Stories / Awards, Impact

2013 JBF Leadership Award Winner Cynthia Hayes

Aarti Virani

Aarti Virani

October 22, 2013


Cynthia Hayes
Executive Director, Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON)

Cynthia Hayes spent many childhood summers on her family’s tobacco farm in Kentucky and fondly recalls the “stinky pile” that existed in the corner of her uncle’s field. “He was composting,” she says with a laugh. “We just weren’t calling it that back then.”

The visionary environmentalist, who started the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON) approximately five years ago, encountered a series of roadblocks, among them many people who asked her why African-American row croppers would consider such a niche market. “Why wouldn’t they?” she remembers asking in response. “When you look historically and culturally at black farmers, they were originally organic producers. But they were also out of the loop in terms of sustainable agricultural projects and USDA organic certification. To put it simply, they had a lack of information.” 

SAAFON was officially formed after a series of organic training workshops that began in 2006—at the time, there were no organically certified African-American farmers in several Southern states—spearheaded by Hayes and Dr. Owusu Bandele, a horticulture professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (Bandele currently serves on SAAFON’s advisory board). 

“Cynthia is a diligent, selfless, persistent advocate of African-American family farms,” says Bandele. “She is also an excellent judge of commitment and integrity,” he adds, pointing to their initial collaborative efforts, involving 40 farmers, most of whom were African-American, who participated in rigorous training workshops and eventually received organic certification as a result. “The success rate was so high because Cynthia did such an excellent job identifying and screening to ensure that only serious applicants attended,” Bandele says. “It was her idea that a network should be developed from the group, resulting in the formation of SAAFON.”

Hayes, who admits that she would much prefer to “hide out and work directly with the farmers,” quickly understood that representing a vibrant network of farmers (SAAFON is currently 121 farmers strong, with members spread across six Southeastern states and the U.S. Virgin Islands) would require their voices to be heard on a policy platform in an effort to avoid what happened between 1981 and 1997, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture used discriminatory policies against black farmers, excluding them from loans and subsidies. “What is now recognized by organizations like the National Organic Coalition is that there is a black farmer voice,” Hayes asserts. 

Currently, Hayes is especially excited about taking SAAFON to new territories—specifically Barbados, where she’s created a partnership with an agent who will be able to organically certify a range of value-added local products, such as plantain chips and special spice mixes, in an effort to help them enter the U.S. market. “That’s the whole buzz inside everyone at SAAFON right now,” she says. “We’ve really blossomed.” 

Hayes hardly ever measures milestones in terms of her own accomplishments, though. “Many if not most of SAAFON’s farmers are involved in agricultural programs involving youth,” explains Bandele. “Cynthia’s powerful example of service to the community has helped inspire those farmers she serves to also be of service to others. She rarely seeks the spotlight but works effectively and tirelessly behind the scenes.”

About the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards
The 2013 JBF Leadership Awards recognize visionaries from a broad range of backgrounds, including government, nonprofit, and literary arts, who are working toward creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. Now in its third year, the Leadership Awards recognize specific outstanding initiatives as well as bodies of work and lifetime achievement. Winners were honored at a dinner ceremony that took place during the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on October 21 in New York City. For more information, visit

You might also like: 
Archived Video Coverage of the 2013 JBF Food Conference