most of her life in Northern cities before marrying Matthew two years ago. Along with millions of other Black Americans, her parents’ families moved up north during the Great Migration for better job opportunities and protections from racial violence. While digging into her genealogy, she discovered Brunswick to be the birthplace of her paternal great-great-great-grandfather, Bill McDonald, born in 1820. Gilliard Farms symbolizes a homecoming for Tia.

Now the duo spends their days running a business, Strong Roots 9 (honoring the nine dollars in taxes Gilliard paid on his land in 1874), a wellness omni brand of products for Black and brown skin; holding events at the farm like their “Pig Pikn’” this past January; cooking at events across the country (they recently worked AfroTech in Austin, Texas); creating value added products like their Gullah Geechee Gin (they grow hibiscus and have it distilled and bottled by Simple Man Distillery); and of course stewarding their ancestral land, which now spans nearly 40 acres.

“It’s important for Black Americans to embrace this work because it’s in our DNA. This is where we come from. We were and continue to be farmers, creators, and developers,” Tia said. “We have not been given the opportunity in many instances to hold on to the land or tell the story of what it is to live on the land.”


The Raifords see it as their responsibility to share knowledge with and advocate for Black farmers, who’ve dwindled in number over the past century. Only 1.4% of farmers in the U.S. today are Black compared to 14% a century ago. According to a 2022 study, Black farmers lost $326 billion in land between 1920 and 1997.

As Matthew likes to say, “Land is power.” The systematic dispossession of Black land, including in their own family, propels the Raifords’ advocacy for African American farmers—they’re currently raising funds to buy 12 acres on the farm a relative got manipulated into selling 20 years ago.

Matthew speaks up for the specific needs of Black farmers as board chair of the nonprofit Georgia Organics.

“I’ve had people say things to me like, ‘Why are you only pushing on Black farmers?’ And I say, ‘It’s because Black farmers haven’t been talked about,’” he said.

Strong Roots 9’s motto is “Honor the Past, Grow the Future.” The Raifords are harnessing their farm’s resources to build toward a future where Black people know where their food comes from and honor farming as an integral part of their history and culture.

Their plans include scaling up Strong Roots 9 production, building farm stays on their property, holding solstice and equinox dinners, and partnering with companies to buy their crops. They also have plans for preserving the schoolhouse and sugarcane press. Ultimately, they envision the farm serving the community as an educational center where you can learn how to farm and how wellness is connected to what you eat.

The couple is also collaborating with cultural preservationist Helen Ladson and her nonprofit, Heritage Works, that empowers Brunswick’s Gullah Geechee residents to draw from their cultural heritage to gain economic self-sufficiency in one of the area’s largest industries, tourism and hospitality, by training to become docents, construction workers, or culinary artists (a third of residents in the majority-Black town live in poverty).

Additionally, the Raifords are working with Ladson to cultivate Black culture keepers on the Gullah Geechee coast and beyond. Storytelling is a substantial part of their work, just as critical to their vision as farming. Matthew tells the story of Jupiter Gilliard every chance he gets as a cultural preservation tactic.

“I want my kids to be able to tell the story of their great-great-great-great-grandfather and all of the people who came after and before.”

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Pictured from L to R: Aimée-Josiane Powell-Ingabire, Helen Ladson, Denechia Powell-Ingabire (author), Veronica Womack, Tia Raiford, and Matthew Raiford. Photo by Keamber Pearson.

About the Author: Denechia “Neesha” Powell-Ingabire is a coastal Georgia-born-and-raised movement journalist and essayist with publications in various online and print media outlets, including Harper’s Bazaar, the Oxford American, Scalawag, and VICE.

Powell-Ingabire received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from Georgia College & State University and has a forthcoming debut book entitled, Outsider: Essays About Life on Georgia’s Geechee Coast (Hub City Press, fall 2024).   Learn more about the author’s work at neeshawrites.com.

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