Mary Oxendine, Durham County’s first food security coordinator, arrived at the Hawk’s Nest Healing Gardens on the penultimate day of August. Pines, pecan trees, and willow oaks shrouded the gardens, casting a dappled light on Oxendine as she walked down the driveway.
There she met Phoebe Gooding, who owns Hawk’s Nest with her husband. Named for the red-shouldered hawks that perch in the surrounding loblolly pines, the backyard project includes a medicine garden as well as community plots, a high tunnel, and a chicken coop.
“I call her my sis-star,” Gooding says of Oxendine. The pair has been mistaken for relatives; both have curly hair and light-colored eyes. In the first year of Oxendine’s tenure, she provided Gooding with a grant to purchase soil for the community gardens. They have since become close friends.
Oxendine visits small farms like Gooding’s as part of a new initiative at the Durham County Cooperative Extension to bring more county residents into agriculture.
The Durham Farm Campus aims to give them access to land, training, and shared equipment. It’s still in the planning stages, but the USDA Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production has provided a $167,015 grant to assess the feasibility of the project.
Among other things, this includes finding a contiguous tract of land to build the campus, scouting people to join the program, and organizing meetings to determine how it will meet community needs. The Durham community includes many resettled refugees who have strong agricultural backgrounds but lack familiarity with North Carolina’s climate and access to land.
As food security coordinator, Oxendine sees the role farmers play in building a local food system. Still, land redistribution is a far cry from Oxendine’s original, albeit flexible, job description.
Oxendine was first hired in the spring of 2021, and much of her work then focused on pandemic response. Durham County had many nonprofit groups and government agencies working independently on hunger issues, but the pandemic pushed them to the brink. Visits to food pantries more than doubled in 2020, and traffic stalled as lines formed outside some locations. On the other end of the crisis, farmers threw out produce amid distribution and labor shortages. The county saw the need for someone who could address these gaps.
Oxendine had spent the last 12 years as a health policy analyst at the Research Triangle Institute working on the National Commission on Hunger and had recently started her master’s degree in nutrition at Meredith College.
Part of her job was coordinating public hearings in cities across the United States and visiting “summer feeding sites” that serve children when school is out. She hoped her next position would more closely connect her with the people she helped.
“I saw how nutrition is connected to lots of things,” says Oxendine. “It’s culture. It’s community. It can be job opportunities.”
Back at Hawk’s Nest, farming and community go hand in hand. Gooding’s husband, Hector Lopez, leads temescal ceremonies here every month, in which water is poured over hot stones in their sweat lodge to produce steam in a healing ritual.
Lopez and other community members built the lodge out of Bradford pear limbs they collected from around the farm, bending them into a wooden dome. The inside smells like the burlap sacks that cover its floor; at the top, the limbs meet to form a star.
“You have to build this in community,” says Gooding. “No one person can do this alone.”
A similar philosophy governs the community gardens, where members exchange seeds and watch over one another’s plots. Last year, Oxendine rented her own plot at the Hawk’s Nest community gardens. It has given her a chance to reconnect with North Carolina soil in a way she hadn’t experienced since childhood. In return, the land gifted her squash.
“I almost cried while I was eating, because it felt like a miracle,” says Oxendine. “It felt like magic. Like, I didn’t pay for these things.”
The study of nutrition has fascinated Oxendine since she was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, but her connection to the land and food began back home in Robeson County.
Money was scarce when Oxendine was a little girl, but family and plant life abounded. When the sun rose over the tobacco fields, Oxendine and her cousins could be found tending their great-uncle’s garden while he slopped (and later slaughtered) his hogs. Oxendine recalls sitting in the shade of her grandmother’s plum tree, picking fruit off its branches.
But land access is a major barrier to people interested in farming, even if they have the skills. The land was once cared for by the Eno, the Occaneechi, and the Tuscarora peoples—a group to which Oxendine belongs, as well as the Lumbee.
After white settlers forcefully removed the Indigenous peoples, enslaved Black people worked the soil. They were never given the land the federal government had promised them, and much of what they could secure has been lost. In 1910, Black North Carolinians owned 3 million acres of farmland. By 2017, it was under 100,000 acres.
Durham County was no exception to this trend. Farmers sold their land and took jobs in the growing metropolitan area. In a little over a century, total farmland shrunk to 13 percent of what it had been in 1910. Today, Black residents make up over one-third of the county, yet Black-owned operations only constitute 4 percent of the total farms in Durham County.
“One of the big end goals is more farms in Durham County,” says county extension agent John Lyttle, “run by people who have not historically had as many opportunities.”
Lyttle lists Black and Indigenous people, people of color, young adults, femme-identifying genders, veterans, immigrants, refugees, the formerly justice-involved, and low-income people among those targeted for the program.
There are four parts to the plan for the Farm Campus: an incubator farm, post-harvest education, a value-added facility, and a healing garden. The current feasibility study will inform what comes next, but it will likely entail interviews and site visits for farmers who are already growing on a small scale. Project leaders envision farmers signing an agreement to farm an estimated one-half to two acres.
Extension agents would also help maintain a demonstration farm and teach classes on building hoop houses, setting up irrigation, and operating a successful farm business.
Most of the Farm Campus would not be open to the public, but the healing garden would be accessible 24/7. Oxendine describes it as a place for people to “heal their relationship with the land” and grow herbs and medicine, two resources that are generally more expensive to buy.
Durham County recently contracted with real estate consulting firm HR&A Advisors to find 80 acres for the farm. Once it finds a location, the County Extension Office will apply for grants, seek donations, and explore land banks and land conservancies as potential funding sources. So far, many prospective spaces either have proven to be too hilly, contain wetlands that already provide vital services to the county like absorbing and filtering stormwater, or aren’t within walking distance of a bus stop.
“We could work with maybe a steep slope in one part of it,” says Oxendine. “Other Indigenous cultures have farmed on steep hills and done a stair-step model.”
There are still many questions the Farm Campus group needs to answer, including how urban-dwelling farmers will get to the campus and how to remove financial barriers for low-income people who want to participate in the program.
For Oxendine, the Durham County Farm Campus is about more than food production.
“I’m reconnecting with the land and with these practices,” says Oxendine, “figuring out how I really take care of myself. How do I have sisterhood with these plants? You can’t call someone your sister that you don’t know.”
She hopes others can build their own relationship with Durham County soil, too.
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