The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

3rd annual peer learning visit to eastern north carolina
Goats at My Sister's Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier

Goats at My Sister's Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier

We all piled on the bus, throwing our coats, still chilly from outside, down next to us. Some of us chatted with a new acquaintance, excited about the places we had seen that day. I suddenly felt like I was in elementary school once again, coming back from a field trip to the zoo. But this trip didn’t include squashed brown bag lunches or monkeys in a cage or even a bright yellow school bus. This was a type of field trip, I suppose, but of a different kind.

Presented by The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program, this trip was a “Peer Learning Visit” – a trip to see first hand what is happening with sustainable agriculture in Eastern North Carolina and learn how our local food economy is growing in a place that traditionally has produced primarily tobacco and large commodity crops. There were more than twenty of us touring four farms located in Bladen and Pender County, all in the south eastern part of our state, no farm more than sixty miles from Wilmington.

To play a part in building a local food economy for North Carolina, those of us working in sustainable agriculture have to start connecting the dots across the entire state — between producers along the coast to producers in the Piedmont to producers in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With 560 miles stretching from east to west, North Carolina is a large state making this an enormous task, with many organizations working together to make it happen. For someone like me, I find it very valuable to connect the dots by personally visiting different areas in our state and learning first hand how farmers are growing, producing and distributing food and how different resources are supporting them.

During the Peer Learning Visit our first stop was Happy Land Farm in Bladenboro, owned and run by Anne and Harold Wright. This incredibly hardworking and innovative couple not only have one hundred acres in production, growing vegetables and all natural pork and chickens, but they engage in a number of entrepreneurial efforts such as trucking, catering and their very own daycare. Mr. Wright says his key to success is to “diversify as much as possible.” In particular, he says being creative and making use of existing and varied resources is essential, along with buying major equipment jointly with other farmers and having his own tank to store his feed. In the past, tobacco farmers, like the Wright’s, used curing houses, known as “bulk barns,” to dry the tobacco.  Now Mr. Wright and many other farmers are turning these barns into chicken houses. In place of tobacco, they now grow corn and soybeans, rotating between each so as to contribute to the health of the soil. In ways like this farms like Happy Land Farm have become truly integrated  and diversified systems that contribute to the longevity and sustainability of the farm. When asked if his many grandchildren participate in farm work, Wright laughed, “Let them drive the tractor and they’re hooked!”

After a delicious lunch of pulled pork Carolina style, sweet potatoes and collard greens (all grown by the Wright’s), our group listened as members of The Twin River Coop, comprised of seventeen farmers in the area, told us about life after the tobacco buyout. One member remarked about the process that, “There were a lot of questions and not many answers.” So the farmers started providing answers themselves – working as a group to explore new directions for their farms and applying for grants as a group fromRural Advancement Foundation (RAFI)to purchase shared equipment such as a manure sprayer and cooler to support these new efforts. The Coop acted as a support network as farmers shared their successful ideas with other farmers and talked about ways to work around failed efforts and strategize about on farm solutions.

Anne and Harold Wright of Happy Land Farm, Courtesy of NC A&T

Anne and Harold Wright of Happy Land Farm, photo courtesy of NC A&T

Then it was on the bus once again, to head to the small town of Burgaw, where sisters Joyce Bowman and Carol Jackson greeted us on their certified organic farm called, My Sister’s Farm. Before we could see their field of organic vegetables however, we had to cross through the goat paddock. That was an experience in itself. “Once you’ve named them,” Joyce told us, “it’s hard to get rid of them.” She listed off some names – Twisted Horn, Baby, Pony, Bangs and Reindeer. As I walked past Bangs, aptly named for his natural hairstyle, Joyce told us that the goats were her sister’s idea. “My sister is the adventurous one – anything that’s different, she’ll buy. I’m the conventional one.” Both school teachers in New York, the two sisters retired and started farming on their family’s unused four acres of land only four years ago. “I gradually eased her into farming.” says Carol and Joyce pipes up, “She conned me!” with a grin. When asked about growing organically, Carol said, “It starts off slow, but it’s great once it gets started.” Though getting certified was a lot of work, Carol said numerous times that “they wouldn’t change it for the world.”  Most customers hear about their farm from word of mouth and come to the farm to buy directly, although they also sell to a joint-farm CSA. As Carol talks about what a change farming is from teaching, both of the sisters’ happiness is palpable, “Now I’m doing what I want to do. I’m digging in the dirt!”

Dinner was held at The Pender County Cooperative Extension and over a delicious, all local, meal of roasted chicken, pasta and salad cooked by Café Liardi of Burgaw, we heard from Southeastern NC Food Systems about how they were trying to boost economic development in Eastern North Carolina by connecting the public back to the area’s agricultural roots. As I listened I looked at a quilt hanging on the wall with individual squares painstakingly stitched with images of corn, strawberries, watermelon, grapes and peanuts. It was clear that Pender County took pride in the food their farms produced. As I saw firsthand earlier in the day, farmers are working hard there and in neighboring Bladen County to produce delicious, fresh food by using sustainable farming methods. It’s important that we support these and other North Carolina farmers by trying to purchase locally produced food in our stores and restaurants when we can.

By the time the visit ended and we all headed our separate ways home, I was tired but excited, my mind still full of all that we had seen. I often find it ironic that though my job focuses on agriculture, I spend most of my time behind a computer. It was such a pleasure to be outside and visit a real, working farm while getting to hear the farmers’ stories. I’m sending a big thank you to The Conservation Fund and Resourceful Communities for organizing and funding this 3rd annual Peer Learning Visit. Click here to view a slideshow of pictures from the trip.

Turnips grown by the Wright's of Happy Land Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier

Turnips grown by the Wright's of Happy Land Farm, photo courtesy of Kavanah Ramsier


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

So much is going on in North Carolina related to sustainable agriculture, it is hard to keep up! Thank you for informing me about the Resourceful Communities Program.

Comment by Sabrina Lopez

No problem – it’s hard for me to keep up too! Check out their website to learn more.

Comment by Gillings Sustainable Ag Project

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