Reverend Eddie McNair, of New Life Agribusiness Center, points out future pastureland for chicken, hogs, and sheep.It’s not too common that someone moves back to northeastern North Carolina to farm. And it’s even more unusual when instead of growing the region’s big crops of cotton, peanuts, soybeans, wheat, and tobacco, he or she starts to grow produce with their congregation for a retail market. When I pointed this out to Reverend Eddie McNair, he chuckled and nodded in agreement. He says he just wishes he had returned sooner, before his father, like many African American farmers, retired and sold the farm equipment because none of his heirs seemed interested in farming. That was in 1988, and it wasn’t until 2007 that McNair began farming on his family’s property in Plymouth, at the western edge of Washington County. Since then, McNair has made some of this farmland the demonstration and training site for his church’s New Life Agribusiness Center. On the day of my visit, the Center’s importance as a place of ministry, reflection, and community was evident. Residents of a local home for developmentally disabled adults had just planted several rows of sweet potatoes, melons, beans, and okra. On the other side of the six-acre plot, someone was completing his court-ordered community service alongside an older woman weeding the pepper plants. Reverend McNair celebrates these aspects of the Center, but he insists that the Center won’t have truly fulfilled its missions until it has created more jobs. In 2011, the rate of unemployment in Washington County was one of the state’s highest, at 13.5%. The per capita income is $18,000 and, like the majority of counties in the northeastern part of the state, Washington is considered a Tier 1 county for its level of economic distress. McNair also notes the rate of African American land loss as an indication of Washington County’s challenges. Between 1990 and 1997, the percent of white-owned farmland loss in the United States was a staggering 65.8%, but for African Americans it was even greater: 98%. When McNair returned to Plymouth in 2007, he saw that many of the remaining African Americans who actually still owned land no longer farmed it; instead, they leased it out at a low price to larger operations. At the same time, unemployment was on the rise, and younger people with an interest in farming for their livelihood didn’t know how to begin. McNair realized that the most effective project he and his congregation could do was to find a way to connect the area’s resources – land and farming knowledge – with those most in need of employment.
McNair explained: “People in our church owned land and leased it out. I said ‘Let’s take that land and use it to build the capacity of our neighbors’.” The long-term vision of New Life Agribusiness Center is to create a farmer training program that helps young people gain skills on the demonstration farm and after a year, provides them with land from church members and other landowners to begin their own production. New Life plans to pay landowners a higher price to rent the land than what the landowners currently receive from large operators. The beginner farmers will sell his or her produce wholesale through a co-op to New Life CDC, and New Life will sell the produce at retail. As it enters its second year, the Center currently has twenty producers in the co-op and is experimenting with intensive vegetable production in two high tunnels on the demonstration farm.
I asked McNair why he and his congregation had spearheaded a project like this, even when it diverted resources from building their new church. He explained: “I call myself a renegade preacher. I believe if I can build the capacity of people first, and get them to a place with a good quality of life, they will get to a point of being able to build a ministry and a church. We could have built a church ten years ago, but we chose not to have a building and to use the farm as our ministry.” This conviction, faith, and patience have already been rewarded in the form of the Center’s farm manager, Emmanuel. When McNair was still farming soybeans and wheat on this land, a young man came by and offered to help out. He said he wanted to learn about farming, and he called and came by relentlessly, even when McNair couldn’t pay him. According to McNair, in those early days Emmanuel was like many of his peers; he was jobless and “didn’t know diddly squat about farming”. Several years later, he’s the New Life Agribusiness Center farm manager. Emmanuel serves as an example of how local people can gain knowledge, experience, and support in this field of work: “He’s not a college professional, and that’s good for people here who didn’t finish high school and need encouragement. He’s inspiring to local farmers. People here start thinking they can do it too.”