Published: Mar 24, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Mar 20, 2012 06:15 PM
Stanley Hughes is a perseverant, hard-working soul. With almost 40 years of farming behind him, he has kept alive a family farm started by his grandfather 100 years ago in Hurdle Mills in northeast Orange County.
He makes a good part of his livelihood growing and selling certified organic kale, sweet potatoes, collards and other vegetables, livestock and tobacco on the familys 125 acres. Stanley, now 63, is the youngest of 12 and inherited part of the farm from his father. Hes the only one still farming. This is the overall plight of the small farmer, especially the black small farmer. That group cultivated 16 million acres in 1920 but only 3 million today.
Stanley grew up on this land and lives now with second wife, Linda, and his high school age daughter, Xandria, in the golden-colored block house built by his uncle. His sister still lives across the street in the original family home place with its two massive chimneys and big front porch. Surrounding their two houses are a variety of barns, workshops, new greenhouses and ruins of former farm buildings and burnt tobacco barns, slowly returning to the earth, their large log frameworks tilting and twisting in the air. The tan cement- stucco coating of one was slowly being shed like an old snakeskin.
In one of the repurposed tobacco barns his grandfather built, Stanley stores crates of last falls sweet potato crop. The mud chinking between the big, hand-adzed, squared-off logs was placed there when the barn was built. Stanley grows 15 acres of organic tobacco, but now he cures it in a couple of modern metal bulk barns and sells to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco, the makers of American Spirit, the only organic cigarettes made in America. They pay him the same $4 per pound he got in 1996. Yet tobacco continues to be a reliable cash crop. No one in Stanleys family smokes, though he admits his father did chew and a few older relatives dipped a bit of snuff.
You can find the Hugheses every Saturday at the Carrboro Farmers Market, easily spotted as the only black growers at the market with their well-known collards, sweet potatoes in red, white and purple, and green and purple kale in the colder months. Come summer youll find lettuce, squash, chard, bok choy, green beans, tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers and more. Their web page lists the whole delicious menu (www.pineknotfarmsnc.com). They also have free-range chicken and pork.
Stanleys always trying something new, This year a couple of greenhouses funded in part by NC A&T University are filled with varieties of lettuce and an early crop of German Johnson tomatoes that the A&T students planted. Stanley and Linda work the Carrboro market, while his cousin Joe sells their goods at the Durham market. Stanley told me he was the first to bring sweet potatoes, kale and collards for winter market sale, but others soon followed suit. Now winter sales are more competitive.
The Hugheses diversified marketing approach also has them selling direct to local restaurants like The Pig and Elaines on Franklin Street, to wholesaler Eastern Carolina Organics and a group of 20 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) families. Stanley also barters with other nearby farmers, trading compost for produce or hogs for building blocks.
While Stanley is clearly a man in love with his work and his land, he knows its a hard way to make a living, telling me wryly, If you want to work all the time, keep a job and stay broke, try farming. We walked through some rows of his unsold collards now going to seed. He bent and picked a beautifully formed, deep green, white-ribbed leaf and, held it up to me. I couldnt see a thing wrong with it, though I admit to knowing nothing about collards. The buyer, he explained, rejected it because the stem on the leaf wasnt long enough to enable the retail grocer to cut and refresh the leaves if they didnt sell right away. So a good 10 rows or more of collards in the field near his house plus another acre of greens down the road were all sprouting the yellow flowers too late to market.
We visited the hog pen in the woods behind the house where two sows and a boar feasted on discarded end-of-season sweet potatoes. Their piglets were scooting around and, from the looks of things, still nursing. Hed acquired these three hogs in trade from nearby prawn farmer, Joe Thompson. Nowadays, he said that its just too much trouble to raise them for on-farm slaughter. Theres no one around to pull down a scald, meaning do all the hard work after the slaughter to get the hair off the hide before butchering. We used to get together for a hog killing, but now everyone just wants to get paid. But there is nothing quite as tasty as that old bootleg sausage, he said with a knowing grin.
It was bittersweet hanging out that afternoon walking the land with Stanley. He says his only child doesnt seem that interested in farming nor do any of the extended family even those living nearby. Hes clearly rooted on this family land that hes been hard at work his whole life, trying everything, working all the time and barely making a decent living. The value to us all of farmers like Stanley is more than he can get for his organic produce, free-range chickens and local hogs, but unless he can get access to capital and build a marketable legacy, this piece of our history will pass on with him.