County Durham’s first food security coordinator has big plans

MAri Oxendine, Durham County’s first food security coordinator, arrived at Hawk’s Nest Healing Gardens on the penultimate day of August. Pines, pecan trees, and willow oaks lined the gardens, casting a dappled light on Oxendine as she walked down the driveway.

There she meets Phoebe Gooding, who owns the Hawk’s Nest with her husband. Named for the red-shouldered hawks that roost in the surrounding pines, the backyard project includes a medicinal garden as well as community plots, a high tunnel and a chicken coop.

“I call her my star sister,” Gooding says of Oxendine. The pair were mistaken for relatives; both have curly hair and light eyes. In the first year of Oxendine’s reign, she provided Gooding with a grant to purchase soil for the public gardens. They have since become close friends.

Oxendine visits small farms like Gooding’s as part of a new Durham County Cooperative Extension initiative to get 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’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Manufacturing has awarded a $167,015 grant to evaluate the feasibility of the project.

Among other things, this includes finding a neighboring plot of land to build the campus, scouting for people to join the program, and organizing meetings to determine how it will meet the needs of the community. The Durham community includes many resettled refugees who have strong agricultural backgrounds but are unfamiliar with North Carolina’s climate and access to land.

As a food security coordinator, Oxendine sees the role of farmers in building a local food system. Still, land redistribution is a far cry from Oxendine’s original, if 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 nonprofits 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 came to a standstill as lines formed outside some locations. On the other side of the crisis, farmers dumped produce amid distribution and labor shortages. The county saw the need for someone who could address those gaps.

Oxendine had spent the past 12 years as a health policy analyst at the Research Triangle Institute, working at the National Hunger Commission, and had recently begun a 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 meal sites” that serve children when school is out. She hoped her next position would bring her closer to the people she helped.

“I saw how nutrition is connected to so many things,” says Oxendine. “It’s a culture. It’s a community. These could be job opportunities.”

Phoebe Gooding and Mary Oxendine. Photo by Zach Turner.

back at Hawk’s Nest, farming and community go hand in hand. Gooding’s husband, Hector Lopez, leads monthly temescal ceremonies here, where water is poured over hot stones in their pot to produce steam in a healing ritual.

Lopez and other community members built the lodge from Bradford pear branches they collected from the farm, bending them into a wooden dome. The interior smells of burlap bags that cover its floor; at the top the limbs meet to form a star.

“You have to build that in the community,” Gooding says. “No man can do this alone.”

A similar philosophy governs community gardens, where members exchange seeds and tend each other’s plots. Last year, Oxendine rented his own plot in the Hawk’s Nest Community Gardens. It has given her a chance to reconnect with the land of North Carolina in a way she hasn’t experienced since childhood. In return, the earth gave her a pumpkin.

“I almost cried while 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 a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, but her connection to the land and food began at 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 uncle’s garden while he ground (and later slaughtered) his pigs. Oxendine remembers sitting in the shade of her grandmother’s plum tree and picking fruit from its branches.

But access to land is a major obstacle for people interested in farming, even if they have the necessary skills. The land was once tended by the Eno, Occaneechi, and Tuscarora peoples, a group to which Oxendine belongs, as do the Lumbee.

After white settlers forcibly removed the indigenous population, enslaved black people worked the soil. They were never given the land that the federal government had promised them, and much of what they could secure was lost. In 1910, black North Carolinians owned 3 million acres of farmland. By 2017, it was below 100,000 acres.

County Durham was no exception to this trend. Farmers sold their land and took jobs in the growing metropolitan area. In just over a century, total farmland has shrunk to 13 percent of what it was in 1910. Today, black residents make up over a third of the county, but black-owned operations account for only 4 percent of Durham’s total farms district.

“One of the big ultimate goals is more farms in County Durham,” says county consultant John Little, “run by people who haven’t had as many opportunities in the past.”

Little lists black and indigenous people, people of color, young people, gender-identifying women, veterans, immigrants, refugees, former justices and low-income people among those targeted for the program.

There are four parts to the Farm Campus plan: an incubator farm, post-harvest training, a value-added facility and a healing garden. The current feasibility study will inform what comes next, but is likely to lead to interviews and site visits to farmers already growing on a small scale. Project managers envision farmers signing an agreement to cultivate about one-half to two acres.

Extension agents will also help maintain a demonstration farm and teach classes on building hoop houses, setting up irrigation, and running a successful farm business.

Most of the Farm Campus will not be open to the public, but the healing garden will be available 24/7. Oxendine describes it as a place for people to “heal their connection to the land” and grow herbs and medicines, two resources that are usually more expensive to purchase.

Loofah Flower in the Hawk’s Nest. Photo by Zachary Turner.

County Durham recently contracted with real estate consulting firm HR&A Advisors to find 80 acres for the farm. Once a site is found, the County Extension Office will apply for grants, seek donations and explore land banks and land conservancies as potential sources of funding. So far, many prospective spaces have either proven too hilly, contain wetlands that already provide vital services to the county like absorbing and filtering stormwater, or are not within walking distance of a bus stop.

“We can work with maybe a steep slope in one part of it,” says Oxendine. “Other local cultures farmed on steep hills and made a step pattern.”

There are still many questions the Farm Campus group needs to answer, including how urban 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 just producing food.

“I’m reconnecting with the earth and these practices,” says Oxendine, “understanding how I really take care of myself. How can I have a sisterhood with these plants? You can’t call someone you don’t know your sister.

She hopes others can build their own relationships with County Durham’s soil.

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