Preserving Gullah farming traditions and food culture in South Carolina
Story and photo by LeeAnn Chisolm Morrissette
[This article was previously published in the spring issue of the Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]
I met Sara’ Reynolds Green, lovingly referred to as “Mama Sara’,” and her husband Bill when I was commissioned to interview them for The Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON) docuseries, With These Hands.
Farmers, educators, business owners, community leaders—so many titles can be given to these stewards of the Lowcountry, but what I found to be most riveting was their tireless commitment to feeding and cultivating their community.
Mama Sara’ is the steward of Marshview Community Organic Farm, situated on five acres of ancestral land in St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Bill Green is the chef and owner of Gullah Grub, a community staple and attraction on the Sea Island that uses produce from Marshview to create delectable, authentic Gullah recipes.
In 1989, Mama Sara’ returned home to St. Helena Island, where she discovered a lack of viable food choices. “I couldn’t find any decent organic vegetables. So I said, I guess I’m gonna start growing my own.”
The Greens trace their lineage to the Gullah people of coastal Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, who hold the rich cultural tradition of their West and Central African ancestors.
Growing organic is a part of preserving traditional Gullah agricultural practices, along with eating only local, in-season foods, such as the oysters they harvest from September through December.
At the heart of Gullah tradition is a spirit of resiliency. Despite generations of erasure, racism, and land loss, it is only with toil, grace, and the curiosity of local youth that these traditions live on in St. Helena Island.
Mama Sara’s efforts to engage those younger generations sparked the passion that led to the birth of Marshview Community Organic Farm, which became the first certified organic farm in St. Helena.
Mama Sara’s mission: Teach them to be stewards of the land. The “Young Farmers of the Lowcountry,” ages 10 to 18, run the farm under the guidance of advisors, splitting their time between learning to cultivate food from seed and cooking that food with Bill Green at Gullah Grub.
While they’ve received much local support and even national acclaim, Marshview touts SAAFON as a reason for much of their early success.
The Black-led organization cultivates deep relationships with Black farmers throughout the Southeastern United States to provide hands-on work, infrastructure, resources, and conditions and spaces to support knowledge sharing and connectivity among farmers.
SAAFON, Mama Sara’ says, is the reason they started their CSA program. “It’s the best thing that I could have done. It brought the people to the farm.”
Gullah Grub closed its doors this past year due to COVID-19, but the couple continues to feed their neighbors with produce from the farm, having transformed their industrial kitchen into a hot-meal program aimed at easing widespread food insecurity in their community.
Since the program’s inception in April 2020, the Greens have provided over 36,000 nutritious meals. This is no small feat. Most of their labor is volunteer, although they are able to pay the youth who continue to be involved a small stipend for their time. “Work is worship,” Mama Sara’ says. “When you give, you receive so much more.”
This is resoundingly evident for the Greens, stewards of culture and land, whose service will be felt for generations to come because of their purposeful and loving dedication to their community.