George O’Neal: Nobody does anything awesome by themselves

July 26, 2013 

George O'Neal


  • If you go

    On Aug. 8, RAFI will host a Crop Hop square dance benefit at The Barn in Fearrington Village in Chatham County. All the proceeds will benefit small farms for innovative projects. For tickets, visit

This farming business is hard work. We are facing another five inches of rain this week, bringing our totals for the year way above average. All that we planted and toiled with in April and May is trickling down into a sad heap.

The tomatoes are droopy, moody. The melons are wallowing in puddles of their own tears. The beans have simply given up trying to bean. We are wringing water out of our socks and sinking to our ankles with every step forward.

And yet every morning the work crew shows back up, joyful and bright-eyed. The dogs run up toward the greenhouse to greet us. Wearing raincoats and holding coffee cups firmly in our grasp, we head back out to the field, cracking jokes the whole way.

I always wonder what it is that keeps us out there, in rain or snow, in droughts, in the pestilence of blazing North Carolina summers. The best I can come up with so far is optimism.

It takes a real leap of faith to try your hand at all the tasks required to get a tomato from that little seed packet to grow into a plump summer treat on your plate. You have to suspend logic and all well-known business principles to try, over and over, to make a living growing food. All along, you hope that the risk will be out done by the reward.

Once that optimism takes root, it’s like a drug. You get a little, and you’re probably gonna want a little more. We’re a team of folks, and we’re addicted. To be on our team, your optimism needs to run deep.

Other factors that keep us going are more personal. There are the customers waiting at market as we unload, hoping to get first dibs on the best of what we have that week. There’s the amazing local community of food enthusiasts that make it possible to have the country’s greatest farmers markets only 20 miles apart from each other. And there are the certain, trusty chefs who stay up too late on a Friday night fretting over how to work frisee into yet another dish, just to help us out of the jam we planted ourselves into.

But I’m of course leaving out one of the biggest factors: the support along the way. Nobody does anything awesome by themselves. We are able to keep doing our work because there is a whole network of folks who work nonstop with our interest in mind.

We need the support of farm advocacy organizations just as much as we need the new seed catalogs in winter. They are the ones helping farmers transition from the agricultural styles of yesterday to supply what people want for dinner tonight. They are always helping us innovate. We need people in our corner so that when we take a few on the chin, they can wash up the goop out of our eyes and push us back into the food fight.

We started a tool co-op thanks to a grant from Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, based in Pittsboro. This co-op helped ten small farms save on equipment and getting access to what they needed. A game changer is how I would explain RAFI’s support for our farm.

I grow food. I don’t study food policy. I don’t have the luxury of time to keep up with every political issue related to food and farming. And I can’t always connect regularly with people in my shoes. But RAFI and other organizations do that for me.

I like it that way. I’m too busy trying to canoe from field to field.

George O’Neal is the owner and farmer of Lil’ Farm in Carrboro.

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