Meet the Couple Behind Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Georgia
Eight years have passed since chef and farmer Matthew Raiford and herbalist Jovan Sage met and started a life together. But it’s still easy to catch them in an adorable, winding cycle of recollection. Was it he who approached her? Was she the one who invited him for coffee? Forget about determining who made the first move; theirs was a quick match.
The auspicious meeting place was Turin, Italy, at Terra Madre, the Slow Food International biennial gathering. For many food professionals, the festival is destination worthy not just for the gorgeous locale but for the chance to come together with thousands of independent food producers from more than 100 countries. It’s probably a miracle they even crossed paths at the busy event, but then it seems 2012 offered a dash of perfect timing. Raiford had just recently jump-started his family’s coastal Georgia land back to its farming origins, and Sage (then living in New York and serving as director of network engagement for Slow Food USA) was eager to become more hands-on in her work. They instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits.
Sage started visiting Gilliard Farms, the historic acreage that had belonged to Raiford’s family for six generations. They hosted wine tastings, cooking classes, and pop-up dinners. She planted an herb garden. In brainstorming sessions, they envisioned a life of partnership, with Gilliard Farms as their base.
Time can be funny. As a kid growing up in Brunswick, Raiford never imagined launching a career in his hometown. He left as soon as he could sign on the Army’s dotted line. When he was a toddler, his family moved from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Brunswick to be closer to his maternal relatives and all that land (his great-great-great-grandfather Jupiter Gilliard bought 476 acres in 1874, not long after emancipation).
Raiford has fond memories of growing up on Gilliard, of the tomatoes, okra, peas, peppers, and muscadine grapes. He recalls passing time in the swing under the giant oak that still marks the center of the property. “I didn’t know that people shopped at the grocery store for fruits and vegetables until I was an adult because we grew everything,” he says. “I thought the store was where you went for flour and sugar, those kinds of things.”
But segregation and its slow thaw through the 1970s made a mark on Raiford. His mother was a domestic worker out on Jekyll Island. His father had trained to be a baker in New England, but Raiford recalls that white business owners in Brunswick were not impressed by a “colored” man who seemed to know too much, so his father got work as a longshoreman. By the time Raiford was a teenager in the eighties, he’d decided not to stay.
He spent nine years in the armed services and then trained as a chef at The Culinary Institute of America. After working in hotel kitchens, he led catering at the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. All the while, he’d steeped in more than a decade of inquiries from Nana, his family matriarch, who wondered who would take the reins of Gilliard. Raiford always demurred, but eventually, the timing seemed to be right—he wanted to step up. “Finally, I was like: ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it,’ ” he says. In 2010, he returned to farming with his sister and co-owner Althea. The remaining 28 acres of the original property would be plenty.
While Raiford was figuring out how to be a farmer, Sage was looking for ways to put her vast knowledge into practice. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she’d developed a career in community activism. Sage understood how the complex systemic issues of race, class, and gender could impact the ways people buy, grow, and consume food. She learned about herbal healing and became a health coach. She and Raiford wanted to combine their knowledge and skills and impact their community.
When they first set out, Nana was 90 years old and very much at home on the farm. It was one thing to host one-off events, but launching an open-door business practically out of her front yard didn’t feel right. Plus, downtown Brunswick was making a push for its own revitalization, and locals were encouraging them to create a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “People were recruiting us. They asked us to open on St. Simons Island,” Sage says. But the couple wanted to be in Brunswick.
In 2015, they opened The Farmer & the Larder in a narrow storefront on Newcastle Street downtown. The restaurant’s seasonal menu evoked the city’s port influences and Raiford’s fine dining background with dishes like pork belly atop a black-eyed pea fritter and fresh-catch wahoo. Sage sold custom tea blends and made sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled vegetables sourced from the farm. Locals who yearned for creative dining without having to drive to Jekyll Island or St. Simons fell in love. In fall 2018, they opened a second restaurant, Strong Roots Provisions, a block down the street.
A few months later, almost a year after Raiford earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nod for Best Chef Southeast, he and Sage made the tough decision to shutter The Farmer & the Larder. Soon afterward, Strong Roots Provisions closed as well. Their effort to build outward was suddenly unsustainable. “Everything we were doing was taking us farther and farther away from the farm,” Sage says. “We really had to ask ourselves: ‘What are the things that are feeding us?’ ”
The land was the impetus for Raiford’s return to Brunswick. For Sage, it was the prospect of building a life with her partner where she could live out the principles that she held dear. “I wasn’t sure if I could recoup from closing two restaurants in one year,” Raiford says of the experience. But once they began to walk through a pared-down business model for the farm, some tension dissipated. They envisioned a different plan.
“We had good help this past year, and it opened our eyes to how much more we could accomplish if we lived and worked here,” Raiford says. Nana had passed on. Maybe it was time to not just keep the farm in operation but to bring people back to the land.
The future looks promising. Last spring, the couple hosted and prepared a ticketed farm dinner for 130 people with chefs including Carla Hall. Restaurant regulars are signing up for cooking classes, seed starters, composting and fermentation training, chef’s dinners, and tea and herbal-healing workshops.
Owning more than 100 chickens has made egg sales a part of the farm’s business, and there will be hogs soon. Sage’s hibiscus, deerberries, and culantro (an herb) are harvested and dried as part of a collaboration with local gin maker Simple Man Distillery. She has also ramped up her herbal-products business, Sage’s Larder.
Cooking, farming—it’s all about timing, making the best of what you’ve got. This farm has weathered many seasons of change. Raiford and Sage stand ready to embrace whatever comes next.