Sustainable Growth

How a Sumter family cultivates traditional growing practices and shares their bounty with the community.

As  the sun beats down on Heritage Organic Dry Farming in Sumter, I shake Shaheed Harris’s hand and introduce myself. Polite and quiet, Harris listens as I tell him how much I’ve been looking forward to learning about dry farming­—a method of growing crops without irrigation. I had never heard of such a thing before. The young farmer bursts into a laugh.

“If you grew up in the ‘50s, you would have heard of this,” he says. “Or if you were ever really, really poor. It’s not that unusual.”

Harris lives on the Sumter property with his family, including his mother, Fathiyya. Until he passed away in April, his father, Azeez, was the family patriarch and a large part of daily operations. Now, Harris fills his shoes, helping to bring sustainable farming information and healthy eating habits to the people of South Carolina.

What the family began out of necessity soon blossomed into a common passion when Azeez was laid off years ago. Unable to find a job that paid enough, and with a baby on the way, Azeez and Fathiyya pooled their knowledge of gardening and farming together and began growing their own food in an effort to support their family. They continued when Azeez started his own painting business, after developing a fondness for sustaining themselves.

“In the beginning, it’s hard work,” admits Fathiyya, “but then you start appreciating it and enjoying it, and it’s not so hard anymore.”

Farming was nothing new to Fathiyya or Azeez, who both grew up in South Carolina farming families. Back then, irrigation and chemical fertilizers and insecticides were either unavailable or unaffordable, and therefore not common practice among small rural farmers. In its simplest form, farming only required a knowledge of the land and crops, a willingness to work the fields and an understanding that things might not turn out as expected.

“People generally don’t want to fail,” explains Harris, “They want a foolproof plan where every crop will grow perfectly, and they can count on a certain yield, so they end up creating false realities with irrigation, greenhouses, fertilizers and insecticides. But that’s not real. It’s not the healthiest method, and it’s expensive. In farming, just like in life, you lose sometimes. Everything is not going to go as planned, but that’s part of the plan.”

The concept of dry farming revolves around a set of adaptation techniques and practices, from seed to soil, in order to cultivate crops with no irrigation. Relying only on natural rainwater and groundwater, farmers who dry farm tend to be remarkably in touch with their land, plants, climate and weather. Starting by acclimating a seed to the climate (which can take a few growing cycles), farmers aim to create a strong plant that is less dependent on conventional growing practices and more able to survive on its own. This is also achieved through the lack of watering, which forces a plant to stretch its roots deep into the soil in search of groundwater, versus staying relatively shallow in anticipation of frequent watering.

“We don’t have anything against conventional farmers or greenhouse operations,” Harris clarifies. “But we don’t want plants that rely on a controlled environment. Nothing is wrong with growing in a greenhouse, for instance, but if the lights cut off for a short time, everything you’ve worked hard to grow is now wilted and dead, because you aren’t able to maintain that environment. You also have to pay for water and electricity when you could just build up your plant to become drought resistant.”

Though their farming practices and way of life were simply business as usual for the family, they were made quite aware of the uniqueness of their situation when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. Already used to living without electricity, using pump water only, and growing their own food, they were shocked to see such an overwhelming population of their town and state struggle with the residual effects of the natural disaster. “For some people, it was a complete tragedy,” remembers Harris. “They didn’t have food; they couldn’t get to the store; they didn’t have lights or candles. For us, it was just a continuation of our typical lifestyle. It didn’t really hit us hard.”

As the years went on, the family began to notice other signs of a disparity between the amount of useable land in the South and the dependence on food from outside of the home. Harris began studying “food deserts” —areas where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, especially without a car, and found that much of rural South Carolina falls within this category, despite the state’s fertile ground for agriculture. Many rural South Carolina residents tend to rely on convenience stores and fast food chains for their daily meals, and when they do eat produce, it is more often than not imported from out of state or country. The family saw the issues as an epidemic, but one they could help turn around.

“When I grew up around here, there was no such thing as people starving,” Fathiyya says. “People knew how to grow their own food, raise animals for meat, and preserve everything. Now, people are almost completely dependent on the grocery store. Animals aren’t dependent on the grocery store! As men, if we are supposed to be the most intelligent beings on this earth, then why are we dependent on others to survive?”

In an effort to educate others and give back to their community, the family started Heritage Organic Dry Farming and received their organic certification in 2003. They formed a non-profit co-op called SCF Organic Farms LTD and began connecting with farmers and community members, offering classes, crop sharing, collective bargaining, and other assistance aimed to “get regular people back into farming.” A major goal, Harris says, is to help people understand that they can transform even a small amount of space into something that will provide a healthier lifestyle and a sense of food security.

Recently, the family was awarded a USDA Farm Market Promotional Program grant, which allowed them to create the Midlands Organic Mobile Market, a set of food trucks that their team takes to food deserts, where they sell fresh produce and educate the public on sustainable growing practices. These pop-up markets have seen it all: from those looking to start their first container gardens to veteran farmers who need advice on using a field that was put through too many harsh growing practices. The team offers heirloom seeds, gives out literature and shares free advice to anyone who asks, in hopes that they can minimize the gap between rural communities and healthy eating. To Fathiyya and Harris, helping their friends, neighbors and community learn to farm is their calling, and the way things ought to be.

“Growing up,” Fathiyya remembers, “The community took care of each other, and you got your food from within your community. A lot of people got away from farming because they saw it as too much work. Really, it’s not work when it’s a way to be healthier and a way to sustain yourself and your family. It’s a labor of love. And that is what we are doing here ­—looking out for our community and sharing our labor of love.”

By Jana Riley