Ruta Smith

Of nearly 39,000 farmers in South Carolina, less than 2,500 of them are black, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The South Carolina Black Farmers Coalition is fighting to give black farmers a voice, advocating for policy changes that address the systemic racial imbalance in the agricultural industry.

Since starting Fresh Future Farms in 2014, coalition co-founder Germaine Jenkins has used the North Charleston urban farm and grocery as a platform to help underserved communities by providing access to fresh food. The S.C. Black Farmers Coalition is an extension of that mission — a group of educators, food justice advocates and black farmers aiming to expand food literacy and strengthen the black farming community.

At this year’s annual conference, held virtually due to COVID-19, the group discussed ways to increase the footprint of black-owned farms, which make up just 1.3 percent of the 4 million American farm producers.

“I would say from personal experience and some of the conversations at the conference, there are dollars available in the state, and the majority go to white-led farms,” Jenkins said. “The point of the Coalition is to figure out what we want to prioritize and advocate for collectively.”

Bonita Clemons, a conference attendee and Coalition member, was drawn to Jenkins and FFF prior to the first conference in 2019. “Every time I would go places I would hear about Germaine,” she said. Clemons earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of South Carolina before founding Bonita’s Teas, a company featuring products grown on her rural South Carolina farm.

“There needs to be a stronger relationship with the [South Carolina] Department of Agriculture,” Clemons said. “The agriculture industry needs to be more inclusive. I asked them if they could tell me all the black farmers and they said ‘No, that would be a good project to work on.'”

The state Department of Agriculture does not have any specific programs geared toward black farmers, a spokesperson said, but the agency tries to be inclusive in its operations. “We do make efforts to attract diverse participation in programs like the Hemp Farming Program and our Agribusiness Center for Research and Entrepreneurship (ACRE) curriculum program,” said Eva Moore, the department’s communications director.

The Black Farmers Coalition conferences in 2019 and 2020 have begun to address the stark racial disparity among farmers in South Carolina, but Jenkins knows the group can do more to give the state’s farmers a voice.

“We need to host more Coalition meetings and figure out how we navigate towards the grants that are available,” she said. “We put a tentative list together of potential policy changes based on some work that our peers like Soul Fire Farm have worked on.”

Soul Fire Farm, located in Petersburg, N.Y., has worked for 10 years to uproot racism in the food system.

According to its website, “People of color are disproportionately likely to live under food apartheid and suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and other diet related illness. Labor laws continue to permit the exploitation of farm and food workers.”

Jenkins hopes the S.C. Black Farmers Coalition can help address these issues by advocating for increased acreage of incubated farmland for black farmers. The group also wants more money allocated to regional black-led food hubs that integrate crops and distribute them into disadvantaged food communities.

This could help family farms like Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island.

“Once you grow something, you have to have an outlet for it. If you don’t have an outlet, then you’re stuck with it,” said Joseph Fields, a third-generation farmer who owns his 50-acre namesake organic farm.

Fields said selling regulations can bog down independent black farmers trying to move products. And large-scale farms drive down prices, causing smaller independent operations to reduce prices on higher-quality goods. Fields said he often receives the appropriate organic rate on just a quarter of what he sells when he takes his harvest to the state farmer’s market in Columbia.

Clemons, based just outside of Columbia, knows this is an issue. “We have to create a space where the black farmers can have one place, let’s call it a hub, and we aggregate their produce and sell it,” she said.

“Everything South Carolinians need to sustain themselves can be grown here,” Clemons said. “I’m going to put it on us to go to [the South Carolina Department of Agriculture]. Once we make it known that we want support, I think telling them and educating them will help. They have not reached out, but we are going to be the first to speak.”

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.