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South Carolina group helps Black farmers to fight historical inequities

Gullah Farmers Co-op highlighted in 2024 SDOP Sunday Resource and Yearbook

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

One of the reasons that the Gullah Farmers Cooperative was formed was to create a larger marketing entity that could compete with larger big-box farm producers and could sell larger volume for a fair market price. (Photo courtesy of the Gullah Farmers Cooperative Association)

LOUISVILLE — Black farmers in the Lowcountry of South Carolina are making economic gains thanks to banding together to take advantage of the “buy local” trend.

More than a dozen Black farmers with limited resources came together to form the Gullah Farmers Cooperative Association in 2010 to secure markets for their products and to get paid fair prices.

“That was our big vision: to start this co-op, let the farmers grow what they know to grow and sell it at a wholesale price to these different vendors,” said Walter Mack, administrative director.

The pitch: “Instead of getting stuff from California or Mexico, why don’t you get it locally?” he said.

Most of the farmers in the cooperative, which is supported by the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) and other entities, are from area communities such as Jasper, Hampton, Allendale, St. Helena Island and Johns Island.

Part of the motivation for starting the cooperative was that school systems in the region had become interested in securing locally grown food.

“The children now will be able to eat locally grown, fresh, nutritional, healthy food instead of that processed stuff,” Mack said.

The cooperative helps farmers in a number of ways, including marketing and technical agricultural training and assistance with seed selection, budgeting, farm certification and U.S. Department of Agriculture programs as well as access to farm-related conferences. “Training is always ongoing with these farmers” to achieve success beyond roadside markets, Mack said.

According to the cooperative, “Historically, small Black farmers have had to endure inequitable marketing practices from buyers and distributors when trying to market our farm products. These unfair practices have led to many small farm families living in poverty or losing their small family farms. One of the reasons that the Gullah Farmers Cooperative was formed was to create a larger marketing entity that could compete with larger big-box farm producers and could sell larger volume for a fair market price.”

Two years ago, the cooperative identified a 10,000-square-foot building on St. Helena Island and received federal funding to transform it into a fruit-and-vegetable processing facility that has become a beacon of hope for the area.

“Within our low-income community, we have developed what I’m considering a sustainable business in this plant that we have … and it’s something that local people are proud of, and now we’re getting a lot more of them to grow fruits and vegetables and bring it to us,” Mack said.

One of the advantages of the cooperative is that participating farmers now have money to pay for property taxes and other expenses. “That’s a great economic impact,” Mack said.

The processing facility also has created local jobs in areas such as sales and outreach that are helping educated people to remain close to home instead of having to move away to earn good salaries.

In a recommendation to SDOP, the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce said it appreciates the efforts of the cooperative to “establish a sustainable economic presence in which they have employed several community residents that are paid livable wages to support them and their families.”

The group is featured in the SDOP Resource and Yearbook.

Another stride that the cooperative has made is being able to transport produce to vendors in refrigerated trucks, which small farmers often can’t afford on their own.

“We actually go to the farmers and pick up their produce in our refrigerated truck, bring it back here and put it in our coolers until it’s processed,” Mack said. “Our dream is to have about two or three 18-wheelers come and take deliveries from us on a weekly basis.”

Funding from SDOP has been helpful with operations, something that many organizations do not provide grants for, he said. The cooperative also has received money from the Sea Island Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, South Carolina.

The cooperative hopes to expand by helping to establish a processing facility in the northern part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor someday, Mack said. “We have learned some tough lessons, but I think we can help people not make those same mistakes … and they can move much faster than we did.”

A version of this story appears in the SDOP Sunday Resource and Yearbook, an annual guide to the work of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People and its partners. It’s published in advance of SDOP Sunday, which will be celebrated in PC(USA) churches across the United States on March 10.

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