Trista Talton and Catherine Kozak, two freelance reporters for Coastal Review Online, recently spent a week with other journalists on a tour of North Carolina that highlighted some of the state’s most-pressing environmental issues. The tour was sponsored by the Institute of Journalism & Natural Resources in Missoula, Mont. This is the first of their two reports.
SNOW HILL – Ossie Kearney spoke in a soft voice, his words drawling out as if he was keeping pace with the rate at which his crops grow.
His first name was stitched in white across the right breast of his faded navy blue coveralls zipped up to just below his neck.
I wondered what some of the other journalists, fellows of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources’ North Carolina Institute, were thinking when the Greene County farmer uttered his greetings and exchanged hearty handshakes.
He obligingly answered our questions about the renovated farmhouse turned bed and breakfast in which we stood, stretching our legs after a more than two-hour bus ride from Durham.
Eighteen journalists piled on a bus and spent a week touring central and eastern North Carolina learning about key environmental issues. Photos: Adam Hinterhuer, IJNR
Ossie, pronounced “au-see,” and his wife, Mary Betty, bought the house in 1998 and had it moved from where it stood more than 100 years 10 miles south to their farm Nooherooka Natural in Snow Hill. The farm is named after a Tuscarora Indian site in Greene County.
It was there, on a cold, gray day in early March that they welcomed the 18 journalists, eager to share how they managed to keep the family farm viable in the wake of the tobacco buyout.
We were a diverse bunch professionally, representing every medium – newspapers, radio, television, magazines and online publications. Our ages and experience ranged from fresh-out-of-college to veteran environmental reporters.
Led by a trio of institute administrators, we were about halfway through a weeklong road trip on a coach bus that took us from the Research Triangle Park near Raleigh east to the Outer Banks.
Our journey to the Kearneys was prefaced earlier that day by a discussion about growing concerns over pesticides used in farming. Researchers continue to study the effects of exposure to these toxins and the impacts they have on the environment.
As we headed to Snow Hill to visit the Kearneys, I settled back in my seat near the rear of the bus and gazed out of my window as we rolled eastbound from the city to the flat, familiar farmland of my youth.
We traveled on a blacktop that cut through miles of crop fields edged by woods, a patchwork quilt of earth stitched by tractors and chainsaws.
We passed concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, industrial farms where animals are kept and raised in confined areas.
These larger operations produce several times over the volume of grass-fed cattle and pigs raised at Nooherooka, whose customers include farm-to-table restaurants, markets and individuals who prefer to eat all-natural protein.
“We do a niche market,” Ossie Kearney said. “We don’t try to compete.”
The demand far outweighs the domestic supply in a country where only about 1 percent of a population of more than 313 million people claim farming as an occupation.
Through their molasses-thick, southern drawl, the Kearneys revealed why they chose to sidestep more traditional farming methods and create an eco- and agri-tourism attraction.
It began with an observation in a shopping mall.
Kearney was sitting in a Greenville shopping center, people watching to pass the time while his grandchildren browsed the stores, when he thought to himself that young people today appear to be more physically developed than when he was a boy. Could it be a sign of hormones added to the meat they’re eating, he wondered.
“We have never used that stuff and we never will,” he said.
The Kearneys grow and harvest the food they feed their cattle. They get skim milk from a neighboring organic dairy farm to feed and fatten their pigs.
Most of the farmers in the area try to help each other out despite the fact that several of their neighbors think what the Kearney family doing is “crazy,” Mary Betty said.
At various stops in Eastern North Carolina, the journalists talked with experts about various environmental issues. Photo: Adam Hinterhuer, IJNR
Crazy? The buzzword of the day among our group was “progressive.”
We filed outside on the invitation to see the animals. Thirty-one sets of large, dark eyes peered curiously at our procession as we followed Kearney along a dirt and gravel path alongside a pasture.
The cattle, Black Angus weighing anywhere from 600 to 900 pounds each, instinctively gravitated to the yard cart and its driver. It was clear they knew that Kearney is the man who brings the food.
The pasture they were in was nearly barren. Plans to move them to a different, grass-covered field earlier in the week were stifled thanks to wet weather.
A short distance away we heard pigs squealing. Kearney led us to the squat, smelly animals and continued to answer our questions over their grunts and oinks.
“They’re so cute,” one reporter said as she snapped pictures.
I smiled. As a child, I loved it when hogs that were once raised on my family’s small Wayne County farm had piglets. My sister and I delighted in cuddling the small, shrieking babies as if they were kittens.
The pigs are the newest commodities at Nooherooka. This is a farm where the progressive-minded continue to seek out ways to offer natural alternatives on the table.
“We’re still looking into doing things in a different way,” Mary Betty Kearney said.