Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Berry Family’s Agrarian Legacy in Southeast Georgia

By: Dr. Veronica L. Womack

A Tradition of Faith, Family and Resilience

Southeast Georgia is an important section of the historic Georgia Black Belt region and has served as a beacon of agricultural innovation and traditions since the founding of the country. Long and Tattnall, member counties of the region, have played a critical role in shaping the nation’s rich agrarian story and serve as the birthplaces of the Berry family’s agricultural legacy.   

The Berry family, a five-generation Black farm family, is an ideal example of the expansive agrarian traditions and foodways of the Southern Black Belt region; a crescent-shaped geography that expands from eastern Texas to the eastern shore of Virginia and is noted as the origin of American agriculture.  Agriculture, the historic economic engine of the Southeast Georgia region, was driven in the past by the physical labor of enslaved Africans, but also by their agricultural expertise and traditions.

The descendants of those Africans brought to Southeast Georgia include the Berry family.  At the head of the Berry family is 92-year-old matriarch Sarah Armstrong Berry and patriarch 93-year-old Curtis Berry, both born 60-plus years after the end of the Civil War. The couple started the Berry family farm with 88 acres from Mr. Berry’s grandfather, George B. Smith, who left the land to his daughter Ms. Desiree Smith Berry. Since then, the family has grown its operations to over 500 acres through prayer, perseverance, and strong family connection. 

Pictured from L to R: Cedric, Curtis, Aubrey, Lamar, Sarah, and Tony. The Berry Family. Photo by Matt Odom.

The expansive Berry clan includes Curtis’s sons Lamar Berry, and Aubrey Berry, his wife Cheryl Diane, and their son Cedric. In addition, Tony Berry, son of Aubry and Lamar’s sister Pamela, is also an important player in today’s farm activities. According to Curtis Berry, this community has also historically housed Black men who owned large land tracts including Tommy Hines, Zenus Smith Sr., George Breckley, and Fairbanks Berry, a direct descendant of those who farm the land today.

Currently, three generations of the Berry family work under the tutelage of Curtis to build on the family’s prolific agricultural legacy.  Elder Curtis began his agricultural pursuits as a sharecropper with his father and they honed their craft among other farmers in the South Georgia community. He married Sarah, in 1951, and was determined to be successful. Curtis worked at Coastal Broilers making chicken feed, while growing his agricultural footprint. Initially, he farmed tobacco, soybeans, and cotton along with his father, while other extended family members also worked in agriculture, including as turpentine tappers throughout the region. Curtis and Sarah have eight children, thirteen grandchildren, and eighteen great-grandchildren.

Pictured. Sarah’s grandmother, husband and children. The Berry Family. Photo by Matt Odom.

Lamar, Aubrey, Tony, and Cedric Berry exhibited the determination to be a vital part of the family’s farm legacy early in life. Aubrey & Lamar Berry began driving a tractor at the age of 6 years old and as young men, Tony and Cedric had dreams of continuing the traditions of the Berry family farm, unlike most people their age. They heard family stories of land stewardship and watched their grandfather, preserve the family land, using a firm foundation of faith, hard work, and determination. He was and is a very strong inspiration to them and they decided early in life together to continue the agrarian traditions of the family.

Pictured from L to R: Tony, Cedric, Lamar, and Aubrey. The Berry Men. Photo by Matt Odom.

They were also resolute to serve as role models to younger generations and teach them that preserving Black agrarian traditions is not only vital to them as individuals but also as part of a broader community. They are determined to show that agriculture is important and there is a future in it for young Black people stating, “we still exist and it can be done.”

L to R Tony Berry and Cedric Berry. Photo: Matt Odom

We Still Exist And It Can Be Done

Like most agricultural families, the Berry men are also accompanied by strong female family members who contribute to the success of the farm. Sarah Berry, Cheryl Diane Berry, Reesey Berry, Brenda Brinkley (Sarah and Curtis’s oldest daughter), Tonya Berry, and Katrina Berry (Sarah and Curtis’s youngest daughter) have made their mark in the family through various means of support and venturing out on their own to make value-added products, such as delicious Berry Lemonade and berry preserves from the farm’s productive berry bushes.

Photo of Berry Farms Lemonade. Photo by Matt Odom
L to R: Reesey Berry and Cheryl Berry. The Berry Women. Photo: Dr. Veronica L. Womack

Today, the Berry farm includes fresh blueberries, okra, peas, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash as well as hay, and cattle, including an impressive herd of Black Angus. This geographic region has seven Black cattle farms that help to support the South Georgia Black Cattlemen Association (SGBCA), recognized by The Georgia Cattlemen’s Association. The SGBCA was started with the help of McIntosh S.E.E.D. Home – McIntosh SEED, is an organization that is dedicated to transforming rural communities.  The association provides affiliate farmers with the opportunity to receive valuable information to support their success, including social networking and connectivity, which is very important to African-American farmers today. Tony and Cedric are officers in the SCBCA and serve as President and Vice President and hope to continue to grow the organization with currently 35 members strong.

Three Black angus cows at the Berry farm. Photo by Matt Odom.

Through religious conviction and standing on the prayers and wisdom of Sarah and Curtis, the Berry family has been able to preserve and grow their agricultural business, unlike many Black farming families who have been unable to withstand the numerous obstacles of agricultural pursuits and land ownership. 

The Berry family, when compared to the agricultural landscape is a living display of fortitude, dedication, and resilience. According to the last agricultural census in 2017, while there were 2,740,453 principal producers in the US, there were only 38,447 Black or African American principal producers, less than 1.5 percent. Georgia housed 2,391 Black or African American principal producers with Texas ranked as the number one state for Black or African American producers in the US with 11,268, followed by Mississippi which contained 6,927 principal Black or African American producers.  The legacy of agriculture within the Black Belt region can be seen in these rankings, including the agricultural heritage of Southeast Georgia, which is in full display in Long and Tattnall counties. 

Pictured from L to R: Cedric, Lamar, Tony, Sarah, Aubrey, and Curtis Berry. The Berry Family having breakfast together. Photo by Matt Odom.

Sarah’s birthplace, Tattnall County, GA., is number 1 in the state for agriculture out of 159 counties. It currently houses 547 farms, with the average farm in the county containing 208 acres. And 92 percent of the county’s farms are family farms which speak to the agrarian traditions of the community.

Long County, GA, the birthplace of Curtis Berry, ranks 123rd (out of 159 counties) in the state in agriculture, housing 85 farms, with an average size of 120 acres. As in Tattnall County, family farms make up most area farms with 94% of the county’s farms being family farms.

A pictorial of Berry family legacy Photo by Matt Odom

The Berry family exemplifies Southeast Georgia family farms and continues to serve as a staple in the agricultural community. Family members are determined to continue the agrarian traditions started so long ago by Fairbanks Berry. The resilience of the Berry family and other Black agricultural families within the region will ensure that the agricultural legacy of Black Belt Georgia continues, as well as the Southeast region beyond. For more information about the agricultural traditions of Long and Tattnall counties, please visit Long County Board of Commissioners (longcountyga.gov) and Our County | Tattnall County Ga – Tattnall County, GA

To learn more about Berry Farms, please visit https://www.berryfamilyfarms.com/

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Picture of Berry Family Farm Berries. Photo by Matt Odom.

About the Author:

Veronica L. Womack is the founder of the Black Farmers’ Network and serves as the inaugural Executive Director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College & State University and Professor of Political Science and Public Administration. She hails from the Alabama Black Belt region and currently works in the Georgia Black Belt.  She received her BA of Communications, MPA and Ph.D., in Political Science from the University of Alabama.

An advocate and researcher of the Southern Black Belt region, Dr. Womack’s work highlights the rich history, agrarian traditions, Southern foodways, socioeconomic and political culture and traditions of rural people in the American South.  She is a noted author, practitioner and researcher of the region. She has been featured on various media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, GPB, The Nation, and Georgia Trend for her work in the region. Funders of her research include USDA, the Robert W. Johnson foundation, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP). 

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