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Gloved and intent, Gabrielle Eitienne and Gerald Harris pull apart tangles of herbs. They sort them into piles, determining what’s what by smell and sight: cilantro, oregano, sage, mint. Soon, the scent in the Pine Knot Farms shed is an olfactory cocktail, as Hughes peels an orange and the wind picks up, blowing empty boxes off the truck bed a few steps away. Those boxes will soon each hold a dozen fresh eggs and Pine Knot’s trademark sweet potatoes, then gradually fill up with the vegetables of this in-between season: kale, mustard greens, bundles of collards, leaves as broad as fans—the bounty from five farms, ready for pickup.
What’s happening here is a new community-supported agriculture (CSA) service, the Tall Grass Food Box, featuring the produce of black farmers around the state’s Triangle region. It was an idea among friends, who hustled to organize the CSA in about a week and a half as the coronavirus crisis hit: Eitienne, a cook and cultural preservationist; Harris, a university administrator interested in food sovereignty; and Derrick Beasley, an artist and cofounder of Black August, a showcase for black food producers, business, and creativity held annually in Durham. “We were asking ourselves, Who’s taking care of black farmers? How can we support them?” says Harris.
Leach and Hughes didn’t blink when asked to participate. Sitting in the couple’s gleaming kitchen, Hughes estimates that 50 percent of their sales comes from farmers markets, now disallowed under North Carolina’s stay-at-home order.
But Pine Knot specializes in survival. It’s a rare “century farm,” acreage bought in 1912 by Hughes’s grandfather. As Hughes puts it, “I’ve been farming as long as I’ve been black”—all of his 71 years. Pine Knot is among the best-known small farms in North Carolina, and the first black-owned one in the state to be certified organic, in 1996—when few farmers of any race earned the designation. Hughes became one of the country’s pioneers of organic tobacco. Gourmet proclaimed his collards a national treasure in 2003, and his sweet potatoes draw competitors’ envy.
“Everybody wants to know how he cures his sweet potatoes,” says Leach with an emphatic nod, speaking of the process that makes the vegetables storable for months. “He won’t tell it to anybody—except for me.”
Pine Knot’s longevity is also unusual in a state where black land dispossession is a century-long and ongoing tale. Hurdle Mills was once dotted with African American homesteads. Driving the verdant route there, about 30 minutes from Durham, I saw more than a few rural-gentrifying McMansions. “You can hardly find a black full-time farmer here for the next 10 miles,” says Hughes.
As we speak on a sunny day, rain has delayed spring planting by two weeks. That’s not an insurmountable problem, and workers are now “cutting the land,” prepping the fields.
Hughes epitomizes the farmer as working-class scientist. He reels off the soil sugar levels tobacco needs to thrive, the names of sweet potato varieties beyond the orange Beauregards in a supermarket near you, and the price a 40-pound box of his favorite tubers is fetching (about $30). Leach handles paying the bills and other business matters. Together, they’re always looking for new revenue streams.
Eitienne is thrilled that the Tall Grass Food Box will contain Pine Knot’s Murasaki white sweet potatoes. If people talked about sweet potatoes like they talk about wine, the Murasakis would be described as having “notes of brown sugar.”
Food can comfort and connect in hard times. Eitienne shares her favorite sweet potato soup recipe: “I’ll soften up some leeks with butter, maybe some carrots. Then I put in the boiled sweet potatoes, or I’ll roast them depending on how much time I have. I’ll puree and thin it out with beef stock. And then I’ll finish it with a little good olive oil or chive oil. Maybe I’ll use wild yard chives or some fresh thyme.”
Leach shares her tip for sweet potato pie: Use the Murasakis and a packet of instant vanilla pudding to hold it together. Imparting that knowledge, she smiles at Beasley, Etienne, and Harris, lined up in front of her. “I appreciate what you’re doing,” Leach says. “I’m looking at millionaires now, and you’re going to do it with black farmers.”
The CSA sold 30-odd boxes in its inaugural week, and there’s room to expand. Beasley defines success in material and community terms, and the current crisis as an opportunity beyond accumulation: making sure black farmers are visible, paying them fair retail prices upfront, getting fresh produce to people, helping consumers think outside grocery stores, creating new markets that are friendly and beneficial to both producers and customers of color. “There’s enough for all of us,” he says.
“Oh, there’s enough for all,” agrees Leach. And shouldn’t black farmers and small businesses have a bigger share? The Lord wants us to speak success, she says. “Everybody can get a slice of the pie. The sweet potato pie.”
Something Is Happening Here is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, offering scenes from a pandemic—a series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends. Edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, it will appear weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.