The Caribbean Initiative

SAAFON has a long history of organizing, advocacy, and partnership in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in the Caribbean region. Through Cynthia Hayes’ relationships, learnings, and commitment to diasporic connection, our Caribbean Initiative took form to connect Black farmers, create space for exchange across island, and to seed a movement that could build collective power across culture. 

Much of our early work in the Caribbean focused on the promotion and adoption of organic practices, farmer knowledge exchange and gatherings, and advocating for the inclusion of U.S. territories in federal programs. For example, through the leadership of farmers in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and with the pressure of Cynthia Hayes, the USDA opened key programs to the region, a noted shift from their previous practice. In 2013, SAAFON co-founder Dr. Owusu Bandele provided organic certification training for production farmers and agricultural professionals on the islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas, in partnership with University of the Virgin Islands, USVI Department of Labor, and the USVI Department of Agriculture.  

Early SAAFON “Inform the Farmer” newsletters, published in 2013-2014, centered on our work in the USVI, as well as Barbados, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, illustrating a shared understanding of community and cultural kinship, uplifted the technical elements of sustainable farming and agroecological practices, and promoted farm economic viability.

In 2016, with the untimely passing of Cynthia Hayes, much of SAAFON’s work was placed on hold as the organization moved into the recovery of the farmers, farms, communities, organizations, and institutions that she touched and influenced. The Caribbean Initiative, and its expansive work and reach, was refocused on the U.S. Virgin Islands in partnership with Yvette Browne, of Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands. Yvette’s long standing tenure as a member and leader in the organization, her prominence as an organizer and advocate, and her deep sisterhood and kinship with Cynthia Hayes, anchored our work in the Caribbean in a time of uncertainty for the institution. Through her tireless commitment, we maintained a critical touchpoint to our farmer members in the region.

After six years of development, SAAFON reinitiated the Caribbean Initiative – the intentionality of activating and resourcing this important linkage included an envisioning of a sustainable re-entry into Caribbean collaboration, and identifying resources to staff the initiative. In 2022, SAAFON deepened our partnership with Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands in support of Bush Cook Chef Cook, a the signature 3-day annual event that highlights the richness of island food culture, and promotes agriculture and nutrition with community chef and children cooking demonstrations and competitions, culminating with a 5-course Farm-to-Table dinner sourced and prepared by multiple chefs, farmers and ranchers. 

Bush Cook Chef Cook was created to elevate the importance of food security and sovereignty, and to be an economic generator for farmers to aggregate and market their produce and products. The farmers highlighted throughout the event collectively organize and market through Island Food Security Inc. 

Island Food Security Inc. (Island Food Network) was started in 2010 by a group of farmers on St. Croix, which represents SAAFON’s existing base of legacy members and serves as a key collaborator. The purpose of this network is to promote agricultural techniques, production, and marketing to enhance food security, to contribute to economic growth and foster sustainable practices that benefit both people and the environment. Island Food Network leverages its expertise and resources to address pressing issues and to create a positive ripple effect, improving livelihoods and fostering resilience in communities both locally and beyond.

In our efforts to cultivate meaningful collaboration in the region, we have continued to seek partners on island who can support our analysis on the conditions and needs of our farmers. In 2022, we were introduced to the work of the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition, led by the visionary leadership of founder and Executive Director, Sommer Sibilly-Brown. This valued relationship continues to influence our perspective on how SAAFON can best support the efforts of local institutions, and cultivate offerings that address the challenges they identify. In February 2024, SAAFON sponsored and participated in Good Food Coalition’s Inaugural Island Food Systems Summit that convened sustainable food system leaders and partners throughout the USVI territory, Caribbean, and U.S. mainland, that brought together farmers, advocates, and cultural stewards from across all three U.S. Virgin Islands islands, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. This convening created a potent space for a shared visioning towards the food security and food sovereignty that the Caribbean has been organizing towards for decades. 

“The water doesn’t separate us, it connects us.”

SAAFON’s Caribbean Initiative is in regeneration – as a part of building SAAFON’s institutional memory, we are reclaiming our linkages, and visibilizing the work of our founders, and the organizers who helped shape the early work of the organization in the Caribbean. As we move to ground and expand in the U.S. Virgin Islands, while remaining open to extending our services to other parts of the region, we do so rooted in the vision – a multicultural movement of Black sustainable farmers committed to sustainable practices, advocating for systemic change, and bridging the waters that connect us in service to a liberated future for us all.

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