From a parking lot in west Charlotte’s Savona Mill to an 11-acre farm in Indian Trail, Bernard Singleton has come a long way in just three years.
He credits the spiritual power of his ancestors, and one in particular — his late son, Caesar Singleton, who passed away tragically in 2010 at just 15 years old.
“All of the ancestors are powerful, but he is the most powerful,” Singleton told me during a recent visit to Nebedaye Farms, located at the intersection of Fairview and Mill Grove roads in Indian Trail. He was preparing for a Sept. 18 Eh’vivi Ghanian Cuisine dinner at the location, in which Chef Awo with Awo’s Catering would cook dishes using ingredients grown at Singleton’s Nebedaye Farms.
Singleton regularly hosts dinners like this one as he reaches harvesting season; they are how he carries out his mission to educate Americans on the roots of African food and the ancestral culinary arts that were brought here by enslaved Africans hundreds of years ago.
Having originally launched Nebedaye Farms on land owned by the Carolina Farm Trust in Indian Trail with the intention of exclusively growing moringa, Singleton has expanded in recent years, adding more than 30 plants that are native to Africa but are able to grow in our climate.
Those include Carolina gold rice and indigo, two of the largest cash crops grown by enslaved people in Singleton’s hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.
“We host dinners around these crops to introduce it to a lot of people who are not familiar with it and not aware that it actually can grow here,” Singleton told me. “We are practicing a lot of the arts of our ancestors and paying homage to them in their sacrifice when they went through here. That’s why the rice is important and the indigo is important.
“A lot of those skills were lost or not kept up, but what we’re doing is bringing those skills back to honor the ancestors,” he continued. “And it’s great for economic empowerment for the community because you’re working on a lot of rare niche crops. So things have been going very well.”
Singleton is currently working with chefs who will be participating in the second annual Bayhaven Food & Wine Festival, a Black-centered food event launched by Leah & Louise owners Greg and Subrina Collier in 2021 in a push for economic empowerment and community development through the hospitality industry.
He has invited a number of chefs like Greg Collier, who has been a regular visitor to Nebedaye Farms in recent years, to visit and discuss possible uses for the crops he grows during the festival, scheduled for Oct. 19-23 at Camp North End.
“We work with them when they get here to introduce a lot of things to them, and hopefully they would incorporate at least one dish that they’re culturally connected to,” he explained. “We’re trying to maintain being culturally connected to the food and eating for our DNA. Everybody has ancestors, but we’re honoring ours in ways they haven’t been elevated and honored, especially with the botanical legacy that they left here.”
Following the festival, Singleton hopes to spread his knowledge beyond the Charlotte area. Over the last year, he has also been communicating with farmers and chefs in Senegal, where his ancestors once lived, as well as Ghana, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Spain.
Now he hopes to put what he’s learned to use in helping other Southern Black farmers through an organization called Jubilee Justice.
Restorative justice in farming
According to Jubilee Justice, a Louisiana-based organization with a mission to “heal and transform the wounds suffered by the people and the land through reparative genealogy and regenerative agriculture,” nearly 30,000 acres of land owned by Black farmers is lost annually.
Singleton believes that ancestral farming is a way to make Black farmers whole again, spiritually and financially.
“A lot of farmers have been walking away from farming because they couldn’t make it profitable,” he said, “but if you grow ancestral crops, there’s a definite market for it, too, and you’re more culturally connected to it, and there’s not much competition. So we brought pretty much enough different things here that people from all cultures benefit from.”
Immigrants from a wide range of Asian and African countries visit Nebedaye Farms regularly, as they have trouble finding some of the crops that he grows elsewhere.
The malunggay plant, or example, is known to different parts of the world under various names including the horseradish tree, drumstick tree, and dool in some regions. It has many uses both culinarily and medicinally.
“A lot of the Hindu populations, Indian population, southern India, they visit here because a lot of crops are similar between Africa, Asia, and India … A lot of the foods are in common because they had trade between those countries long before we got here [to America]. So a lot of those same people, when they come and they see the malunggay, they get emotional … They haven’t seen these things since they left their country. So it’s important to them to even see someone from the outskirts actually growing these things, bringing along a lot of the cultures together.”
And it’s not just food that Singleton is using to empower Black farmers, he’s recently been growing indigo to turn into dyes and pigments for paints, cosmetics and other uses.
On a more hyper-local level, Singleton’s relationships with his neighbors have been improving.
In August 2020, Queen City Nerve reported on the arrest of one of Singleton’s neighbors for “ethnic intimidation,” a hate crime, following a confrontation between the two men.
During my recent visit, Singleton refused to comment on what came of the case, only stating that “it had a good ending” and he didn’t want to stir any bad blood back up now that it’s resolved.
He’s begun making inroads with other neighbors, ones who were in no way involved with the incident and have recently been visiting the farm to learn more about what’s going on at Nebedaye Farms.
As reported by Queen City Nerve in 2020, Singleton and Black visitors have experienced multiple incidents of racism from passersby since Nebedaye opened, so he tends to be skeptical when he’s approached, as was the case when members of the Mint Hill Historical Society recently paid him a visit.
“I’m sitting here one day, there’s a little caravan of white people rolling up, and I’m like, ‘Okay, what now?’” he said, laughing. “But no, they actually came because they heard about what we were doing here and came to find out. They’ve been hearing about how we’re doing things the traditional way, the ancestral way, and they were interested if we can come present it.”
Singleton will present some of what he’s learned and his practice of growing ancestral crops at the Mint Hill Historical Society’s Oct. 15 meeting.
For Singleton, it’s reason to believe that Nebedaye Farms has staying power — but he didn’t need anyone’s approval to know that already.
“After what we’ve been through in the past two years, I guess they all realized we ain’t going nowhere,” Singleton said, trailed by his trademark laugh.