February 29, 2016|By Mikki Sager| Land

The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program supports a network of community groups, faith-based organizations, small towns and resource providers. Our work is rooted in helping local leaders in natural resource-rich but socially- and economically-distressed communities advance environmental stewardship, social justice and sustainable economic development: our “triple bottom line.”

Resourceful Communities’ approaches are built on values and practices that uplift our partners, and we are always so proud when our partners are recognized for their amazing work. Such was the case recently, when Reverend Richard Joyner, founder and Board chair of the Conetoe Family Life Center (CFLC), was named one of CNN’s 2015 Top 10 Heroes for his work “nourishing plants and nourishing community” in the small, rural African-American community of Conetoe, North Carolina. We are also proud to say that Reverend Joyner received The Purpose Prize, for which we nominated him, for his work improving the health and lives of those in his community.

MikkiBlog 1Reverend Richard Joyner. Photo by Natalie Abbassi.

Reverend Joyner established Conetoe Family Life Center in 2007 to address persistent poverty and lack of access to healthy foods. In his first year of preaching in Conetoe, thirty individuals under the age of 32 died of chronic health problems. Reverend Joyner decided that something had to change. “That’s when I started praying,” he said, “and God told me to open my eyes and look around at what I could see… that was not the answer I expected or wanted, because I only saw a lot of vacant fields. I even asked if there was anybody else up there I could talk to!”

Having grown up in a sharecropping family, Reverend Joyner’s experiences with farming and the land were very painful. It meant hard work, no money, never reaping benefits from what his family sowed. Moving to another farm in the hopes of better treatment that were never realized. He had to put aside years of resentment and anger in order to help his congregants and community.

What started out as a 2-acre garden has blossomed into a 25-acre community farm.  With funding, organizational development and planning support from Resourceful Communities, Conetoe Family Life Center has strengthened their operations, programs and services. Youth, ages 4 to 18, get homework help in the free afterschool and summer day camp programs, as well as the opportunity to plant, harvest, sell, and eat their own produce and honey. As Rev. Joyner recently told me, “The [farm] has brought life into this community. It has given me the opportunity to be part of letting our youth have a healthier childhood. It has been the greatest gift, and it has done it not only for me, but it has done it for this region.”

MikkiBlog 2Members of the Conetoe Family Life Center harvesting green beans in the field. Photo by Steve Orr.

Reverend Joyner remembers the first time the Conetoe volunteers drove their second-hand tractor onto the field, and the children “were so happy they thought we were having a parade.” And now, the economic and environmental benefits are clear. “The children love the land. They see the land reducing their food bills in half; they see the land growing food for medicine for their parents and them.” The land is not only a place that children can get an education; harvest sales and donations from supporters have yielded a $24,000 college scholarship fund. Rev. Joyner predicts that, “one of these children will [go away to school,] come back and take this place to another level.”

Reverend Joyner sees social justice benefits in the community members’ access to healthy food, the improved health and educational performance and, especially, the young people who have grown into leaders. The youth decided to start beekeeping, and asked Reverend Joyner to find a school bus that they could recycle into a beehive. He remembers, “The kids went online and researched and found out that bees pollinate and you get double the yield from crops, as well as other benefits. I flat out disagreed and said we aren’t getting bees. Forget it. It is dangerous enough, I don’t need any bees around here.”

Undeterred, the youth—who also serve on the CFLC Board—put it to a vote, where Rev. Joyner was surprised to be outvoted! “The kids look at me and smile now when I start bragging about the bees, and say, ‘We know you didn’t want those bees.’” Through their partnership with The Conservation Fund, CFLC was able to connect with another partner—Burt’s Bees’ Greater Good Foundation—that has since provided funding and donated beehive boxes to support the Conetoe pollination programs. The “bee bus” is now home to dozens of beehives that are protected from pesticides. The youth are now certified beekeepers. They sell their honey in grocery stores, farm stands, and a mobile market and plan to sell soon to area breweries.

MikkiBlog 3A repurposed school bus now houses the honeybees that help pollinate the fields at Conetoe. Photo by Robin Murphy.

While they may not refer to themselves as conservationists, the Conetoe youth are redefining conservation with their environmental leadership. “When they talk about not using pesticides around the bees, they’re very serious,” Joyner notes, “because they understand that if the pesticide gets on the bee, they’ll take it back to the hive and it will destroy the hive. They know about water runoff—pesticides on the land will get into the water system and impact not only them but people downstream. They use natural processes rather than manipulating the fields with artificial processes.”

MikkiBlog 4Youth beekeeper Tationa works with the honeybee hives on the bee bus. Photo courtesy of Conetoe Family Life Center. 

Currently, CFLC is working toward getting certified to sell their vegetables to the local school system, so all students have the same access to healthy foods. Rev. Joyner reminded me “our first priority is always to get fresh, local, healthy food on every table of every family in our community.” He is doing an amazing job of that, and we at the Fund are so proud to call him our partner and friend.