local church, economics, flourishing, common good

The rest is in the pages of Common Good.


Already a subscriber? Sign in.

A Pastor Started a Farm

After performing 30 funerals for possibly preventable deaths during his first year in small-town North Carolina, pastor Richard Joyner set out to find a path toward healing for both congregants and the community. Decades later, here’s how a small Baptist congregation and its neighbors are reaping physical and social wellbeing.

In his first year as pastor at Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Conetoe, North Carolina, Richard Joyner performed 30 funerals.

That’s a remarkable number given that the hamlet’s population hovers around 350. Even worse, most of the sickness and death Joyner witnessed among people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s was rooted in preventable diseases. A doctor friend from an area hospital, where Joyner served as a chaplain, told him that more than 90 percent of the maladies literally killing his flock were treatable health problems. 

“This is not the way it should be,” Joyner lamented. 

When Joyner arrived in Conetoe (pronounced “koh-NEE-tah”) more than 20 years ago, he found a community devastated by poverty. Today, poverty and unemployment remain huge issues, but community spirit is stronger. That spirit is largely rooted in the way families from the church and the community have come together to respond to one of their greatest challenges: living in a food desert. 

The U.S.D.A. defines food deserts as “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” In Conetoe, the nearest grocery store is an eight-mile walk away. 

For the last 15 years, community members have looked beyond the region’s needs and capitalized on its principal asset: land. They’ve put over 35 acres into cultivation and started a revolution in how residents eat. The results are seen today in both improved physical health and what scholars call “social capital” — and what residents label more simply, “neighborliness.” 

Overcoming the Legacy of the Land 

Conetoe sits on the eastern edge of Edgecombe County. Edgecombe has the highest rate of diabetes of North Carolina’s 100 counties, according to state data, and it ranks 96 in overall health outcomes. Average household income sits at just $21,000. The rural community is predominantly Black, though an increasing number of Hispanic families have moved in in recent years. The county’s substantial economic challenges have deep roots in racism and oppression. 

When Joyner reached a point of despair over the community’s entrenched poverty and ill health in 2005, he wanted to run away. But he remembered his father’s example and he asked God to show him a way forward. He felt like God told him to open his eyes and look around. And what Joyner saw was untilled farmland. 

The vision was unwelcome.

Joyner resisted because he had grown up dirt poor with 12 siblings, sharecropping alongside his mom and dad. The labor was hot, brutally hard, and the earnings meager. While the crop was in the ground, Joyner recalls, it belonged to his dad. “Once it reached the market it changed names,” Joyner explained in a 2017 interview with National Public Radio. “The profit of that product never really came back to my father, back to us, on the farm.” The injustice rankled bitterly. At age 18, Joyner vowed he’d exit eastern North Carolina and never return. The army provided his way out. 

But here he was, decades later in Edgecombe County, and God was showing him a way forward. 

Joyner visited a biotech center at a nearby university. Somewhat to his chagrin, they told him that growing healthy food on unused land was indeed a plausible solution to his community’s ill health. They helped him draw up rough plans for a summer program engaging youth in agrobusiness. Joyner identified an untilled two-acre plot located roughly a quarter-mile from the church and contacted the owner, who turned it over for the church to use.

Joyner announced the new summer initiative from the pulpit of Conetoe Chapel, but he admits that he hoped no kids would show up. Almost 100 arrived.

Looking back, Joyner remembers that first summer as “tremendous.” “Our kids fell in love with growing food,” he told a podcaster a few years ago. The campers and their family members consumed the vegetables grown that first year, and the next year a larger harvest gave the young farmers a chance to deliver produce to some of the elderly citizens in the area. Joyner recounted to Modern Farmer how one woman was so overcome with joy and gratitude,  that she kissed the kids. “That was the first time in a long time I witnessed anybody speaking a blessing over our troubled children,” he said.

Reimaging Food and Farming

Some adults in Joyner’s flock, though, were less enthusiastic. Those with painful personal memories of the legacy of Black oppression were leery of sending their children and grandchildren into the fields. Joyner emphasized that the youth would be working, not for someone else, but for themselves and their loved ones. 

He also stressed the health benefits of having locally grown produce in light of one simple, if painful, fact: that the tiny community of Conetoe was not going to get a grocery store. 

Joyner started what he called “Healthy Sundays,” wherein once per month he or a friend of his, a nutritionist from East Carolina University, would preach on topics related to healthy eating. 

These messages not only deepened the adults’ understanding, they convinced kids in the congregation that the deaths of elders they cared for might have been prevented by lifestyle changes. A cadre of teens followed Joyner in learning how to grow and prepare healthy food. Teens like Tobias Hopkins, who told Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership magazine that he watched two uncles and a cousin, all under age 50, die of strokes. The younger congregants respected Joyner’s holistic ministry. He taught them that “spirituality is not complete until it reaches the whole person,” and then he modeled the conviction by throwing himself into practical efforts to address poverty, substandard housing, and poor health. 

In 2007, Joyner established the Conetoe Family Life Center as a sister nonprofit to the church. Its official mission statement is to “improve the health of the youth and community by increasing access to healthy foods, increasing physical activities, and providing access to health services.” Joyner told it to me in February in slightly different words. “At the end of the day, how do we make every home a better place for children to grow up in, a community where seniors can retire, and we can all live healthy?”

Joyner says the land — despite its association with past oppression — can have spiritual significance. He told Faith and Leadership, “The garden is a beautiful, spiritual sanctuary that we play in, eat in, educate in, and change our lives in.” He himself has experienced God’s presence and healing in the verdant fields.

The earthy yet spiritual sanctuary has expanded steadily since the initial two-acre plot. Other landowners have donated parcels up to 25 acres. Farm manager Martina Lopez reports there are more than 35 acres under cultivation in two main locations. 

The farm has received donated equipment and enjoys a steady stream of volunteers. Vidant Edgecombe Hospital invested $2,000 in the center’s inaugural year. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) contributed $15,000 in 2007. A donation from the Futrell-Mauldin Foundation for Greater Rocky Mount enabled the center to purchase its first tractor. And a variety of grants have helped to underwrite the center’s summer camp and college scholarship program. 

Joyner also gifts his salary from the church to the Family Life Center. And he’s donated a number of cash prizes he’s received from groups recognizing his work, including a $25,000 award from Encore.com. The center’s current executive director, Helen Collins, estimates that 20 percent of its budget is raised through sales at farmers markets and through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions. 

From the outset, Joyner has used the farm as a mechanism for teaching science, math, and life skills alongside growing kids’ practical knowledge about food and nutrition. 

The flagship program has been an eight-week summer day camp for kids of all ages. Instructors are a mix of local professional teachers and student-teachers. Indoor lessons in science and math are focused around a weekly, farm-related theme. Out in the fields, kids apply their math skills hands-on to various tasks like calculating yields or measuring seeds.

The summer program enables attendees to grow food that helps reduce the family grocery bill. Collins says their goal is to cut household grocery expenses in half. Earlier this year, the center gave some 500 baby chickens and turkeys to local families, along with feed and instructions on how to care for the birds. The chicks were donated from individual farms around the mid-Atlantic region that have bought into the center’s vision. One of the center’s nonprofit partners from adjoining Nash County trains recipients in the safe processing of the poultry. The end result for local families is access to fresh, healthy meat. 

Overall, about 50 percent of the farm’s produce is marketed. Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist provides storage and a kitchen where kids prep the veggies for farmers markets. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the center’s CSA program had close to 200 subscribers. The other half of the fresh produce was given away. 

Joyner rejoices in how the center’s youth participants are learning about even more than math, science, agriculture, and nutrition. They are experiencing how good it feels to be contributors. “It’s good for these kids to grow veggies and deliver those to senior citizens,” he says. The affirmation they receive from grateful neighbors “touches the soul of these children.” 

No items found.

“Our goal is, at the end of the day, how do we make every home a better place for children to grow up in, a community where seniors can retire, and we can all live healthy.”

Richard Joyner

Enterprising Youth 

By 10 years in, about 80 young people were helping Joyner and a number of local adults to run the Family Life Center’s farming operation, which CNN reported was producing more than 50,000 pounds of fresh food annually. Kids were learning how to identify different kinds of plants, testing soil, and trying new foods. Joyner admits he was surprised by the kids’ enthusiasm. He didn’t expect so many to be willing to get up at 6 a.m. and go work in a garden. 

When participating teens approached Joyner several years ago with the idea of adding honey production to the farming operation, Joyner was decidedly against it. “The bee operation was their idea,” he told a CNN reporter in 2015. “They found out that vegetables pollinated with bees grow better. I really didn’t want the bees. … But I got outvoted.”  

Joyner reached out to Barry Hines, a master beekeeper in the area. Hines told Joyner that he would donate one hive to the Family Life Center if someone from the organization went through the process of getting certified in beekeeping. A dozen youth completed the training, including a 9-year-old named Tatiana. At 17, Tobias Hopkins was the oldest. He admitted to CNN that he was a little nervous at first. But he soon discovered that “work with the bees is calm’’ and “it actually can be easier than working with humans.” 

The center acquired an old school bus, and youth remodeled it as the centerpiece of the beekeeping operation. At the height of the honey-making operation, the youth were tending over 120 hives, producing about 5,000 pounds of “Blessed Bee” honey annually. They also served as the salesforce, visiting local stores and restaurants to encourage them to purchase honey and sell it on their shelves. Money earned came back to the youth. Some went for school supplies and clothing and another portion toward college scholarships. 

Major flooding in Edgecombe County in October 2016 devastated the operation. “Our beekeeping operation has had a lot of challenges,” Joyner says. But he thinks this has taught youth important lessons about resilience. 

Now, within the constraints of the pandemic, only about 10 kids are active in the beekeeping. During the last honey season, they produced about 125 gallons out of 30 hives. They sell mainly through farmer’s markets but also tried getting into online sales last year. “That has not worked out very well for us,” Collins admits. They quickly learned that shipping costs were prohibitive and cut out their profit margin. These days, staff and youth are brainstorming what to do with the beekeeping operation going forward.

An Asset-Based Approach

Joyner has long been known for his entrepreneurial spirit. He once convinced business owners to let him use their vacant buildings for youth-run car washes. His eyes are always open to new opportunities and potential partners. It’s paid off as he has developed a network of supporters and partners across the eastern half of North Carolina. Collins reports that the center connects with nearly 100 congregations across the region. Members from a variety of churches volunteer on weekends at the farm. Some congregations have provided funds to purchase farm and kitchen equipment. Two churches in nearby Rocky Mount serve as distribution centers. 

Joyner brings an asset-based mentality to his work. He wants to help people get beyond a “can’t, won’t, or don’t-have” attitude. He thinks the Conetoe community is wealthier than it may think it is. “We have to reframe poverty,” he told Faith and Leadership. “When the system talks about poverty, they start from what you don’t have. If you start from what I don’t have, you can’t help me build on what I do have.” 

He focuses on the resources at hand, and how others can build on those.  “Overcoming dependency is hard,” he admits. The community has received help from well-meaning outsiders for decades, but not much has changed. But his goal is for the Family Life Center to “work ourselves out of a job” as the community members become more self-sustaining. “I believe if you really want to see a thriving environment, then let the community run it and manage it, and let the rest of us support it,” he says. “I think we got too many institutions trying to run stuff that they don’t live in.” 

Challenges, Accomplishments

The pandemic has taken a toll on the center. Revenue from produce sales is down, with local stores purchasing less honey and only about 100 subscribers in the last CSA season. Far fewer youth have been able participate in its activities. Whereas the summers typically saw 50 to 65 kids engaged, these days only six to eight kids are onsite regularly. These are there to avail themselves of the center’s internet access for doing their schoolwork.  

Adult participation in farm activities, though, has been increasing. Lopez says she’s joined most days by about 20 helpers. A handful, like 80-something Minnie Bunch, are from Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Bunch demonstrates a formidable work ethic. 

“When she gets started on something,” Collins says, “she does not want to quit until she finishes.” Bunch’s story encapsulates much of what Joyner envisioned when he launched the center. “She used to be on all this medication — taking something like 20 pills a day,” Collins explains. After she started working in the gardens and eating healthier, she was able to decrease that to only two or three pills a day. 

Staff at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine tracked changes in congregation and community members’ health over the first decade of the center’s work, and Kerry Hannon, a journalist for the New York Times, reported on that research. 

“As healthy eating and exercise have become routine, people in the community have lost weight, emergency room visits for primary health care have dropped by 40 percent, and the number of deaths has dwindled,” Hannon writes. Those trends have continued. From 2012 to 2017, for example, visits to Vidant Edgecombe Hospital’s emergency room, which serves as the de-facto primary care center for many poor parishioners, decreased by 75 percent. Modern Farmer magazine reported a few years ago that collectively, the 250 or so members of Joyner’s congregation “spends $4,000 less on medication per quarter than it did a decade ago. 

Joyner says he’s seen health consciousness “really grow” among the church youth. Even if not all his older members change their ways, he’s hopeful that the younger ones will avoid chronic disease by learning now to practice healthy eating and exercise. 

Joyner presides over far fewer funerals now. He can point to people whose lives have been saved because of changes in their diet. Yet he rejoices equally over what he calls its “social development.” He has seen bridges grow across generations, as old and young work together in the fields, and he marvels at the strong, caring relationships of trust and mutual support that have been built between Black and Latino families. “That’s the core of real community,” he says. “We created something here that unites us.”   

“We have to reframe poverty. ... If you start from what I don’t have, you can’t help me build on what I do have.”
This story is from Common Good issue
Related Articles
All Articles >>>
No items found.
good things come to
those in print

Scrolling works but it doesn't compare to that real-life, ink-and-paper feel.

No one said the conversations that matter should be easy. And no one said you have to enter them alone.