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George O’Neal: Food pioneers’ passing

January 3, 2014 

The Triangle area is blessed to have some amazing pioneers in its midst.

Lots of talent, lots of storied careers, and our agricultural community is no exception. Just like the cows, there are those among us that are outstanding in their fields. If you’ll let me, I would like to honor some dear friends who were outstanding in more than just a field.

In the last few months we've seen the passing of several trailblazers of our food and farming community. At the beginning of the year we lost Bill Dow of Ayrshire Farm, his farm was the first certified organic farm in North Carolina and he and several others were instrumental in getting the Carrboro Farmers Market started and stewarded to where it is today.

Then in August, we lost Gary Murray of Sunset Farm, a third-generation Alamance County farmer, sustainable pioneer and all-around great man. Gary made selling near him a joy and was always willing to give advice and instruction on how to do just about anything.

Tragically, just a few days later we lost Steve Mobley of Meadow Lane Farm. Steve worked his life in agriculture, was an animal expert for the state, and when he was done with that, retired into a relaxing life of full-time farming. Steve raised beef and veggies in Franklin County on one of the most picturesque farms in history. He was the president of the Durham Farmers Market, a dedicated friend and my market neighbor for the last several years. 

Bill, Gary and Steve were early adopters of our local food economy. They were tilling the soil before the New York Times was praising the “young farmer,” before restaurants in town were displaying the origin of their menu items with pride, and long before buzzwords like locavore were part of our vernacular. They were early in the game because it made sense to them, it was important to them, and because they believed deeply in the importance of farming. Thanks to them we all reap the benefits.

It’s always sad when our friends move on, and I think we all share the experience of losing mentors along our path in life. When I pull into my farmers market spot before sunrise on Saturday mornings and I look over and see the spaces that these folks occupied for the last several decades, I’m reminded that the knowledge that they carried with them, all those lessons that took them a lifetime to learn and were given freely are now gone.  

I miss my friends. I wish we still had all the time in the world for me to absorb more of their wisdom and shoot the breeze, or at least long enough for all of us to get the chance to say a proper thank you. 

These men I mention, helped put us on the local food map, and they spent long hours paving the way for upstart whippersnappers like me to be able to waltz in and make a paycheck from growing vegetables. Yet they were quite unsung. Even though they deserve it you probably won't read their names in history books, or hear songs dedicated to their bravery. But these guys were awesome. They did something daily that they loved and didn’t brag about it, but they couldn’t wait to share their knowledge.

Their families are keeping these farms going, and like all things they will change. But thanks to them I know how to grow radicchio, when to plant my wheat, and that you don’t have to be the loudest one at the table to be heard. Their commitment to raising our food right was infectious and inspiring and it was just a part of them. It was their life's work and they put a little of themselves into everything they grew. Luckily they are a still a part of all of us that got the pleasure of knowing them.

And even if you don't know it, they could be a little part of you as well. Because you are what you eat after all, right?  

George O’Neal is the owner and farmer of Lil’ Farm in Timberlake, about 20 miles north of Durham.

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