Farm Life

short stories detailing the deliciousness, work ethic, commitment, and uniquities of Durham-area farmers.

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.