January 13, 2020|By Olivia Percoco| Food and Farms

Social Change Taking Root in the Soils of North Carolina

After assisting with a recent youth-led Rural Youth Food Justice Summit hosted by Men and Women United for Youth and Families, Resourceful Communities continued to support this growing youth food justice network by hosting a Peer Learning Visit in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Resourceful Communities Program’s triple-bottom-line approach of economic development, environmental stewardship, and social justice is closely aligned with the learning goals of this experience. With the Oak Foundation’s support for our Food and Farm Initiative, we are working to shift the narrative around who engages in farming, who belongs on the land, and who can claim environmentalism as an ethic through the process of having youth of color learn from entrepreneurs of color. We believe that the platform of The Conservation Fund can expedite this narrative shift, and ultimately shift power, because land is power

It was with this shift in mind that we gathered to learn more about the business of farming and connect with agriculture on a cultural level at two distinct agricultural spaces. 

PLV 1Youth from Transplanting Traditions, Men and Women United for Youth and Families, A Better Chance, A Better Community and NC Field attended the Peer Learning Visit. Photo by Yesenia Cuello.

We began our Peer Learning Visit at Transplanting Traditions Community FarmA partner of the Fund and former Creating New Economies Fund grant recipient, Transplanting Traditions provides refugee adults and youth access to land, healthy food and agricultural and entrepreneurial opportunities. The farm additionally provides a cultural community space for families to come together, build healthy communities and continue agricultural traditions from their native countries.

In true youth-empowered fashion, the tour was led by four Transplanting Traditions youth. With gentle guidance and support from senior youth leader Talar Hso and Executive Director Kelly Owensby, the young presenters flourished in this demonstration of youth empowerment. It was heartening to witness the other youth organizations exhibit such patience and encouragement—they all knew what it felt like to be required to speak in front of a group, as public speaking is also a skill they are working on through their organizations. 

PLV 2Youth gather around a hoop house to admire greens at Transplanting Traditions Community Farm. Photo by Olivia Percoco.

It was a fresh and chilly November day, and a hard frost had killed off the remaining summer crops just two days earlier. While the farm wasn’t lush and green, we could still appreciate the scope of work that goes into maintaining this land. As the tour explored the 8-acre farm, we learned about their mobile chicken tractor, they showed us their loofah gourds, and they explained how their Community Shared Agriculture model works. 

PLV 3Photo by Randolph Keaton.

Youth participants were particularly impressed by how the Transplanting Traditions farmers were able to build traditional structures with bamboo that grows wild here in North Carolina, and were intrigued by the different Southeast Asian crops that could be grown in this state, like ginger, turmeric, and water spinach. These unique aspects of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm—the culturally appropriate food and ability to create spaces that feel like home—demonstrate the farm’s significance not only to the farmers who work there, but also to their relatives and greater community. 

PLV 4Just like home—this bamboo structure was entirely constructed from locally-harvested bamboo by Transplanting Traditions farmers, who use it during leisure time activities. Photo by Justine Post.

After lunch, we moved on just down the road to Faithfull Farms, operated by Mr. Howard Allen on local church land. Farmer Allen is a native of Jamaica; he grew up on a countryside farmstead and later moved to the United States where he continued cultivating his love for food by working at restaurants in Chapel Hill. At present, he has left the culinary world and, with the support of his congregation at Life Church of Chapel Hill, has established a small farm and faith-based food ministry, known as Faithfull Farms. Farmer Allen describes his farming career as an urgent response to climate change, and feels strong responsibility to take care of the soil.

PLV 5Enjoying carrots at Faithfull Farm with Howard Allen (left). Photo by Yesenia Cuello.

Compared to the farm we had just come from, this was an altogether different operation. Comprised of just one-quarter of an acre, Farmer Allenfocuses on efficiency, growing intensively, and ultimately creating a farm ecosystem that sustains itself with innovation rather than excessive human labor. He installed a series of grow tunnels to extend his growing season year-long, in which he grows beautiful, nutrient-dense varieties of greens. Other examples of Farmer Allen’s innovations included a paper pot transplanter, which allows him to “work smarter, not harder,” and his future plan to use animals to reduce farm waste and outsourced fertilizers. He also showed us how he maximizes crop density by planting different crops in the same row, taking advantage of different growth times, root length, and nutrient needs of different plants. 

PLV 6Photo by Yesenia Cuello.

Farmer Allen proved to our potential future farmers that small farms can also be mighty. And while his strategies have increased his growing and marketing productivity, he ultimately stressed the idea of the farm as a living system, one that should be designed and managed so that its steward leaves the soil better than they found it.

After the tour of the property, we shuffled inside a small building where Farmer Allen stepped up to a chalkboard to offer a lesson about business value chains. With chalk in hand, he illustrated how farming is but one component of an entire food systems chain, from seed to table. 
PLV 7Photo by Jaimie McGirt

Youth participants saw that if they wanted to be food systems entrepreneurs but not necessarily farmers, there were other smart opportunities available to them—from seed producers to aggregators to distributors to retailers. He left them with this golden piece of business advice: if you want to be profitable, know your market before you start growing, and recognize that relationships with buyers are fundamental. By the nodding heads around the room, it was clear this message resonated.

With that, we thanked Farmer Allen and filed out into the yard; by the time I made it to the threshold of the door, a soccer ball had magically materialized and the youth were playing pick-up soccer. This was an important reminder that these hard-working and community-minded youth are youth, first and foremost, and we look forward to supporting future opportunities for youth engagement in agriculture, natural resources, and conservation leadership.

Written By

Olivia Percoco

Olivia Percoco is the Community Food Coordinator for The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program. As part of the Food and Farm Initiative, she provides capacity building support and technical assistance to grassroots organizations working to increase food access in rural North Carolina. Olivia draws on her food justice, advocacy, and event planning experience to help partners strengthen their food access work through our triple-bottom-line lens.