In the Edgecombe County hamlet of Conetoe, a community garden becomes a powerful tool against poverty and disease.
By Taylor Sisk
Local food is like peace: To oppose either on principle is just downright churlish.
But let’s talk practicalities.
Promoting peace is relatively easy if you live in, say, the U.S., in a safe neighborhood, and enjoy financial security – relative, that is, to someone who lives in a war zone.
Likewise, local food. It’s entirely laudable to promote a system that provides pesticide- and hormone-free high-end food items, produced in your own community, farm to table by supper. When what that translates into is farmers’ market five-dollar-a-pound heirloom tomatoes – well, that’s good news for the few but not for the many.
But the local-food movement is about a whole lot more.
Like in the Edgecombe County town of Conetoe, where something quietly revolutionary is well underway.
It all started with a small plot, just an acre or so, an outgrowth of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church’s summer youth program. Rev. Richard Joyner was still somewhat new to the church, but he was from the area and fully of it. He’d gone away to school; but soon enough home came calling.
Conetoe, pronounced Con-ee-ta, population 294, lies on the eastern edge of Edgecombe, eight miles southeast of Tarboro. You can see a great distance in every direction from the flatlands on which Conetoe is rooted, and scant little to suggest prosperity.
Joyner was needed. Poor health, endemic poverty. Few who could imagine beyond the fields and factories that were no longer providing the income they once had.
Then in September 1999, in the wake of hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, the floodwaters came, exacerbating, in Joyner’s words “a lot of suffering that was already here.”
It’s too often too easy to get complacent living in a place that you really need to either be delivered from or move forward with, Joyner said. After the floods, he resolved to help create some momentum. He launched the community-based work, including the summer youth program.
Then, about five years ago, that first garden was planted.
Rhythm in the rows
What in the world has Rev. Joyner gotten me into?” 18-year-old Jasmine Andrews asked herself, that first day in the garden.
It wasn’t long though before she found her rhythm in those rows.
It’s a February Sunday morning, and Jasmine and a number of fellow members of the Conetoe Family Life Center are gathered in the cafeteria of Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, just prior to Sunday service, as the elder early-arrivals trickle in to their usual pews.
Outside, beneath a sheen of snow, lie vestiges of winter’s cabbage and kale.
Tobias Hopkins, 14, tall for his age, teeth-braced, soft-spoken, a leader, says they’re giving the last of that crop away now, most of it having been apportioned to community members at Christmas and New Year’s.
Talk turns, soothingly, on this bracingly cold day, to a high-summer scorcher, out in the fields, picking beans – and to how young imaginations reconcile this bean-picking thing.
“We started a little garden song,” Tobias says.
“It’s not really a standard or anything, just a little something we did one day when we were out there for four or five hours, and it was a long job, and we had just gotten so hot, and we’d wanted to give up three or four times, just ready to go on home.”
“Remember that?” he asks Jasmine, and she does, well.
“We needed something to motivate us,” Tobias continues. “So we sang a reprise of ‘I’m on the Battlefield for My Lord.’ But we were on the ‘Garden Field for My Lord.’ We just changed a few words.”
What Tobias and the others were doing that day was using creative energy to guide their faith into productive purpose, for the good of their community – though in the moment they were just picking beans.
But farming is equal parts science and good faith, and these kids had done their prep. Like when they planted their first potato crop. First order of business was a trip to the grocery to see what potatoes were going for, essential knowledge for constructing a solid business plan.
Some community members who know such things then showed them how to cut up their seed potatoes, then how to plant them, eyes up.
Now how far to space them, and how long the rows, and how many rows do we need? They did the math themselves, scribbling with sticks in the soil.
Here, Joyner saw, with this gardening project, was an opportunity to access healthy food, to provide a summer enrichment program, workforce development, a means to teach math, science and reading. And to practice entrepreneurship. It was also a good honest day’s work.
Thus was the Conetoe Family Life Center gardening enterprise born, one of dozens of faith-based community initiatives across North Carolina, many of which partner with Come to the Table, a project administered by the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA), based in Pittsboro, and the North Carolina Council of Churches’ Rural Life Committee, with funding from The Duke Endowment.
“Churches are too often about administration and rituals and not geared to reality,” Joyner said. “I love the hands-on; I love being in touch with people where it makes a difference.”
Here in Conetoe, the local-food movement is thriving, a matter of building community from the ground up.
Natural disasters leave visible wounds. Like nearly two-and-a-half million dead chickens. Fifty percent of the cotton crop lost, 40 percent of tobacco. That’s what eastern North Carolina looked like when the floodwaters receded in September ’99.
Thirty-five lives were lost in North Carolina. Damages in the state were in excess of $6 billion. The state’s farmers lost more than a billion. Fewer than 15 percent of homeowners had flood insurance.
Monika Fleming teaches history at Edgecombe Community College. She recalls the “horror stories” of dead bodies in the street. Come to find out, what had happened was that a couple of the cemeteries had flooded so badly that the coffins had risen from the ground.
“So there were no new dead bodies; these were previously deceased, buried bodies,” Fleming said, “over 400 of them.”
Disasters take further toll in less manifest ways. For example: A UNC study conducted in 2004 found that in the six months after the flooding, child-abuse brain injuries were five times more common in the hardest-hit counties than they had been prior, and brain injuries attributable to accidents were 10 times more common. After those first six months, child-abuse injuries dropped back down, but the accidental injuries remained high throughout the 40-month study.
Stress, depression and worsened states of poverty were cited by the authors as possible factors, along with disaster-related environmental hazards, less adult supervision and dangers associated with temporary housing.
Recovery from such trauma is an ongoing process, for families and communities. Edgecombe County had a lot of rebuilding to do, physically, psychologically and emotionally, and it wasn’t as if it was working from the surest of foundations.
Already struggling communities took a solid beating, and among the issues that most concerned Joyner were access to adequate medical treatment and healthy foods. Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Edgecombe ranks 95th in mortality and 99th in overall health behaviors; nearly a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line, somewhat more than the state average.
But about those roots, and the flatland upon which Conetoe is planted: That soil has traditionally provided quite well.
In their book History of Edgecombe County, published in 1919, Kelly Turner and John Luther Bridgers write of the first settlers to the area finding rich land along the Tar River upon which they grew “Indian corn, peas, wheat, oats, rye, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, cotton, and flax in abundance.”
Then, as Turner and Bridgers write, “Peruvian guano was introduced and a liberal application of it made per acre, in addition to composting, wonderful progress was made and such fine results obtained, that in 1861 Edgecombe was the banner agricultural county in the State.”
Cotton came to reign; tobacco followed. Now, on 150,000 acres of cropland in Edgecombe County today, cotton and soybeans are the primary outputs. Only about 1,400 acres of vegetables are harvested.
Joyner knew this land would provide, and saw it as a natural bed of community growth. Fields that once yielded tobacco lay fallow.
The place we go from
And there was the church from which to build.
Faith communities had rallied post-Floyd. When St. Luke Church of Christ in Princeville, a black congregation, found its building destroyed, the Tarboro Church of Christ, a white congregation, opened its doors, and for eight months St. Luke held its services there. The two held a joint vacation bible school, a homecoming service and Christmas pageants, worked together as one. Friendships remain from that experience.
Martin Luther King Jr. taught that a vibrant church’s work only begins within its four walls – that its true influence must be defined by what it does beyond. The church, he said, is the place we go from, animating, en route, the scriptures’ edicts to be faithful by caring for one another, seven days a week.
To which Rev. Richard Joyner would say “amen.”
He and the kids started with that small plot and no equipment of their own. Today, 58 kids, ages 5 to 17, are farming an 11-acre garden in Conetoe, five gardens in Rocky Mount and the original garden in Conetoe, which is now a community garden accessible to anyone in need of fresh local produce.
Community members donated land. Grown-ups pitch in.
They’re growing May peas, summer squash, tomatoes and broccoli; kale, okra and both pointy- and round-headed cabbages. They’re selling to the Piggly Wiggly in Tarboro, several farmers’ markets and a couple of restaurants. Tobias and the others have also been working on a deal to barter with Hatteras Island fishermen, conducting their own negotiations.
Tobias said the fishermen have a refrigerated truck that already comes along U.S. 64 on its way to Raleigh, and could stop for the exchange. But first the kids must make a good assessment of their inventory to assure they can provide a steady supply without shorting their neighbors.
Then there’s the Bee Bus, on the edge of a field in Conetoe. Had it been left to Joyner, there would be no Bee Bus. He didn’t see how in the world it would work. But the kids insisted it would.
Tobias said a beekeeper in Rocky Mount had previously tried to use a bus to raise bees, but that it hadn’t worked out well because he didn’t put symbols on the bus, and all the bees were going back to one hive.
Turns out, bees like symbols. So the Conetoe Family Life Center kids put symbols on their bus – an old school bus they found in a junkyard – which serve, Tobias said, as “addresses,” informing the bees of the hive to which they should return.
The bees, he said, learned those addresses, and today they’re producing honey, which the kids jar and sell under their own label.
With the proceeds from their bounty, they’re raising money for their school supplies and summer camp and have a scholarship fund. They’re providing free produce to the community and carrying fresh vegetables home for the weekend, where they’re then counseling their parents on good nutrition and the evils of cigarette smoking.
“What in the world?” is what Jasmine Andrews’ family said – the same words she had uttered that first day in the garden – when she initially hypothesized that there’s more to do with okra than batter and fry it.
But the notion took hold. Tobias’ mother, Renee Hopkins, said she for one is now more prone to bake and broil.
Meanwhile, the kids are providing food for repasts and other functions at the church and offering cooking classes in how to prepare and cook vegetables without destroying their nutrients.
A typical church supper spread includes broccoli, collards, cabbage, onions, squash, okra, all from the garden.
“Now and then, we might still fry,” Irene Redmond, a Life Center staff member and volunteer, said. “But overall, we’re a healthier group.”
As for what to plant, and how, where and when, Joyner tells the kids they’ve got to go figure it out themselves.
“If we don’t figure this out, we won’t have any food to eat, which will be bad,” Joyner said, his eastern N.C. drawl rendering “bad” a two-syllable word. “We won’t have any to share with the community, which will be bad. We won’t have any to take to the farmers’ market to sell so you’ll have what you need when you go back to school.
“You’ve got to figure this out.”
Figuring that out, then figuring how to distribute it and allocate the proceeds, requires practical applications of reading, math, science and economics, none of which the kids signed up for. Such are the wages of community building.
Here at the church, on this winter day, Renee Hopkins reflects on what all this has meant to Tobias. She glances at her son as he recounts the origins of his garden song. “I’ve seen a lot of growth in him since he’s been in the program,” she says. “I’ve seen growth in all these kids.”
They’re sensing that they have power, Joyner said, while building for the community social capital, or what he calls “human income.”
“They’re going to live to be healthier, they’re going to reduce their needs for medication; they’re going to know how to make sound decisions, how to build healthy relationships; and they’re going to value education,” he said.
They’re forging lifelong relationships, and helping each other through struggles. He sees in them, he said, resolve, and more empathy toward one another than before.
Look around the community, Tobias says, and you’ll see young people struggling. “If I weren’t a part of a program like this, I’d probably be the same way.”
“The pastor is trying to give them a better life, to put them to work,” said Ernest Vines, who donated use of the tobacco fields that’s been in his family for three generations. “They see where their food is coming from, what life’s all about. Then they won’t have time to do all this crime and crazy stuff.”
Vines’ wife, Roena, enjoys watching the young people work, and she sees to it that the adults treat them right. “You get them some water,” she’ll say.
Rev. Joyner won’t save all of them, Vines said, but he’ll save a few.
“I’m watching them make some durn good decisions,” Joyner said of his congregation’s youth, “and it’s grown out of this garden.”
Building the future
Churches have traditionally served as the core of rural Southern communities. If, as King said, the church can only find its full expression beyond its four walls, where better to venture than the garden?
Consider these words from Rev. Brian Lee Cole of The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville: “In practicing a faith cut off from the natural world, we have starved our theological imagination.”
“By venturing out,” Cole writes, “we will see many new ways to connect the Christian story to the world’s needs now.”
Faith. Food. Community. Kale. Nourishing the body and soul. Symmetry in Conetoe, where they’re defining their own local-food movement.
Somebody once asked Rev. Joyner how much revenue he figures the gardens produce, and he said it was way too soon to say. How do you calculate what a 12-year-old is going to gain in his lifetime based on what he’s producing today?
He’s banking on that “human income” paying dividends for years to come.
“I really believe that this is how you build the future,” Joyner said.
And as time to head to the sanctuary nears, Tobias betrays some pride: “A lot of people look up to us,” he says.
Gardening won’t remedy all Conetoe’s ills. Not alone. But it nurtures a community. And communities are where movements are sown.