The slide on the projection screen was a little hard to make out because of the springtime sunlight streaming through the windows of South Carolina Society Hall last Tuesday, but presenter Leah Penniman still wanted to know what information her audience could glean from it.
“How old do you think this tomato is?” the activist farmer and author asked, gesturing at the photograph of a man in Burkina Faso holding a vividly red piece of fruit.
“Fifty years?” one woman ventured.
“Not that old,” Penniman said gently. “Fifty years would be amazing. Six months.”
As Penniman explained, the tomato had been kept fresh by burial in sifted ash, a West African technique that works as well or better than preservation methods contrived by Western world agronomists. “They buried in rice also,” offered another attendee at the SC Black Farmers Conference.
“Ashay,” Penniman said, bowing her head toward the Lowcountry farmer, clearly many years her senior. “Thank you.”
Although neither rice nor ash can safeguard produce for half a century, the hazarded guess didn’t seem all that preposterous in light of Penniman’s keynote address, which stressed the very long continuum on which black farming exists. As part of the day-long, community-building program organized by Fresh Future Farm, which also included a restorative yoga session, quintuple-collard soup prepared by chef BJ Dennis and history lesson delivered by artist Jonathan Green, Penniman name-checked agricultural practices invented by Africans and African-Americans:
Permaculture came from Africa, and terracing did, too. Cleopatra cultivated the Nile Delta with compost, long before anyone in Europe appreciated the value of earthworms. And in the U.S., visionary growers created the models for credit unions, extension agents and u-pick farms.
Still, the more than three dozen people gathered for the event, which Fresh Future Farm founder Germaine Jenkins plans to stage on a yearly basis, hadn’t come from as far away as Columbia and Beaufort to talk only about the past. Penniman, who just this month was named a recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious Leadership Award, inspired her listeners to think about what lies ahead.
“My hope is we come together to access the $11 billion people are spending on food,” Jenkins said in her introduction.
Hatching a new idea
You don’t have to talk to Jacky Frazier to know what he’d like to be selling more of. Frazier of Barefoot Farms on St. Helena Island dressed for the SC Black Farmers Conference in a blue denim button-down, opened to reveal a white T-shirt he had printed with six speckled quail eggs at its center and his contact number beneath them. “Kale and Quail, LLC,” the shirt reads.
Frazier has been farming his whole life, but just last year got into the quail egg business.
“My sister came to see me, and I told her, ‘Why don’t you try those eggs?’,” recalls Frazier, who’d been gifted a small container of quail eggs by Bill Odom, who has rental access to the family's hunting grounds. Odom’s retired now, but he founded Manchester Farms, the nation’s oldest producer of farm-raised quail.
Odom had mentioned that quail eggs had a salutary effect on allergies, so Frazier thought they might do something for Maxine Morris’ watery eyes and other seasonal symptoms. Within days, Morris felt fine and Frazier had something else to raise on his 25 acres; he already grows 34 different kinds of vegetables.
According to Clemson Extension associate Chad Carter, Frazier has developed a fairly ingenious semi-trailer quail house for his growing flock of 1,500 birds. “I was contemplating quitting farming, and once I got into birds, it extended my career,” he says. And even though Frazier’s worst health problems were a sporadic backache and difficulty reading small print, he now eats three quail eggs in the morning and another three eggs at night.
“Everyone wants to cook them, but you have to take them raw,” he says. “They’re best with hot sauce, but I even put them in booze. I put them in white liquor, like vodka or rum-and-Coke. It’s real good in those drinks.”
Thus far, Barefoot Farms has sold its eggs at its farm store and relied on its customers (and Frazier’s T-shirt) to spread the word about them. But the Fraziers are eyeing broader distribution. They just have to figure out the logistics of promoting a highly niche crop.
'We been moving'
When Sara Clow, the outgoing general manager of GrowFood Carolina, approached the end of the table where the Frazier family was sitting, Jacky Frazier’s sister, Mary Frazier, who serves as Barefoot’s president, shook her head: “She said she didn’t want our eggs.”
Clow, who’s accustomed to dealing with skepticism and pushback in the field, disagreed. “That’s not what I said,” she replied.
According to Frazier, she pointed out that itty-bitty quail eggs are too fragile to make the trip to Charleston in small quantities (Clow denies saying anything along those lines.) Plus, if anything’s tinier than a quail egg, it’s the restaurant demand for them which is handled by GrowFood. Clow estimates the hub sells about five dozen a week, mostly to La Tela, the Kiawah Island pizzeria that breaks them over a signature pie with pancetta and cracked black pepper.
“With Manchester in the mix, it’s hard,” she elaborated later, referring to the barriers built into the retail grocery system. Manchester, for example, sells to both Harris Teeter and Publix.
Yet the Fraziers firmly believe there’s room in the market for an ingredient with healthful properties (an approach to eating which, incidentally, has clear antecedents in African and African-American food traditions.) “We been moving,” he says.
The SC Black Farmers Conference was essentially a pep rally for others to do the same. “Small farming is the key to survival,” Green, a childhood member of Future Farmers of America, reminded his audience. “Government didn’t help us when it brought us over here, and it’s not going to help us now. The one way to regroup is through farming.”
Penniman amplified Green’s message, lamenting how many African-American people shy away from her farm because they associate agriculture with enslavement. “We imagine if we stoop, if we sweat, it will revert us to bondage,” she said. “How can we shift away from a narrative of slavery to one of 10,000 years of noble and dignified agrarian tradition?”
Speakers and attendees didn’t glance over specifics on that front. Penniman was visibly touched when the first question she fielded concerned drip irrigation.
“This is the first question anyone has asked me about farming,” said Penniman, who’s toured widely in support of her book, Farming While Black. “They ask me about race. But we’re all farmers here. I want to talk about drip irrigation.”
So they did.