Down on the southern Georgia coast, there was a time when you could say the soil was rich and the people were poor. Matthew Raiford and Althea Raiford, known as “the wonder twins” at Gilliard Farms, make up a dynamic sibling duo, bent on demonstrating that the rich soil—combined with rich lore, proud heritage, and refined taste for simple, organically-grown food—make for another way of measuring wealth.
Time was when there was a deep and unbridgeable divide between rich and poor in plantation country. We all know that. Thousands of Black slaves brought from Africa put food on the tables and gold in the pockets of a handful of White families. The owners, the bosses, at the top—the workers, the dispossessed, at the bottom. It’s not a story unique to the Georgia coast, but that region could have been the model for it.
The Spanish came first and in their religious zeal, pretty much wiped out the indigenous Timucuan people—a relatively peaceful matrilineal society whose wealth was measured in their stores of corn—with twin assaults of enslavement and disease. Next were the British who named the territory for their king, and used it as a penal colony. They wanted to make sure the Spaniards didn’t gain supremacy, so developed the Brunswick coastal corner as a buffer zone between Georgia and Florida. These colonials soon discovered—and began to exploit—the islands and coastal marshes: flat and placid, wet and green, the region provided the perfect growing conditions for rice, cotton, indigo.
But none of the Lowcountry crops could have gained supremacy without slave labor.
At the height of the plantation era, cotton was king and made many harsh demands. Slaves were imported from West Africa in wholesale droves and sold off quickly in Charleston and Savannah (though it is not recorded how many threw themselves into the ocean upon arrival, once word spread of their probable life on the plantation: a ceaseless round of “terror and shrinking and dreary unnamable pain”).
Then came the Civil War. The Southern Whites fled to the relative safety of Brunswick and other towns, while the Union Army held the islands, allowing many newly-freed slaves eventually to parlay for farmland. Free men like Jupiter Gilliard.
Matthew and Althea Raiford, both military vets, inherited a farm in Glynn County, on the mainland, that had been started up by their great-great-great-great grandfather, Jupiter Gilliard, or, more properly, Gigliyer. Jupiter and his wife Riner (or Rina, the record books were never entirely clear about names) were born, and married, in slavery, and freed by the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Jupiter acquired 457 acres in 1874 during the Reconstruction years, and probably sold off some portions of it over the next few years to pay his property taxes.
The Raiford siblings traveled very far, geographically and cerebrally, before returning to their roots in the rural community of Brookman, in Glynn County.
When Matthew got the idea for an organic farm, he was involved in the mysterious path of chef-hood, as a veteran with a degree in culinary arts, and certificates in Ecological Horticulture. He now uses the honorarium “CheFarmer”. He ranged far afield to get his many excellent credentials, and refused to accept obstacles that might have been subtly or overtly placed in his path when he came back to Georgia. In an article in the New York Times, Matthew recalled that, “his father, a baker, had tried to dissuade him from going into the restaurant business because of the open racism in Southern kitchens. ‘He didn’t see a future for me in this field.’” For a time Matthew was the Executive Chef of Little St. Simons Island, a private and special vacation spot accessible only by boat. The Lodge on LSS prides itself on its energy-saving practices and menus utilizing organic foods grown on the preserve.
His education and acumen have given CheFarmer Matthew Raiford a base from which to develop Gilliard Farms into an organic showpiece (in 2012, Gilliard was recognized as a Georgia Centennial Family Farm). And he still finds time to create recipes that make use of ancient, simple foods and the most scintillating spices and additives from worldwide cuisine. On the Gilliard Farms website, he offers, for example, a sorbet made with Kiwano (African Horn Melon) that includes agave nectar, sea salt, and “a sprig of Holy Basil.”
As Matthew was being buzzed by the organic-farming bug, some eight years ago, his sister Althea was still in the military. Thus the idea lay dormant for a few years until Althea retired from active duty, having garnered degrees in Forensic Science, and served at Guantanamo Bay.
Here’s a bit of Althea Raiford’s story, taken from the Gilliard Farms website: “We sat down with our Nana, Ophelia, and our mother, Affie, and told them about our plan and what we wanted to do. To continue in the path of those that came before us, and go back to the land, become farmers. My mother was shocked and our Nana shed tears of joy… Our Aunt Mary Lou and our mother spoke about our plans, and then our Nana joined them in the conversation, all unbeknownst to Matthew and me. The next day at the family reunion they pulled us to the side and gave us more land to make our dream of bringing our land to its former glory. All we could do was look at each other in shock and disbelief. When the conversation was over we had 25 acres of land to farm.”
To their considerable amazement, it seemed the struggles of their forebears were paying off for them, in a spate of good breaks. Althea tried for, and obtained, a grant from the Veteran’s Farmer Coalition, making her the first female Black-American Navy disabled veteran to achieve that award. So Gilliard Farms came into its own as an organic enterprise, built on 19th-century hope, carried through five sustaining generations, now to be rebirthed by 21st-century blessings (and hard work).
Gilliard Farms operates as a Community Supported Agriculture program (see The Real Dirt on Farmer John). Locals can buy food boxes weekly from Gilliard, with the added bonus of recipes from CheFarmer Raiford in every box. The siblings participate in numerous food-based social action groups, from Ground Operations (Battlefield to Farmfield), to Slow Food, to the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON).
In taking on the farm, and all that it represents historically, the Raifords are also stepping into a new possible future for Black Americans, as American farmers. There are plenty of reasons why Black Americans fled the south and their agrarian roots. Those roots were, on this continent, intertwined with the dark days of slavery. Many Blacks saw their greater destiny in cities, in higher education and professional pathways. In following those pathways they have had success, beyond, one could speculate, the wildest, craziest dreams of their ancestors like Jupiter and Riner who probably didn’t think much farther beyond the boundaries of their acreage, because those boundaries were still absolute, defining much more than mere farmland.
Thus it is exciting to find out more about “modern style” Black farmers and homesteaders. By modern of course, I mean, traditional (back to the land), or, not modern at all! We count the Raifords among this small but hopefully increasing number, because they have returned to a piece of land held in the family for over 100 years, and have chosen to follow many of the streams that homesteaders follow (NOT the mainstream!). These include the organic stream, the slow food stream, and the CSA stream. They are demonstrating, by example, techniques, and thought processes that can be accessed and replicated by others in their community (or any community).
At Gilliard Farms, programs and demonstrations are on offer, as well as food. In addition, the Raifords (remember I referred to them as a “dynamic duo”?) are involved in much wider outreach.
Althea was one of three female veterans featured in the documentary film, Terra Firma examining the calming effects of farming on what she calls “the unseen scars” of serving in the military. Returning to the land can be an active form of emotional self-medication for people suffering from military (or any other) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
CheFarmer Raiford is on call for workshops and conferences just about anywhere.
Last year he delivered the Hutchins Lecture at the University of North Carolina. He’s Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Culinary Arts at the College of Coastal Georgia. NPR talked to him about his Nana’s sweet potato pie. He’s been to New Orleans, to Monticello, to Turin, Italy… and wherever he goes, he (like Althea) will generally be seen in overalls, with dreadlocks, and toting a serious message: “The Africans who were brought to America brought with them a plethora of agricultural knowledge and that knowledge was at the foundation of how early America was able to survive… without food, no nation will rise, and this country’s food system, from rice to sugar, was not only harvested by Black farmers, but cultivated using their knowledge of how and when to plant; how much to water and what irrigation system to set up; what the soil was missing; and how much to add of what we now call organic fertilizer (horse, cow, chicken manure). All that was done by Black farmers.” Matthew reminds his audiences that there have been many significant contributions to American agriculture and organics from among its Black population:
- Free-Black and self-taught scientist Benjamin Banneker created a Farmers’ Almanac as early as 1792-1797.
- Frederick McKinley Jones in 1949 received a patent for refrigerated trucks to move produce across the country.
- And, in 1987, agricultural professor Dr. Booker T. Whatley wrote How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres addressing crop diversification, U-Pick farms, and proposing what he called “Clientele Membership Club”—a prototype for CSA.
As “Terra Firma” depicts, Althea often tends to the daily farm routines at Gilliard, finding solace and security there, a haven amidst her many community outreach activities. An orchard is in the works, and a farm education program is slated to start in the spring. Fruits already in cultivation include deerberry, plums, apples, cherries, and blackberries—and the Georgia Rattlesnake Watermelon.
When I phoned Matthew, it was a cold gloomy day where I live, in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina. In Brookman, he told me, it was 65, sunny, and he had been planting carrots. “We are subtropical. That means that we can grow ten months out of the year. Our hardest time to grow is July through August when the temperature can get up to 100 degrees before lunch (not to mention the skeeters, snakes, and spiders).”
We talked yams: some people up here in the hills, I told him, think that yams and sweet potatoes are the same, so Matthew discussed their differences. The yam is bigger (much—it can grow up to 5 feet in length!) and prized for its starch content, the meat being white or pink, unlike the much smaller, sweeter, softer batatas known for their bright orange hue. Many white and yellow yam varieties came from Africa. The yam stored a lot of energy in a cheap package and grew prolifically once set out in the southern coastal area of the US.
I asked Matthew if he and Althea had an interest in African heritage foods: “Yes, we do. We are currently looking to plant some of the original groundnuts, Carolina Gold rice, and Sea Island red peas.”
He outlines Gilliard Farms’ future this way: “We envision a self-sustaining farm where we grow food to feed our community. We plan to continue producing good food, events, and education. Our hope is to build a community food hub that can connect farmers to facilities for value-added products.” And, “We definitely envision a time where the farm will pay for itself. We are currently building up the soil fertility and farm infrastructure to increase our crop yield and success.”
No plans to retire! Or maybe small-scale farming/homesteading is a form of lifetime retirement…
Matthew has a ready laugh and a lot to say, describing himself as “a hometown boy who has come home.” I wished I could follow up on his invitation to visit that very day. That visit has definitely been added to my bucket list.
In the meantime, I think I can do no better service to Homestead.org readers than to offer, with thanks to its creator, CheFarmer Raiford’s recipe for fufu (a West African dish) made with yams (NOT sweet potatoes!): “My favorite yam recipe to date is my rendition of fufu.”
West African Fufu Recipe
- 2 pounds of yams
- 1 tablespoon butter
- pinch of allspice
- pinch of kosher salt
Place yams in a 400-degree oven. Roast until a fork stuck in yam comes out clean and easy. Remove from oven and peel off skins. Place yams in a bowl with butter, allspice, and salt, and mash. Next, beat and stir with a wooden spoon until completely smooth.
Shape the fufu into small balls and serve immediately. Eat the fufu with your favorite meat stew. To eat it, tear off a small handful and use it to scoop up your meat stew.