short stories detailing the deliciousness, work ethic, commitment, and uniquities of Durham-area farmers.
A Southern Farmer’s Quest for Flavor
By Casey Roe
October 13th, 2019
South Wind Produce focuses on flavor, making their ingredients the perfect match for a Kingfisher cocktail.
South Wind Produce, a 47-acre farm in Rougemont, North Carolina, is a blend of culinary passion and farm practicality. As an avid cook, Angie Raines prioritizes flavor while co-owner Miles Okal takes a pragmatic approach to what will grow best.
“He’s the practical side; I’m the dreamer,” Raines says. “We’re finding a balance.”
South Wind Produce has a unique focus on growing grains like buckwheat and rice. When we visited in late August, the Japanese sushi rice and long grain Indian rice were at different growth stages. Angie showed us one plant stalk, pregnant with grains that were ready to push up, while another had already bloomed and was bent over from the weight of the grain.
“In the evening, the field smells like a big bowl of rice,” Raines says.
When it comes to flavor, Raines wants “something special” from her crops. The rice is no exception; tasting it is a new experience for customers. “The fresh flavor is undeniable,” Raines explains. “It’s like buying fresh strawberries instead of frozen.”
On their quest for the most delicious flavors, Raines and Okal have discovered that many celebrated heirloom plants fail in the southern climate. “We can’t grow super funky tomatoes or special French melons,” Raines says.
Raines believes more breeding research is needed with a focus on flavorful plants for small farms. For this reason, South Wind is participating in new research that could ultimately create tastier plant varieties suited for the south.
In 2019, Raines and Okal conducted seed trials in partnership with Row 7 Seed Company, a chef-breeder seed collaboration focused on flavor. South Wind planted the trial Row 7 seeds alongside seeds from another company, which were bred for survival, but without the same emphasis on taste. When the breeders came to observe the trial results, the Row 7 plants had died in the North Carolina summer, while the others thrived.
The breeders assured Raines that this could be fixed. “The way they talk about it makes me so excited,” Raines says. “There’s so much work to do to get flavor. It’s going to take years, but I just love that people are working on it now.”
Raines also dreams of creating South Wind’s own bank of seeds that have thrived on their farm. She will experiment with saving seeds from one of her favorite crops this year: radicchio.
Raines and Okal also plan to plant an orchard with fruits that are well-suited to North Carolina’s climate, including Asian persimmons, Asian pears, hardy kiwi, blueberries and figs.
Raines’s emphasis on flavor originates in her love of cooking and eating. “It’s such a treat to get to eat three meals a day,” she says. Each day, she prepares lunch for the farm staff using ingredients from the farm.
On the day we visited, Raines opened a bag of the farm’s buckwheat, which had been milled into flour the day before. “Smell this,” Raines invited, “isn’t it so nutty?” Later that day, Raines would use the flour to make banana bread and the flavor was sure to be anything but ordinary.
Food for People Who Look Like Us
By Casey Roe
September 10th, 2019
Kam’Ron Jackson, 16, did not used to care about school. He found high school easy and did not feel motivated, until he received advice from his mentor, Kamal Bell.
Jackson recalls what Bell shared with him: “You always gotta try your best so that when you actually get into a good place, you get noticed before the others.”
In 2016, while he was teaching in the Durham Public Schools, Bell created Sankofa Farms, located in Cedar Grove, North Carolina. Bell was looking for a way to help his African American students develop life skills.
Bell chose to focus the farm on providing education and opportunity for African American boys because he did not see other programs focusing on them.
There are currently five regular student participants in the program. They spend weekdays during the summer and weekends during the school year at the farm.
Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “go back and get it.” In his words, Bell wants to “help connect our people back to the land and grow food for people who look like us in food deserts.”
Another student in the program, Kamoni King, 16, agrees about the value of reconnecting with the land. “It’s good to revisit the land because this is where African Americans originally started,” he says.
King’s grandfather and great grandfather were farmers, but he grew up at a distance from agriculture in the city of Fort Washington, Maryland. While he was in 6th grade, King relocated with his family to Durham, North Carolina. King shares that he is determined to break out of a cycle of poverty and violence in his family.
“The value for me is having something to do to stay out of trouble,” King says. “Either I’d be outside doing something or at home doing nothing. So, it’s better to be out here.”
It took two years of hard work by Bell and the students to clean up a portion of the land before they could plant crops. “This place was basically a wasteland,” describes King. They cleared piles of trash and removed trees.
“It makes you feel good once you see it,” King says of the plots now planted in row crops like squash. At first the program was reliant on unpredictable rain, but they now have a well and drip irrigation.
Honey bees are another recent addition to the farm. Bell and several of the students attended “Bee School” and are now certified beekeepers. The students are confident and deliberate as they inspect the 16 beehives at the farm, laughing and joking as they work. This year the crew harvested their first batch of 40 jars of honey.
On a hot July day when we visited, Bell was balancing keeping the boys engaged in farm tasks with a frustrating equipment issue. He had borrowed a walk-behind tractor from a neighboring farm and it was not starting properly.
“It’s a lot. It’s a whole lot,” says Bell, as he walks away from the tractor to turn on the irrigation lines.
Bell’s commitment to the boys in the program is evident and the hard work brings learning opportunities. King says the farm has taught him about good character, being a leader, teamwork and determination.
The farm has also changed King’s perspective on food. He began to think about his own health and to wonder where food comes from at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores. He explains, “I’m around a lot of greasy food, so it’s hard not to eat it. I didn’t grow up eating vegetables, it wasn’t put in front of me.”
Now, King wants to improve his food choices. On some days, Bell and his students bring a jar of honey to their neighbors at Anathoth Community Garden and enjoy a meal there made with fresh produce.
This fall, Bell is beginning a doctoral program in Agricultural Extension Education at North Carolina State University. He will continue to run Sankofa Farms, adjusting as needed for his capacity, and one day hopes to run a school as part of the program.
Would you like to support the life-changing work of Sankofa Farms for African American youth? Donate here.
A Radically Sustainable Farm
By Casey Roe
August 8th, 2019
Lil’ Farm in Pearson County, North Carolina is known for their fresh baby ginger and the sweet Queen George’s ginger syrups they craft from it. Baby ginger is juicy, mild and tender—a world apart from the thick-skinned and dehydrated mature ginger that is available at grocery stores.
“Who else is going to grow nine varieties of ginger in North Carolina?” farmer George O’Neal joked on our recent visit to Lil’ Farm.
Lil’ Farm is a small, diversified produce farm focused on sustainable growing practices, co-owned and operated by O’Neal and Lily Doyle.
O’Neal began gardening as a teenager because it felt radical to turn his backyard into food. He started Lil’ Farm when he was 23 years old. Eight years later, he still refuses to follow the crowd. The farm remains uniquely radical.
While conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, Lil’ Farm uses alternative chemical-free strategies to improve soil quality and respond to weeds and pests.
Lil’ Farm adds compost rich in organic matter to the soil and grows cover crops, which contribute nutrients. Lil’ Farm has adapted their growing strategies to account for heavy bug pressure. They grow squash and cucumber plants in their screened high tunnel, where they thrive compared to plants grown in the field.
O’Neal is particularly concerned with the reliance on plastic to grow food, even among small, sustainable farms.
“We’ve had plastic for less than 100 years, and now somehow we can’t live without it,” he says. “We can’t grow food without it.”
O’Neal is focused on reducing plastic use on the farm and in packaging. Many farmers lay thin plastic as a mulch over their beds to reduce the expensive labor costs of weeding. Lil’ Farm does not use plastic in their growing methods, apart from their drip irrigation system.
As small farms compete for customers at the farmers’ market and to sell to local restaurants, O’Neal finds that there is pressure to be first to market with a crop or to grow the most or “best” of an item. He is wary of commercialization and striving for maximum efficiency, which he feels can push farmers towards reliance on a “plasticulture” farm system.
Lil’ Farm has also transitioned their produce packaging away from single-use plastics. “Why should our transportation of a pound of arugula create a bag that lasts forever?” asks O’Neal.
Most of the produce that Lil’ Farm sells at the Durham and Carrboro Farmers’ Markets is unpackaged and baby greens are packed into brown bags. Loyal customers bring their own bags and the Durham Farmers’ Market offers totes for customers who forget to bring their own.
“We don’t want to be perpetually part of the problem,” says O’Neal. “We’re organic farmers and we didn’t get into this to be destroying the oceans.”
Lil’ Farm is looking for a solution to eliminate plastic waste from their produce packaging for restaurants as well. Aiming to be a part of the solution, Kingfisher is partnering with Lil’ Farm to test a low-waste system of reusable containers for produce deliveries.