Conetoe Family Life Center: Rural Missionary Baptist Church Starts Farm as a Business and Ministry

Conetoe, population 365, is a small town on the eastern edge of Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Edgecombe has the highest rate of diabetes of North Carolina’s 100 counties, and it ranks 96 in overall health outcomes. The congregation of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church witnessed this health epidemic on a weekly basis, as well as the challenges of unemployment (within the congregation, around 65%) and low educational attainment. In 2007, Reverend James Joyner and other church members started the Conetoe Family Life Center, which provides mentorship, resources, and after-school programs to the town’s youth. In its search for a project that would inspire and educate youth, the Center piloted a two-acre community garden. The outcomes were promising: youth had the opportunity to learn science, math, and food production skills, regular volunteers started losing weight and cooking more meals at home, and community members took interest and began sharing their farming knowledge and under-used farm equipment.

In the past few years, the program has grown into a full-fledged vegetable farm of more than fifteen acres, with partner plots elsewhere in town and in nearby counties. The farm grows produce and makes honey for farmers’ markets in Rocky Mount, Raleigh, Tarrboro, and Greenville and for the local Piggly Wiggly. Income from the project goes into scholarship funds for the youth members, and in the spring of 2012, the first set of the program’s alumni graduated from college. Today, fifty-eight Conetoe youth ranging from five to seventeen years old are part of the program, and twenty-five of them are members of the Center’s Youth Council. Members of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church have been instrumental in the program’s early years, donating their time to tutor, their land to farm, and the church’s kitchen and cold storage space for processing vegetables before market.

I spent an afternoon at the farm in May and got a tour from James Joyner, one of the lead farm managers. James  (left) grew up in Conetoe and retired last year. His father was a sharecropper, and he says that despite his family’s agricultural background, he has learned a tremendous amount about unconventional farming from his few years with this project. At the back of the main rows of cabbage, squash, and broccoli is a big pile of vermiculture compost with cottonseed. Beside it sits a school bus full of bee hives. James and others are experimenting with growing Asian radishes and other specialty items for the market in Raleigh, and this summer they hope to build a high tunnel. James’ younger brother, Reverend Richard Joyner, serves as the pastor of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and directs Conetoe Family Life Center. Reverend Joyner spoke to me about the challenges in Conetoe and why his congregation had embarked on this project.

SG: Why did you start this project?

RJ: We started out with goal to [address] food shortage, human development, the health crisis, and struggling families. We’ve just been trying to meet the basic needs of this community for food, for health, for social functionability, and for educating our kids and [encouraging] workforce development by making sure they’re strong on science, math, and reading.

When the kids get out of school [in the afternoon], we want this to be their classroom. They work with all the plants, work with the bees, the vermiculture, and the soil. They study the genetic history of plants and they look at the  health value of plants based on what the genetic health challenges are of their families. So they learn how to grow those plants healthy, how to prepare those vegetables, and how to eat healthy portions. Because they know if we’re gonna come out of poverty, they have to be educated, they have to be physically healthy, and they have to be socially connected.

SG: How do you talk to youth about food justice and food access?

RJ: We talk to them about family: ‘How’s your family doing? What are some of the things that you can help take off the back of your families? What will that look like?’ So they come out here, and they get enough food out of the garden to prepare food for the whole weekend for their family. We get chickens from Purdue and those are given to the kids to take home and help prepare their weekend meals. So they take the whole food bill out of the weekend for their families, and they begin to soften the bill during the week. They begin to eat healthier, and now they don’t have to go to the dentist as much and they don’t have to do a lot of other stuff [for their health].

Now there is more money in the family, and there is more happiness in the family because the parents realize: ‘Our kids are really doing something!’ We see more parents coming out now because of what their kids are doing. And the kids are talking to their parents: ‘Mom and Dad, you need to quit smoking, and we need to lose some weight. If we don’t stay healthy, we ain’t gonna be here for each other.’

…This here is about relationships. You hear kids say: ‘I might not stay in Conetoe but I’m always going to send resources back to other kids.’ We’re graduating five from college this year. If we keep doing that, if we get thirty people graduating from college…they’re committed to saying ‘Hey. I remember what happened with me. I gotta make sure other kids make it.”

The fun part [of the garden] is that [the kids create] a whole different relationship. It’s not about competition anymore. It’s not about trying to outdo you. We tell kids that when you’re planting, don’t try to get to the end of the row before anyone else. The goal of it is that we plant everything and everyone come along.

SG: Why is this something faith communities should care about it, and how does it diverge from the charity model?

RJ: We believe there’s a different way of entrepreneurship. Rather than exchanging of money, there’s an exchanging of relationships. What I’ve found is that strong social relationships will produce an income. That income is healthy children, healthy families, and healthy communities. So we [start] spending a lot less of our money on juvenile problems, court problems, and [kinds of] pleasure that really do not build good social communities. When we begin to move away from those things, we’ll begin to have a lot more cash flow than what we think.

SG: How do you deal with disinterest or resistance from folks who grew up in agriculture and don’t want to take part in it?

RJ: I’m one of them who didn’t have any interest in coming back! But we just say, “Hey this is different”. People get food here but also it’s therapy. I have a real stressful job as a chaplain, but I come out here in the evenings after work and just walk and it’s very peaceful. You can come out and walk a mile a day [on our] walking path…I invite people to come out here not to work but just to experience the open space. Because it’s not work; it’s freedom to come out here…and this is beautiful!

SG: What would you like to see more of?

RJ: I would like to see more collaboration in the northeast part of North Carolina, because it’s not just one area that’s suffering and we’re not going to be sustainable in our isolated locales. We’re going to have to partner with [other projects] in the process of doing human development. If we’re not seeing the health of our communities rising, then at the end of the day, we have not done anything. We need to see more cohesive families maintaining their health; we need to see more people learning how to have good social relationships; we need to see more relationships across race, gender, and faith. We need to eradicate those walls.”

Learn more about the Conetoe Family Life Center from this one-page flier.

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