Agritourism Trail Spotlights Black Farms In Georgia

ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — Tucked behind the wrought iron gates that line the frontage at 801 Old Pretoria Road is the stuff that retreat-style getaways are made of: an 1851 mansion appointed in period furniture available for rent as a wedding venue or other private event; farm acreage dotted with grapevines, beehives and citrus trees; a long dirt road flanked by pecan trees that leads to secluded, rustic guesthouses and an 85-acre lake surrounded by bald cypress trees draped in Spanish moss.

It’s hard to imagine that such idyllic grounds were once a slave plantation.

Yet, the past and present of this 1,638-acre property, known as Resora and named to reflect resilience and resourcefulness, is worth showing and telling.

As part of the newly launched Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail promoted on Airbnb, visitors are encouraged to visit Resora and other destinations on the trail for not only a restful vacation but also an educational experience that sheds a light on the region’s rich agricultural history. What makes the trail even more unique, considering its history, is that it is hosted by Black farmers with longstanding ties to the area.

BLAZING A NEW TRAIL FOR BLACK FARMERS

The driving force behind Resora and the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is Shirley Sherrod, whose name may sound familiar to some. In 2010, she was forced to resign from her position as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) after Breitbart News broadcast some comments she made in a speech out of context, misconstruing her remarks as racist, and the video snippet went viral. Federal officials ultimately realized Sherrod had been misrepresented. She was issued an apology and offered another job at the USDA, but she declined.

Now Sherrod serves on the newly established U.S. Department of Agriculture Equity Commission to address historical discrimination within the department and its programs. But she has been committed to serving the rural community of south Georgia for decades.

In 1968, Sherrod and her husband, the Rev. Charles Sherrod, co-founded New Communities, a nonprofit farm collective in Lee County that became, at the time, the largest Black-owned landholding in the nation. Discriminatory loan practices ultimately led to foreclosure of the property in 1985, with 20 Black families impacted by the loss. A series of lawsuits, claims, denials and appeals dragged out for nearly 25 years, finally resulting in a $12 million settlement from the USDA in 2009.

Nearly a generation had passed since New Communities had dirt to dig in. To Sherrod, it meant “we had life again.”

The search for another property on which to continue the New Communities mission led to the purchase of the former Tarver Plantation in Albany for $4.5 million in 2011. Sherrod didn’t learn of its history as a slave plantation until a year after the sale.

“I had a problem. I had a hard time grasping it,” she said.

“This was once a slave plantation. It was once owned by the largest slave owner and the wealthiest man in the state,” she said, referring to Hartwell Hill Tarver. Among artifacts uncovered on the property was an ad from 1859 announcing the sale of 150 slaves owned by Tarver’s son, Paul Tarver, who inherited the plantation upon his father’s death.

As part of the healing process, they invited members of the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe and other ethnic groups to perform blessing ceremonies on the land for three successive years. Present at the first blessing was Herbert Phipps, a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals at the time, whose great great grandmother was a slave on the plantation and whose great great grandfather was the overseer. After emancipation, the couple married and had eight children, according to Sherrod.

During events held at Resora, New Communities publicly reclaims the injustices of the past by posting a large sign at the gate that states: “This land was owned by the largest slave owner in Georgia and is now owned by descendants of slaves.”

A PLACE FOR ALL PEOPLE

Sherrod’s goal for the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is three-fold: to support participating farmers in accessing the economic opportunities of local tourism; to raise social awareness on the history and present-day needs of Black farming communities; and to promote racial reconciliation and healing.

The heart of the tourism component is Resora, where the former plantation house is available for retreats, conferences and weddings. Rentals are handled directly through the website at theresoraexperience.com.

On the grounds are one- and two-bedroom, rustic-looking wood cabins a stone’s throw from the tranquil waters of the cypress pond and a two-bedroom cottage situated near the mansion. Available for overnight stays through Airbnb for $175-$300 a night, each cabin includes fully equipped modern kitchens, hardwood flooring and living and sleeping quarters with contemporary furnishings.

So far the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail offers two experiences. One is a tour of the farm at Resora ($25 per person) that includes a wagon ride giving visitors a close-up look at some of the 400 acres used for agricultural testing, site-learning and production, including a 200-acre pecan orchard, muscadine grape vineyard, satsuma grove, beehives and experimental plots for growing rice and truffles. The working farm is tended by three full-time employees, with seasonal workers helping during harvest periods.

With education as an important component to the trail, tour guides weave in stories of the area’s agricultural history, particularly the plight of Black farmers, and the community’s role in the fight for racial equality dating back to the civil rights movement.

“We want this place to be available to all people, but especially Black people, to teach history and heal from it,” Sherrod said. “Training, production, agriculture, culture, history, healing — we can see all of that happening at this site.”

TASTE OF THE SOUTH

The second experience on the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is one that illustrates the best way Southerners know how to build community and bridge cultural understanding: sharing a meal together. That’s the experience that Clinton Vicks offers.

A native of Albany and currently a high school teacher in the Dougherty County School System, 41-year-old Vicks left his hometown in the early 2000s to attend Howard University. After graduating with a degree in communications and minors in vocal performance and English, he worked for nearly two decades as a performer and communications specialist in Washington, D.C., and New York. A few years ago, he returned to his roots to be near family, whose ties to farming date back four generations.

In 2020, Vicks purchased a 1925 home that sits on five acres. Naming it The Vicks Estate, Farm & Fishery, he set to work renovating the house and clearing the land. While those projects are ongoing (overnight lodging will be available beginning mid-July), his initial involvement in the trail is as host of “A Taste of the South,” a barbecue cookout in his backyard.

For $40 a person, guests sit under the shade of patio umbrellas with a cold glass of Vicks’ signature ruby red fruit punch as he lights up the grill. He invites participants to help with meal prep by plucking herbs from the garden or shucking corn. As he monitors jerk chicken and slabs of ribs, guests can play cornhole and horseshoes. During a tour of the property, he points out big picture plans to restore a pond and stock it with catfish, bass and bream; to build a barn to raise goats and chickens; to make a clearing in the pine forest to construct a stage for live performances.

He sees participating in the agritourism trail as an Airbnb host as a way to generate revenue to turn those dreams in to reality while also being involved in the local community. “I am in a place where I want to come back and give back,” he said.

RURAL TRAVEL ON THE RISE

The timing may be good for promoting agritourism. The coronavirus prompted many people to avoid air travel and big cities. Instead, they took to the road and vacationed in the great outdoors and less crowded destinations. This has been a boon to Airbnb hosts in rural areas.

Airbnb hosts in rural counties earned $3.5 billion in 2021, with overnight bookings by U.S. guests in rural areas across the nation growing 110% last year compared to 2019. During that same two-year period, nights booked at farm stays increased by 40%, according to Airbnb.

“This Trail also comes at a moment in which guests are discovering and supporting farming communities in new ways, creating new opportunities for those living in more rural areas to consider hosting,” said Catherine Powell, global head of hosting for Airbnb. “We are so proud to partner with Mrs. Sherrod and this historic organization to support their vision of empowering Black farmers.”

‘If you just start, things will happen organically’

Sherrod is pleased with progress made on behalf of underserved farmers in southwest Georgia since New Communities’ founding in 1968 — from shaping national policy on behalf of Black farmers to helping them access assistance, training, capital and new markets that now include tourism dollars.

“This really is working out to be so much more than we initially envisioned,” she said.

Sherrod sees the scope of these efforts as spanning beyond the gates of Resora. “We’re not just trying to have something for this site. We are thinking of other growers in the region — to help it happen on other farms with everything we do. It’s designed to not just (be) ‘Look at what can happen here at New Communities,’ but for the region,” she said.

Yet, with work still to be done and Sherrod in her mid-70s, who from the next generation will take up the torch?

She noted that many young people from the region move away once they reach adulthood. “Atlanta puts a lot of pressure on our young people. They all want to be there.”

While Sherrod and Vicks see the potential of agritourism as a revenue source for Black farms and a unique travel option that raises social awareness about past and present Black farming communities, they hope to see the trail grow. (Information about becoming an Airbnb host is available airbnb.com/host.)

Sherrod envisions a trail with a dozen or more participating farm hosts offering lodging and experiences.

Vicks has been doing his party trying to recruit other Black farmers to participate.

“I believe if you just start,” said Vicks, “things will happen organically.