Remebering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses

Julia_Peterkin

My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.

I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.

I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.

I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.

Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.

Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.

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Hard times hit South Carolina long before the Great Depression

black sharecroppers sc

The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.

But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.

The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.

Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.

Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.

No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.

“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.

“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.

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Doctor’s role in reviving SC rice industry highlighted

carolina gold rice

Dr. Richard Schulze Sr. had predatory rather than culinary goals in mind when he planted Carolina Gold rice in the mid-1980s.

The Savannah eye surgeon was looking to attract ducks to his Turnbridge Plantation in Hardeeville, SC, about 30 miles northeast of Hilton Head, for hunting, according to the Savannah Morning News.

The birds didn’t much cotton to the long-grain rice, but chefs and rice connoisseurs shortly began to take notice.

Today, Carolina Gold rice is essentially the basis for the U.S. rice industry, no mean feat considering that virtually no one had grown rice in the South Carolina Lowcountry in the previous 60 years before Schulze’s efforts.

Initially, Schulze started by planting regular rice on his plantation. He then decided to switch to Carolina Gold, known as the Cadillac of rice for its taste and quality. The lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia was known for its high-quality Carolina Gold rice prior to 1900, particularly before the War Between the States.

“Well, I figured if we’re going to do rice, why not get the original stuff,” he told the Morning News.

Schulze requested Carolina Gold from the USA Rice Council, and was redirected to a rice research scientist with the US Department of Agriculture in Texas.

He was able to secure 14 pounds of Carolina Gold seed, which he planted in 1986.

Schulze faced the additional obstacle of hulling the seed. Sending rice out of state for milling and then having it sent back was impractical.

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Center for Pecan Innovation sees “tremendous opportunities”

pecans-ground

While I’m of the opinion that the highest and most noble use of the pecan involves their placement in a pie, the folks at the Georgia Pecan Commission have higher aspirations. They recently established the Center for Pecan Innovation, with the goal of finding new uses for Carya illinoinensis.

The initial focus of the Atlanta-based center will be new food products made from pecans, according to John Robison, the commission’s chairman.

“The recent 30-year study from Harvard University showing that regular nut eaters were less likely to die of cancer or heart disease is just one more supporting voice to the center, which was established to encourage more companies to find ways to use pecans in their products,” he said.

Beyond that, the commission sees opportunities for biodegradable pecan shells, from roadbeds and packing material to bath products. Cosmetic companies are looking for natural products to replace plastic micro-beads in facial cleansers, and the Journal of Food Science reports that a new study shows that extract from pecan shells may be effective at protecting meats such as chicken from listeria growth.

The US produces the vast majority of the pecans harvested annually – as much as 95 percent, or 300 million to 400 million pounds.

Georgia leads the nation in pecan production, growing 40 percent of the US total, more than the next two states – New Mexico and Texas – combined, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Map showing, in blue, US states where pecans are grown.

Map showing, in blue, US states where pecans are grown.

“In 2012 Georgia led the nation in pecan production, harvesting 100 million pounds for the domestic and global markets,” Robison said. “China is one of the biggest markets for our in-shell pecans, but there still is tremendous opportunity for companies to use pecan pieces – even the shells.  The Center for Pecan Innovation will work to develop new products that use Georgia pecans.”

Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black said the Georgia Pecan Commission is taking a creative approach to agriculture by establishing the center.

“Farmers today do far more than just grow food and fiber,” he said. “They take an active part in promoting their crops to grow their markets, as we have done with our Georgia Grown program. The Center for Pecan Innovation is yet another step to increase awareness for Georgia pecans.”

The Georgia Pecan Commission, begun in 1995, funds research, educational and promotional programs in order to increase demand for Georgia pecans.

Canadian remains believed to be those of Irish Famine victims

coffin ship 1

More than a million Irish died as a result of the Great Famine that struck the island in the 1840s. Another 2 million emigrated in a desperate bid for a better life, with many setting sail for North America. What’s less well known is that among those who departed amid the tragedy of the Great Hunger, an estimated 100,000 died in transit.

Bones discovered on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula in 2011 have recently been identified as those of children, aged seven to 12, believed to have been Irish who died fleeing the famine.

Vertebra and jaw bones are among remains confirmed by Parks Canada following three years of research to be those of malnourished children. It seems likely they died while fleeing the Great Hunger almost 170 years ago, according to IrishCentral.

Many of those two million who left Ireland traveled to America on ‘coffin ships,’ which were themselves deadly.

Coffin ships were crowded and disease-ridden, with poor access to food and water. They usually transported the poorest of the poor, and suffered mortality rates as great as 30 percent.

Owners of coffin ships provided as little food, water, and living space as was legally possible – if they obeyed the law at all. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships because so many bodies were thrown overboard

One of these ships, the Carricks, set sail from Ireland to Quebec City in 1847. It sank off Cap-des-Rosiers, about 500 miles northeast of its goal, and 87 people died. The 100 survivors were taken in by families in the village.

A monument was erected in 1900 to remember the victims. In 2011, skeletal remains were discovered 40 yards away from the marker. Without DNA evidence and carbon dating it’s uncertain whether the children traveled aboard the Carricks.

Researchers were able to determine that children – two of them between seven and nine years old and another as old as 12 – showed evidence of rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, and malnourished, according to the publication.

Georges Kavanagh, a resident of Gaspé, can trace his ancestors back to the victims and survivors of the shipwreck. He told the Washington Post that he plans to ensure they get a proper reburial.

He said, “I have a link to these people – I almost consider them my family. Who wouldn’t want their ancestors to get a peaceful rest?”

The Irish famine is commonly attributed to widespread potato blight that led to devastation of the staple crop of millions of Irish, resulting in starvation. This despite the fact that Ireland was still producing and exporting butter, peas, salmon, rabbit, lard, herring, honey, tongues, onions, seed and more.

These commodities were shipped out of Ireland to Britain, demonstrating what could be at best be termed a misguided policy on the part of the United Kingdom, policy that was instrumental in the disaster.

Between death and emigration, Ireland’s population fell by an estimated 20 to 25 percent, and even today is still below pre-Famine levels.

(Top: Drawing of a “coffin ship” preparing to leave Ireland for North America.)

As global cotton reserves peak, future prices reach 5-year low

cotton nc

With cotton prices dropping to a five-year low late last month, it’s expected farmers around the globe will cut planting in the coming season, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee.

The effect of lower prices is already being realized in crop planning in the Southern Hemisphere, the executive director of the committee said during an industry conference in India last week.

With the US government estimating that global production will outstrip production for a fifth straight growing season and inventories at an all-time high, New York cotton futures recently tumbled to their lowest level since September 2009.

Slowing demand from China, the world’s biggest consumer, will shrink exports from the U.S. and India, the world’s largest shippers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, according to AgWeb.

“Everybody is trying to sell and prices are going to go down because supply is higher,” Terry Townsend, a former executive director of the committee, told the conference. “That process of declining prices, farmers losing money, and some farmers going out of business, reducing cotton production is inevitable.”

Cotton futures have slipped below 60 cents a pound, with March 2015 futures closing at 59.18 cents a pound, down more than 70 percent from an all-time high of $2.197 reached in 2011, according to Cotton Market News.

Global reserves are expected to reach an all-time high of 107.36 million bales, each weighing 480 pounds, according to USDA data.

Don’t look for prices on cotton products to reflect the downturn in futures prices, however. There is often a disconnect between the return farmers get for their efforts and what consumers pay for finished products.

Investigating the rich history of Lowcountry rice farming

rice barge

When one thinks of antebellum agriculture, one typically thinks of cotton. Indeed, by 1860 Southern farms and plantations supplied 75 percent of the world’s cotton, and Gossypium hirsutum was the dominant agricultural crop from the Carolinas to Texas.

Cotton was such an important part of the pre-war South that the Confederacy believed it would be the ultimate instrument of its independence.

Much less well known today is the princely standing held by another Deep South crop during the days before the War Between the States – that of rice.

Rice was introduced to the United States in the 17th century and is reported to have been cultivated in Virginia almost as soon as the first settlers landed at Jamestown, but it was in the marshy, humid regions of Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia that the crop flourished.

Rice planters couldn’t have succeeded without the forced labor of slaves, particularly those from the Senegambia area of West Africa and coastal Sierra Leone.

At the port of Charleston, slaves with knowledge of rice culture brought the highest price and were put to use on rice plantations around Charleston, Georgetown, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

A new book by Richard Dwight Porcher Jr. and William Robert Judd detailing the once-great Lowcountry rice industry states that nowhere else was an agricultural crop so intimately tied to status and its associated wealth and influence as rice was to the Lowcountry.

The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice: An Illustrated History of Innovations in the Lowcountry Rice Kingdom is an extensive account of the rice industry in Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia.

market preparation“… the real strength of this book is the author’s documentation based on extensive field research of fifty rice plantations, mill sites, museum and archival collections and travels to investigate foreign connections to the Lowcountry rice industry,” according to a review by the Charleston Post and Courier.

The work, published by University of South Carolina Press, which contains “meticulously rendered line drawings depicting the mechanical devices of the rice industry, lend a startling clarity to the written explanations of how they actually functioned and what part each played in the crop’s journey from the field to the consumer,” the publication adds.

The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice identifies the inventiveness of Deep South planters, recognizing that the U.S. Patent Office granted substantial numbers of antebellum patents to South Carolinians for inventions or improvement for rice harvesting and milling equipment alone.

It also recognizes the contributions of slaves “whose blood and sweat transformed inland swamps and riverine marshes into the remarkably dynamic hydraulic systems that composed the sweeping rice fields of the Lowcountry,” according to the Post and Courier.

The book doesn’t gloss over the fact that slaves worked in brutal conditions, explaining “that tidal river marshes were an extremely harsh environment just to exist in, let alone to work in. As it proved, an enslaved work force was the essential element in the survival of the Rice Kingdom, for without them the days of glory were over.”

(Top: Image showing the unloading of rice barges on a 19th century South Carolina rice plantation.)