Friday, January 15, 2021

National ag program unites Black farmers of African Diaspora

St. Thomas farming couple Anna, 62, and Alcedo, 67, Frances on the rural Georgia grant tour.

Farmers from the U.S. Virgin Islands flew into Georgia to learn the agricultural ways of Black cooperatives and agribusiness owners of the Deep South.

Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (Southern SARE) awarded a two-week grant to St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas farmers so they could travel to America during spring 2019 and gain new farming techniques.

Their objective: Take the lessons learned back to their islands and share them with fellow farmers.

“Our primary purpose is to provide grant opportunities for farmers and share resources to keep sustainable farming up,” said Brennan Washington, Georgia farmer and limited-resource/minority farmer outreach specialist with Southern SARE. “Bringing these farmers here from the U.S. Virgin Islands to learn about co-ops of the Black Belt Region is one way we’ve achieved what our program is about.”

Up to eight island farmers spent most of their time shadowing the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative (WGFC), one of the state’s oldest Black farming cooperatives throughout the Hamilton and Franklin areas. “We’re a team,” said Darrell Copeland, president of WGFC. “This experience showed great teamwork across cultures.”

The group visited local compost sites and small farming operations. The objective: understand how America’s rural Black farmers work collectively to build businesses and contribute to their community’s food system. Therefore, the group could compare conservation practices they have already started to cultivate on the island — how to control weeds, cover crops, reserve water, better soil conditions and advance farm biodiversity. The trip also re-energized the farmers, especially after still dealing with the destruction caused by hurricanes Maria and Irma. Failed harvest. Mounds of debris. Missing livestock. Ruined infrastructure.

“After watching WGFC, I’ve realized co-ops are like ants,” said St. Thomas farmer Dean Leonard, 67. “If we start operating our farming productions and marketing like these tiny insects, we can move many and our islands one at a time.” The agrarian aboard trip ended with a May 3 farewell and media day at This Old Farmhouse GA in Franklin. Each of the U.S. Virgin Islands farmers shared highlights from their outdoor classroom observations.

Gangstas to Growers founder Abiodun Henderson (right) with program trainee Kwon Smith. | Image by LeeAnn Chisolm Morrissette

One of the most memorable parts to the trip happened when the visiting farmers met entrepreneurial program Gangstas to Growers, which is designed to empower Georgia’s at-risk youth and the formerly incarcerated.

“I’m now a golden girl gone green,” said Sherron Carlos, 72, a St. Croix farmer. “That program really touched us. This entire trip was fabulous. We think Black folk don’t work well together. This experience showed me that we can, and we can do it using sustainable farming practices.” Their consensus about the Peach State’s black co-ops: It’s a spiritual moment. More than the individual.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Southern SARE operates through cooperative agreements with Fort Valley State University, University of Georgia and Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

It offers competitive grants to help advance and sustain agriculture in America’s Black Belt Region. Additionally, it collaborates with the U.S. Virgin Islands to increase social, environmental and economic sustainability through education, research and the implementation of science-based practices.

“Growing grounds me,” said Vanessa Forbes, program assistant of the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix. “I’ve gotten so much energy from this educational trip. I can go back home to my mangos, ginger, greens and hundreds of orchards and apply new growing methods. We have seen the importance of composting. Now, we can take our organic trash on the island and use what we saw in America to convert it into fertilizer. I’m ready.”

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