Story by Sinclair Holian
for UNC media hub
It’s a September day on Pine Knot Farms in Hurdle Mills, north of Durham. A cool breeze cuts through the lingering late-summer humidity, carrying the twinkling of wind chimes and clucks of chickens across sun-soaked tobacco fields. At the center of the property is a two-story home, its log foundation built by hand. In the front yard, an oak tree reaches into the sky, with roots more than a century old.
One hundred eleven years ago, the farm’s founder Fletcher Hughes walked upon this soil. And three generations of Black farmers later, it’s the same soil his 75-year-old grandson, Stanley Hughes, tends today. From the raised front porch of that main house, the land as far as you can see belongs to Hughes.
That same land — all 125 acres — is also at risk.
North Carolina could lose more than 1 million acres of farmland to development by 2040, according to the American Farmland Trust. For Pine Knot Farms that threat is compounded, as the number of the state’s Black-owned farms continues to dwindle. The 2017 Census reported that North Carolina’s Black farmers owned a mere 3 percent of farms — just 1,500 farms of the state’s more than 46,000.
For Hughes, with developers at his doorstep, these numbers represent something more: an ominous threat to livelihood and legacy.
Hughes doesn’t have any memories of his grandfather, Fletcher. But thinking back to the motivation behind the farm’s founding, he imagines his grandfather growing tired of sharecropping, and yearning for “the opportunity to get his own.”
The sentiment rang true for Black Americans across the country. In the years after the emancipation of enslaved people, formerly-enslaved Black farmers wanting their own land were confined by exploitative sharecropping practices. But they persisted, and acre by acre their farmland was hard-earned, even against the backdrop of the Jim Crow-era’s racial violence. By 1910, Black-owned farmland across the country peaked at 16 million acres. Two years later, in 1912, Fletcher founded Pine Knot Farms.
Tobacco was Fletcher’s first crop. The farm supported three families, including Stanley’s mother, Addie, and his father, Bennie Hughes. By the time Bennie and Addie welcomed their 12th and final son — Stanley — in 1948, Bennie had taken over the farm’s operations.
The baby of the family, Stanley grew up watching his older brothers work the farm. Even as a child, he was already eager to do “a man’s job.”
“When my brother would be plowing,” he said, “I would run up under him and grab the handles to the plow.”
The grown-up work came fast. The farm was a family operation, and all 12 children were expected to play a part. Back then, tobacco paid the bills, while the children’s days were filled with mowing hay, scraping cow manure from the stables, heaving water from the well and splitting logs with a powder wedge, an explosive device that often sent them scattering for safety.
As the Hughes children grew older, one-by-one they left the farm. Finally, Stanley was the only one left. With his parents aging and siblings gone, Pine Knot Farms’ responsibilities — and legacy — fell to him.
Now, Hughes’ dog, Lola, trots behind him as the pair begin another day on the family land.
The days on Pine Knot start before sunrise. The farm is now certified organic; Hughes still grows tobacco, but now also produces sweet potatoes, kale, broccoli and cabbage and raises chickens and hogs. Gourmet Magazine featured his collards as among the best in the country.
It’s an endless cycle of harvesting, packaging, irrigating, traveling to farmers markets and cleaning up. Plans can change on the hour, and most days are hectic.
For a time, Hughes balanced farming with a career in manufacturing, rising before the sun to maintain the farm, heading to his second-shift job at 3 p.m. and arriving home near midnight. By the end of the 90’s, the manufacturing business closed, and he shifted to farming full-time.
Today, Hughes lives with his wife of 16 years, Linda Leach-Hughes, in one of the property’s original homes, just across the street from the house he was raised in. The pair balances each other — Linda’s crystal-clear voice and “strong Type A personality” against Stanley’s humility and soft-spoken nature.
While Stanley spends his days tending to the land, Linda, who spent 30 years in education before retiring, manages the mountain of paperwork that comes with modern farming. Her daily planner is brimming with to-do lists. At any given moment, she’s crossing t’s and dotting i’s on documentation for inspectors, water and soil tests, or writing invoices. It’s labor intensive, she said, but necessary to keep the farm up to the meticulous certified organic standards.
Like Stanley’s grandfather and father before him, working his own land has a clear appeal: “When I first started, you could be your own boss and do what you want,” he said.
But the industry has changed. “Now you got to listen to everybody else,” he said. “All these inspectors and guidelines. Now you don’t get the pleasure out of doing what you want to do.”
It’s more than the demands of organic certification. In 1997, a Black farmer from Cumberland County, Timothy Pigford, was joined by two other Black farmers in filing a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture. The suit, Pigford v. Glickman, claimed that the USDA discriminated against Black farmers, who were denied loans, waited longer for loan approval and faced worse loan terms than white farmers.
Stanley said he experienced this discriminatory treatment firsthand. Years after returning to farming full-time, he planned an expansion for the farm and sought loans for support from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). At first, Stanley said the agency approved his request. But shortly after, he was suddenly told the loan was no longer available. After that, he said, every loan application he submitted was denied.
Even more, Stanley said his account was “supervised,” or subjected to added scrutiny by his white loan officer. According to the opinion by Judge Paul Friedman in Pigford v. Glickman, this “requirement (was) frequently required of African American farmers but not routinely imposed on white farmers.”
Those loans were essential. Without the money that was initially promised, Stanley was forced to shutter his hog operation in 2007. That farmland, about 50 acres inherited from his mother, was foreclosed for good.
The loss was devastating. Yet, it was not a unique tragedy for Black farmers, who were losing land at a breakneck speed. By 1997, Black farmers lost more than 90 percent of the 16 million acres they once owned in 1910, in part due to discriminatory loan practices, according to a study by the American Bar Association.
In 1999, the parties in the Pigford case reached the largest civil rights settlement in American history; it was announced that Black farmers demonstrating damages from the USDA could earn up to a $50,000 remedy.
Even so, debt relief was out of reach for most claimants. The language about eligibility, filing dates and two separate payment tracks was complex and confusing, and many Black farmers got nothing. Hoping for a financial remedy, Stanley filed a claim of his own.
“We didn’t receive a dime,” he said. Most others he knew didn’t either.
“We do constantly carry a spirit of heaviness,” Linda said.
Heaviness from a grueling day’s work, lost family land and legal woes. And heaviness from the unfair treatment she says she and her husband continue to face.
As the head of one of North Carolina’s few Black-owned farms, Stanley has noticed the unbalanced advantages white farmers receive, including better prices on products and exclusive deals on equipment. Linda used to accompany Stanley to the tobacco market. But after observing the ways her husband faced different treatment than his white counterparts, she couldn’t continue. “I had to quit going,” she said. “It bothered me that bad.”
Linda sees the effect the emotional labor has on her husband. “He won’t say a word,” she said. But she urges him to talk through it. “You’re holding your anger in, and your anger will turn to bitterness and bitterness will turn to disease in your body,” she said. “And he’s a walking example of it.”
But amid the heaviness, there is some light.
In September 2022, the farm hosted a celebration for its 110th anniversary. Family, friends and supporters came, gathering under the shade of the ancient oak. The grand affair, spanning across generations, represented Pine Knot’s steadfast network of decades-long support.
Sandi Kronick, CEO and cofounder of the Durham-based organic distribution service Happy Dirt, was there. Linda calls Kronick Pine Knot’s “greatest supporter,” and credits the company for helping the Hughes survive hard times. Kronick, who works with organic farmers across the state, says the farm’s story is “awe-inspiring.”
“The few words that (Stanley) has, versus the larger-than-life work ethic that he has is incredibly imbalanced,” Kronick said. “But he has saved that farm today. And I want to be a part of helping them preserve their legacy forever.”
Linda and Stanley also credit Crystal Taylor, the cofounder of Durham’s Black Farmers’ Market, for helping them keep afloat. In years past, Pine Knot Farms was often the only minority-owned vendor at farmers markets, an experience that could be isolating. “It makes us feel like we’re all in this together,” Linda said. “And we also feel as though our Blackness is welcome.”
Pine Knot Farms’ land is precious. And for development companies, acquiring it would be lucrative. Almost weekly, Stanley receives offers for his land in postcards and letters stuffing the mailbox, relentless emails flooding Linda’s inbox and calls from unknown numbers pouring in.
The couple finds the requests ludicrous. “We are intelligent enough to know that you can make an offer to buy our land, then you turn around and sell it to a corporate farm and you’re going to quadruple what you invested,” Linda said. “(Stanley) and I were both born at night, but it wasn’t last night. We’re not stupid.”
Kronick, whose career has been dedicated to supporting organic local farms, says she is worried for the future of modern farmers. “It’s extra precious with Pine Knot, because of the reality that Black farmers in America — especially Black vegetable farmers, and especially Black organic farmers — are very sadly, but absolutely an endangered species,” she said.
North Carolina’s land is changing, and a number of factors threaten farmland. New roads, housing and developments are springing up across the state. If continued, poorly planned development across the country will undermine global food security, local food systems and the quality of the environment.
“The same level of work that we do to protect an endangered species,” Kronick said, “I believe should be done to protect Black farmers.”
Some of that work is being done now. In February, U.S. Rep. Alma Adams and Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act 2023. According to a press release from Adams, the legislation “would enact policies to end discrimination within the USDA, protect the 50,000 remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers, and restore the land base that has been lost.”
For now, the future of Pine Knot Farms is unclear. Stanley hopes the farm will be kept in the family, but his two adult daughters have careers of their own far from the farm. Perhaps, he said, he will pass the farm on to a friend — bringing three generations of Hughes family ownership to a close.
As for Stanley’s retirement plans: “I guess I might have to,” he chuckled. “You know, you get old and you can’t function as well. Probably one day it’ll come to that.”
But for Linda and Stanley, one thing is certain. “As long as breath is in our bodies,” she said. “None of this land will never, ever get sold.”