“It’s like that song, you know it?” asks Shaheed Harris, who is wearing a black Trix are for Kids T-shirt and New Balance sneakers. “We was country before country was cool.” His soft voice peals with laughter.
Boy, is he right. Shaheed’s family, the first farmers in South Carolina to become organically certified, turned back to work the land at a time when doing so was nearly unheard of, and less than recommended.
The decision was made out of necessity more than any conscious choice. Shaheed’s father Azeez Mustafa, who’d worked at DuPont doing assembly-line work, was laid off right before Shaheed was born. “My job title was ‘Group II,’” he recalls. “Back in the 70s, DuPont was the highest-paying job around. Actually, it was the only job around. Either you got a job at DuPont, or you went north. Farming would no longer support a family.”
When Azeez was laid off, the family lost their house, their car, their everything. He built a trailer house out of a box, and the family moved into it. They lived by lamplight, wood fires and a kerosene stove, and became strict vegetarians, often eating raw or Dumpster-salvaged food. “Stress of mind brings expansion of mind,” says Azeez, shrugging.
From the box they built a hand-sawn house, in which they lived for thirteen years. “It was a training camp for organic farming,” says Azeez. “We grew our own vegetables and medicinal herbs, and foraged. You know, organic, non-irrigation farming is just a poor man’s way of growing food. That’s how everyone used to do it, up till the fifties.” And South Carolina was the perfect place for growing. “There’s nothing you can’t grow here,” explains Shaheed. “We’re close to the coast and get the spinoff from hurricanes. When you see woods growing trees fifty feet tall without water, you figure there must be a way for the sweet potatoes.” Adding water, they figure, makes for plants that might grow bigger but lack nutrients and flavor the plants would get by stretching roots deeper into the soil to find their own water and minerals.
“Whenever we buy seeds (usually from California), the first crop is always the worst,” Shaheed notes. “We save the seeds that grew successfully, and every time we replant, they adapt and become stronger; you’re actually training your plant to deal with the environment. The seed is built to help itself, you know. And every generation improves.” The family still has okra seeds that originated from plants Azeez’s farther grew, and watermelon seeds collected from fruits he nurtured as a child—giving a whole new meaning to the concept of “heirloom variety.”
According to Azeez, only 5% of the food in South Carolina is produced in the state. Emile DeFelice, a recent candidate for the position of South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, ran using “put your state on your plate!” as his slogan—and lost. “And people wonder why our state is poor,” Azeez veritably thunders. “If you don’t support the local people, what you think gonna happen??” Thankfully, increasing numbers do. When the family—three generations, including Shaheed’s eight-year-old daughter Asya—go to the farmer’s markets, they sell out every time. “Our tomatoes don’t grow perfectly round, but they taste 10,000 better than supermarket tomatoes,” says Shaheed proudly. “So long as we get our food in people’s mouths, the battle’s not really with the larger farmer. But we spend a lot of time educating the consumer.”
Becoming organically certified was a relatively simple matter, as the land had been free of chemicals for many more decades than the requisite three years, and the family kept records as a matter of course. South Carolina State University had established an outreach program for minority farmers, and Clemson University helped certify the farm in 2003. A nonprofit called Carolina Farm Stewards, which has been committed to sustainable agriculture since 1979, has supported the family from the start, and rewarded their hard work by naming them their Farmers of the Year for 2006. Today, Azeez and his wife Fathiyya travel and teach classes about non-irrigation farming, how to work with the weather, and other such “witchcraft.”
Once they’d become certified organic, the Mustafas teamed up with eight other like-minded farmers in the area to set up a co-op, which to date is the largest cooperative farm in South Carolina—that they’re organic is just gravy. The Sumter Cooperative Farms have identified over eight more farms that are on their way to being certified, so they’ll continue to expand. One way in which they work together is to stagger each grower to grow certain types of products to meet the demands of the market; watermelon, mizuna, and arugula are particularly sought after. The Mustafas specialize in salads, greens and medicinal herbs. “We couldn’t afford to go to the doctor when Shaheed was growing up,” says Azeez. “So we learned as much as possible about taking care of ourselves. We spent thirteen years without a television, remember? So we had time. Now we could afford it—but Shaheed’s daughter is eight and has never been to a doctor. You work with creation instead of against it.”
What kinds of herbs keep a whole family healthy for thirty years? “Alfalfa is the mother of all herbs, a blood cleaner,” begins Azeez, counting off his fingers. “I suggest that you use dandelion root and milk thistle to clean the liver. Cinnamon cleans the pancreas; ginger and cayenne pepper are catalysts to clear out phlegm. Raw cranberries and thyme tea will help with kidney stones. What else? Yellowdock, burdock, Echinacea, chaparral, red clover blossom. We use them all. Above all, we keep our colons clean. Just use good food and herbs, and there, you done tuned the body up!”
“The elders still knew certain things,” says Shaheed’s mother Fathiyya. “And the more natural you become, the more remembrances come back to you. I read Rodale, and gave it all some thought, and tested a lot of ideas. Sure, pests are a problem, but spraying gets rid of too many things. We put down grits to fight the ants; we spray with cayenne pepper, or dish detergent, or vegetable oil. The deer loved our peas and beets, but I learned that if you put human hair in your garden, or cups of urine, they stay away.” She gets hair from the local barbershop and blushes in response to the other question. Minimalism and self-sufficiency are unquestioned pillars; the Mustafas have a small tractor for running rows, but most of the work is done by one of the family members, by hand with a stirrup hoe. Freshly picked greens are still treated as living; they stand in a pan of water, like cut flowers, until the customer picks them up. Scarecrows stand erect in the fields, glaring at animals with the effrontery to approach.
The Mustafas farm in a way that is more sustainable, attentive, and holistic—many times over—than the industrial greenhouses in California that share the “certified organic” sticker. As organic standards and legislation become increasingly looser, how are consumers to know the difference between styles, when the labels look the same? “Shop at farmer’s markets,” stresses Shaheed. “Buy local.”
The Mustafas are not people who have chosen organic farming for its economic or social advantages, per se. They react with what seems to be pleasant, unconcerned surprise at seeing their unusual lifestyle adopted, all of a sudden, as hip. Asya causes a sensation at the farmer’s markets; Whole Foods takes legions of employees on tours of the farm. But you get the feeling that, were it all to disappear tomorrow, the family would just shrug and carry on. Fathiyya claims they don’t need to buy anything other than soy milk; she uses honey from a local man instead of sugar.
But though they seem completely oblivious to the outside, there’s
nonetheless something of the prophet about both preacher-voiced Azeez
and gentle Shaheed. “Be a good shepherd,” says Shaheed as he shows me
out. “Start tearing up these beautiful flower yards and plant some
beautiful vegetables instead! Call us if you lose the way!” He’s not
talking about the road to the interstate.
In October and November 2006, I meandered circuitously between San Francisco to Miami under the auspices of Minnesota-based nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, interviewing farmers, ecologists, musicians and activists for a book on youth revitalizing rural landscapes all across America. Hero-bosses Jan Joannides and Brett Olsen have allowed me to post my interviews here, but look for them in the Youth Renewing the Countryside book, due out in the spring of 2008.