Cynthia Hayes, John Egerton Prize Winner

Cynthia Hayes

Since 2009, the SFA has awarded an annual John Egerton Prize of $5,000. The prize, named for author and activist John Egerton of Nashville, is funded by an endowment raised by SFA members.

The Egerton Prize recognizes artists, writers, scholars, and others, whose work in the broad field of Southern foodways addresses issues of race, class, and gender, as well as social and environmental justice.

We awarded this year’s prize to Cynthia Hayes of Savannah, GA, on behalf of Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network, which she founded along with Owusu Bandele, emeritus professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

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Fewer than 1 percent of America’s farms are now owned by African Americans, down from 14 percent in 1920.

Those who remain may not be around for much longer—the average age of the farmer is about 60 years old, and it’s even higher for black farmers.

Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network, or SAAFON, founded in 2007,  is the nation’s largest African-American organic farming organization.The program helps farmers transition from conventional to organic growing methods and complete the USDA organic producer application. One part of the curriculum, for example, teaches farmers to substitute animal manures and approved biological insect control for petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The program also provides SAAFON trainees a historical review of African American farming in the South, reminding them that “organic” was the form of farming embraced long ago. While expert trainers and a strong curriculum are essential to the program’s success, Cynthia Hayes likes to reinforce the importance of peer support and the shared cultural experience.

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The results have been remarkable.

When SAAFON began its work, there were no certified organic African American farmers in several southern states, including Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Today, more than 50 SAAFON members are USDA-certified organic. And SAAFON has more than 120 members in six states.

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Hayes has family roots in Georgia. She spent summers on her family’s tobacco farm in Kentucky, where she listened to her uncles chart out the day’s chores around the breakfast table.

She grew up, went to California for college and met and married her husband. After they raised their two sons and a daughter, they took over a bed and breakfast in Jamaica. That led to the development of an 18-acre farm there. She and her husband, Terry, still own it, raising plantain, bananas, avocados and dasheen, an export crop similar to yams.

Her work has taken her throughout the US, Caribbean, and Central and South America. Along the way, Hayes realized that African American farmers lacked the education and training to get into organic farming.

Black farmers who were interested in farming organically weren’t readily accepted into larger organic groups dominated by white farmers. And they were suspicious of government programs after a history of mistreatment from the federal government, including a long period when the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them in its loans or subsidies programs. What’s more, there was the red tape of organic certification.

Thanks to Hayes and to SAAFON, those barriers are smaller now.

The farmers that are a part of SAAFON have taken a giant historic step to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of their farms, while increasing the chance of preserving a vanishing yet important resource: black-owned farmland.

We thank Cynthia Hayes for her leadership, and we thank SAAFON for helping stanch black land loss and inspire a new generation of farmers.