Meet Clinton Banks-Vicks, a fifth-generation Georgia farmer reintroducing his community to Southern hospitality and bygone traditions in pursuit of a more equitable future of farming.
It’s a Sunday evening at the Vicks Estate, Farm & Fishery (VEFF), about three hours south of Atlanta in Putney, Georgia, and Clinton Banks-Vicks, owner, educator and fifth-generation farmer, is beaming.
“My mom says she never gets to hear me sing, so this is for y’all … but it’s really for her,” he says charmingly to a captive audience of advocates representing a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit. They pull out their phones to capture what comes next.
I turn toward the back of the Great Room, aptly named ‘The George’ in honor of Clinton’s late maternal grandfather and WWII veteran George Banks, to see Ella Banks-Vicks smiling, her eyes fixated on the third of her four sons. He has brought the room – only minutes ago roaring with chatter – to a complete standstill. As he belts out a fierce rendition from a musical in which he played the leading role, a palpable sense of emotion envelopes the room.
Clinton is hosting his signature “Taste of the South” dining experience and I’m delighted by his invitation to join. The event is one of several curated experiences along the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail, launched in May 2022 by the New Communities Land Trust in support of the region’s Black farmers. (And, great news! It’s now bookable through Airbnb.)
On this night, as on so many others, Clinton’s goal to provide social and emotional respite surrounded by nature is achieved. But acknowledgement of this dream in motion is only possible by understanding the journey of the generations that came before him, the roads they paved – and the many miles to go.
Creating a Safe Haven
The New Communities Land Trust, the nation’s first land trust of its kind, launched the agri-tourism trail only a few months prior to my meeting with Clinton, but the groundwork to build such an experience has been in progress for decades.
Shirley Sherrod, a civil rights leader currently appointed to the USDA’s Equity Commission, co-founded the land trust in 1969 as a farm collective of nearly 6,000 acres in Lee County, Georgia. Today, the organization is headquartered several miles from the Vicks Estate at Resora, a former plantation once owned by one of the largest slaveholder estates in Georgia.
In researching this story prior to meeting Clinton, I learned that Black farmers in the U.S. have lost over 12 million acres – or 90 percent – of farmland over the past century for an array of reasons, including a decades-long history of USDA loan denials that provide farmers with access to essential financial resources. For context, white farmers lost 2 percent of their farmland in the same period.
New Communities Land Trust was founded to provide opportunities and a safe haven for Black farmers, and the agri-tourism trail was launched in support of that mission, explains Clinton, who also serves as the brand ambassador and spokesperson for the trail.
“We have to look at the history of liberties in this country to understand the disparities when it comes to Black farmers. Not having a voice means not having representation, so partners like New Communities Land Trust and a global platform like Airbnb really bring attention to the movement. We want people to be more knowledgeable about the contributions that Black Southerners have made to agriculture,” Clinton says.
Clinton is passionate about education and representation, and for good reason. His family’s farming heritage in the area runs deep – five generations deep.
“The earliest years of my life were spent in the rural Albany area and I’ve never forgotten the importance of remembering where I came from,” he says. “My grandparents were very influential in raising me. I didn’t realize until recently all of the lessons I learned simply from observing and being around my grandparents while I was growing up. By the time I was 10, I was already plowing and tilling their garden, fertilizing the crops. We would burn our fingers using nitrogen fertilizer because we didn’t know any better in the 1980s and we were using our bare hands.”
Clinton nostalgically recounts picking from the backyard garden where there were beans, okra, and pear trees … tending to garden vegetables, taking trips to the watermelon patch, going for rides in the car to pick up fresh peas. Much of what the family ate was from their own garden and those of neighbors and friends. He also recalls it was a family tradition to get a hog and half of a cow butchered and eat it through the winter.
He carried these memories with him for the 18 years he lived, studied and worked in Washington, D.C., and New York City. Among Clinton’s long list of accomplishments during that time are singing with the Juilliard Choral Union, going on tour as the leading role in theatrical producer Neil Goldberg’s original cast of “Christmas Dreams,” and racking up an impressive array of accolades from his alma mater Howard University.
Roots That Run Deep
Eventually, the stresses of big city life took a toll and Clinton felt a pull to come home, recharge, reinvent himself and reinvest in his local community. In 2020, he purchased a home on 6 acres of farmland in Putney, joining five collective generations of his maternal and paternal sides of the family to have owned and farmed local land.
That’s a big deal considering just 1.4 percent of America’s farmers identify as Black or mixed race compared to approximately 14 percent 100 years ago, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Agriculture.
“We have always valued land in my family because we understand the importance of it being passed down, but that’s not common in Black communities. We haven’t been taught how to take advantage of resources available to us, such as land trusts,” says Clinton. “In addition to education, one of my goals is to change the perception of what it means to be a Black farmer in America. People I meet still think of being a Black farmer as being a sharecropper – but being a farmer today is not that. It’s being a landowner. It’s creating something tangible that can serve the community and be passed down through generations. Those who grow food are invaluable and we see this everyday when we walk into the grocery store and the shelves are bare.”
Having come up against his fair share of challenges, Clinton is determined to create a space that will positively impact his local community – to show them how we used to live and how we could live if we moved toward a simpler way of life. Despite his credentials and having good credit, he has been turned down for loans meant to provide financial resources to farmers for seeds, equipment and the materials necessary to maintain a working farm.
“Everything I have created to this point has come from my own pocket, so it’s a work in progress. I’m also a full-time teacher so my time is limited, but I’ve never been one to do just one thing. As I see more opportunities, I can’t stop myself,” he says. “The creative energy and feedback I hear from people who visit the estate … they reconnect with nature. They want to spend more time with their families. I know the importance of these experiences. I want to build a fully functioning learning center with therapy animals, an outdoor stage and lodging units so people can stay near the pond. I want the Vicks Estate, Farm & Fishery to be a true respite for recharging and I know that nature, animals and positive energy can achieve that.”
As for Clinton’s Southern hospitality, top-notch entertainment and farm-fresh “Taste of the South” barbecue with all the fixings … it’s just the beginning.
An Equitable Future for Black Farmers
Clinton has been referred to as a renaissance man, but after experiencing him in his element – feeding, entertaining and educating his guests – I’m quite sure that description is an understatement.
Perhaps his most meaningful role at the moment is his work as a teacher at a local alternative school, where his students have benefited from the time and energy he has invested in their success. It’s not hard to want to support someone like Clinton, so committed to reconnecting others with the simple things in life and vehemently proud to be a business owner and farmer in the place where he was raised.
When asked what people like you and me can do to support Black farmers, Clinton’s answer is straightforward: It’s no longer enough to be aware of inequity, it’s time to impact change by our actions.
“Making a choice to support Black farmers at farmer’s markets or roadside farm stands is a way to make an immediate impact. Longer term, making political decisions from a place of social consciousness and not just personal benefit. Unfair laws and regulations have intentionally negatively impacted Black farmers for generations. It’s time for new regulations and laws to undo those wrongs.”
People gravitate toward Clinton. He has an aura about him that captivates, a warmth that draws you in and makes you want to learn more. I couldn’t help but be inspired by his passion for all he does, including his determination be a role model to young people and to help set a solid foundation for future generations of young farmers. Its something that drives him to keep pushing forward despite the setbacks.
“I’ve always been taught that people are watching, and that I am a representation of my home, my family and of God. What I’m building at The Vicks Estate, Farm & Fishery is my contribution to my family’s heritage and their reputation. It’s my way of paying homage to my grandparents and their investment in me. When you’ve had an excellent foundation, when they have paved the path for you, how could you not want to do better? We have that responsibility – that obligation – because future generations are watching what we do.”
Sweet New Roots