When George O’Neal decided to become a farmer more than a decade ago, no one told him it was going to be easyespecially not his mentor, John Soehner.
Collectively, the two have farmed for more than thirty years, coaxing stubborn North Carolina clay to sprout literal tons of fresh food, nurtured without the use of chemicals or pesticides. Despite the experience and toil, though, every year is a gamble. The methods may be sustainable, but their financial future surely is not.
O’Neal and Soehner agree to meet me for a beer at Hillsborough’s Radius Pizzeria on a Sunday evening to unwind after a full weekend of work. The historic county seat makes an ideal rendezvous point from our respective dwellings. Soehner has farmed with his wife, Cindy Econopouly, at Chapel Hill’s Eco Farm since 1995. O’Neal runs the land of Lil’ Farm, in rural Person County, as he slowly finishes up the construction of his home. I get by in a shabby shotgun rental near downtown Durham.
In farmer speak, a beer translates to at least two hours. Days before we meet, O’Neal warns me that Soehner, one of his best friends, will only to talk to me if I tell “the truth.” This does not surprise me. Over the years, any time I would run into Farmer John at an area market, he’d flash a cheeky smile and mumble that he had a real story for me. Farmers aren’t making any money, went his consistent refrain. So make that a beer, a pizza, and at least three hours.
Both Lil’ Farm and Eco Farm regularly stake out coveted spots at jam-packed local farmers markets. Either Soehner or his daughter, Nicole, set up at five markets each week, including the Carrboro Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. From his positions in Carrboro on Wednesday and at Durham’s Saturday market, O’Neal maintains a steady customer base that includes many restaurant chefs.
These markets are highly, and rightly, lauded, landing on most every North Carolina travel destination list. In 2010, a handful of Tar Heel stories in The New York Times catapulted the local food scene to the status of media darling. That April, Times dining reporter Julia Moskin wrote a piece called “Durham, a Tobacco Town, Turns to Local Food.”
Geographically confused but rather representative of the area, the article explored the familial connection between local chefs and small-scale farmers in Durham, Carrboro, and Chapel Hill, all transitioning from a history of tobacco markets to those for food.
The article ended with a description of Durham’s market: “The farmers there are treated like rock stars,” Moskin wrote. “Dogs and babies abound and … hipsters mingle with hippies.”
It was a quirky, laughable summation, anchored by a kernel of truthwe do love our farmers. But the farmers delivering their cornucopia of fresh food every week are not netting an above-poverty wage, let alone rock-star money. For Soehner, this is truth.
In February, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that farmers relied on a substantial amount of income from an off-farm sourcebasically, a second jobto make it. The extra work accounted for 43 percent of a fruit-and-vegetable farmer’s income, a whopping 84 percent for field crops.
But finding data related to small farms like the ones that sell at area markets is not easy. In fact, it’s hardly ever calculated. The USDA considers an operation to be a farm if it grows at least ten acres of the same crop. In small-scale organic farming, the acreage is less of a problem than the one-crop system. Small, sustainable farms thrive and pride themselves on a diversity of crops, seasonally rotated to nurture the soil. Soehner and O’Neal grow between five and seven acres each. For them, federal agencies don’t keep official statistics.
Still, the ancillary income situation remains. Soehner cuts and splits firewood for a slew of customers, including Durham’s Pizzeria Toro. Though physically demanding, especially when done alongside farming, the gig added $31,000 to the Soehner family’s income in 2015.
When we met in Hillsborough, both Soehner and O’Neal had coincidentally just been to the dentist for the first time since starting their farms. O’Neal had two wisdom teeth pulled, and in a few years he hopes he can afford the removal of two more. For Soehner, injuries sustained in a car crash twenty-eight years ago put him and his family in physical rehabilitation. Between these expenses and investing all his cash in the farm since 1995, Soehner couldn’t afford to fix his busted teeth from the accident until two decades later. With the help of the Affordable Care Act and reduced-fee services at the UNC School of Dentistry, he feels “like a normal human again.”
“I love what I do,” O’Neal says. “We’ve traded a lot to do this, but I really love it. I feel good ’bout it every day. So it’s not just a punishing thing without a reward. The reward is not financial.”
Soehner wears overalls most days, a bushy beard all the time. He tells jokes in a low voice, peppering his conversation with perfectly placed expletives that come accented by a wry Long Island lilt. He and Cindy named their farm Eco as a nod to their environmentally conscious methods and Cindy’s family name.
At first, it was a grand experiment. After a few tests and accidents, for instance, he transformed the discarded logs in his yard into the fertile breeding ground for musky, meaty mushrooms. In the nineties, Eco’s cultivation of shiitake mushrooms was among the very first in the area, so he provided local restaurants with bulk orders.
He fondly recalls delivering hundreds of pounds of arugula, a crop he says he perfected, to Ben and Karen Barker’s pioneering Magnolia Grill, too, every few days. He could grow arugula like no one else, he claims. He’s even put in a few years with pasture-raised pork, which he doesn’t sell anymore but instead serves on the lunch table, when he and his workersmany of them his own familybreak for a daily meal.
O’Neal worked for Soehner when he was twenty-two, and he still maintains the family lunch tradition. He often wears a well-worn Lil’ Farm T-shirt, emblazoned with heavy metal logos changed to showcase his farm, or a line from Wu Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard”Ooh baby, I like it raw”that accompanies a caricature of the rapper, mean-mugging behind radishes, carrots, and bok choi.
At his market stand, baskets overflow with Asian greens, summer tomatoes of every size and hue, and stacks of ginger root so fresh they seem to blush. He sells strawberries, daikon radish, ginger, and turmeric to area restaurants and artisans, and he agrees he is always trying to outpace, or at least keep up with, the culinary curve. It doesn’t always work.
“We’re so seasonal,” he says. “Something’s always dying or doing shitty or covered in bugs. You’re hedging your bets every day.”
The same year that Durham’s rural rock stars appeared in The New York Times, folklorist Whitney Brown published her thesis on the burgeoning local food movement in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. The movement itself, Brown noted, depended on a cohesive pact between farmers and chefs. The synergy drew on the influence of Bill Neal, the legendary founding chef of Crook’s Corner who advocated for Southern food as a cuisine worthy of gastronomic praise and distinction. The vigor and creativity needed to maintain and boost a local gourmet scene requires a thriving food economy, where chefs exchange ideas with farmers and use that inspiration to power branded, locally sourced menus.
Back then, O’Neal told Brown, he calculated a $40 profit in 2010. Today, with the help of tunnel houses (including one he recently purchased from Soehner), O’Neal has created more financial wiggle room between seasons.
“That’s one way we can make it to market, those season-extension things,” he says. “I wanted another one so I could rotate my ginger one more year.”
He does this to broaden his window for popular fruits and vegetables, to extend into value-added products, and to test out new crops.
“I don’t know if any of us know what the next thing is gonna be. Mark Bittman never tells us in time,” he says, joking about the New York food writer.
Soehner interjects: “We’re running out of things [to grow].”
With an increase in enterprising farmers, supply can outrun demand. As O’Neal puts it, a popular ingredientlike the padrón peppercan sprout on a few farms in the same season and “then everyone’s got piles of it.” The surplus cuts the price.
Food safety is another concern for small organic farmers, often left out of the politically charged conversation led by bigger producers. For example, advocates for stricter federal regulations on organic farmers, O’Neal says, want to remove manure from farming practices. But manure has served as a fundamental way for organic farmers to get nutrients to their crops for centuries.
“Our food system is such a mess. It’s such a hodgepodge of good intentions of food safety,” O’Neal says. “But it basically will bind us to chemical agriculture. We’re the antithesis of that. We don’t buy petroleum shit and dump it in the field. We’re organic farmers because of us first, the customers second. When you have a system that’s always trying to push you into the cheaper alternative and a chemical output, you need people actively working against that if you want the alternative.”
To wit, O’Neal is currently jumping through Food and Drug Administration hoops to preserve whatever’s left of his thousand pounds of ginger and five hundred pounds of turmeric. He wants to can the harvest in lemon syrup to sell. The regulations are draconian, and he doesn’t have a team of paid lawyers and assistants ready to handle the paperwork.
“The Parmesan cheese that’s 7 percent sawdust?” he says. “How much of that shit do you need to see to realize no one’s actually doing their food safety job?”
Farmers don’t want to gripe. Soehner and O’Neal laugh at the prospect of coming across as whiners. Rather, their conversations are energetic and involved, loaded with quips, jokes, and smiles. But they don’t want to stop what they’re doing, either.
“I love what I do,” O’Neal says. “The reward is not financial, but it is very spiritually fulfilling. I get to watch the sun move all around the yard every single day and the moon come up half the time. I get to eat good. John gets to see his kids every day, all day long, if he wants to.”
Soehner listens and finally responds.
“You know, I’ve been debating selling my land next door so I don’t have to be stressed the whole time,” he says. “But today we went out therethe three of uswith chainsaws and machetes. And we cleaned the whole fence line. It looks so frickin’ nice. That motivates you.”
In her thesis, Brown reminds the reader: “America loves the idea of the farmer, no matter how divorced from reality the images may be. He symbolizes something Americans need to believe about themselves.”
Despite the grit and the hardships, Soehner and O’Neal’s lives still encapsulate that wish we all have.
“Old-time farmers and people who grew up on farms are really nice, honest people,” Soehner says of the farmers who mentored him over the years. “And they’ll do anything to help you.”
“How important is he?” O’Neal points to his mentor. “He started my farm. He found me the land. He gave me the tractor I used. I used his irrigation system. It was all his connections.”
Soehner nods and smiles.
“Everybody used my stuff to get started, the whole neighborhood,” he explains. “George’s generation is all the kids that worked on farms and then started their own.”
We get to talking about what’s next. Soehner is taking a six-week break from markets. By his estimate, he hasn’t missed one in fourteen years, but he wants to get ready for the next season. He thinks he’ll ramp up his arugula production, and he’s especially excited to serve the Barkers again at the new Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro. It, too, is run by the next generation, their son, Gabe.
“He’s such a good kid,” he says. “I might even give him the first big bag for free.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Till ’em All”