When she closes her eyes, Connie Locklear can still envision her father walking through the family’s field, plowing the earth with a mule and planting his crops. It’s been 60-some
When she closes her eyes, Connie Locklear can still envision her father walking through the family’s field, plowing the earth with a mule and planting his crops. It’s been 60-some years, but she clearly recalls the fence around his garden, the way he stooped low to the ground and collected seeds.
“Daddy would gather his seeds, he would put them in a glass jar, and he would put a slip of paper in it of what year he put the seeds in there,” she says wistfully.
He died in 1990, but Connie held on to his seeds with a handwritten label reading “1988.” She kept them tucked away safely for years, a portal to the vision of him planting each time she looked at them. More than a decade after his death, she unscrewed the lid on one of her father’s jars, slipped her fingers inside, and took some out.
Then she planted them and hoped they’d grow.
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Connie and her husband, Millard, both grew up in farming families on the southeastern Coastal Plain in Pembroke, home of the Lumbee Tribe, to which they belong. They each left the farm life behind in pursuit of other careers, returning to farming as a sort of retirement plan after decades away. Last year, the couple was named Small Farmers of the Year by the Cooperative Extension at North Carolina A&T State University.
Their 26-acre plot, New Ground Farm, is part of a tract of land in Pembroke that was cultivated by Millard’s family for generations. It’s located at the corner of Alvin Road — named for an uncle — and NC Highway 72. Their land is just around the corner from Mt. Airy Baptist Church, where Millard’s parents were laid to rest, and surrounded by the homes of cousins, an uncle, and other relatives.
“Everybody on this land is family,” says the fifth-generation farmer, who was born right here in 1954. “This land has always been farmed by my ancestors. I remember seeing my great-grandfather and great-grandmother here.”
For part of his childhood, Millard’s family moved to a bigger farm. His father pursued a more commercial route, cultivating 1,000 acres of tobacco, corn, and soybeans. Millard saw what that monoculture approach did to the land.
“The earth started just not producing like it was before,” he says. “We’d seen on this land here [that] my grandfather had made a good crop.”
Connie, a retired teacher’s assistant, never imagined she’d return to farming life. But now she feels a responsibility and urge to preserve some of what’s been lost from previous generations.
“We inherited this piece of land from Millard’s ancestors and let someone else farm it for a couple of years, and my thought was, ‘Do we let someone else farm it and kill it with chemicals, or do we take it and practice regenerative agriculture, as our ancestors did?’” she says.
The modern regenerative agriculture movement aims to protect biodiversity and the climate by farming in a way that’s more in sync with nature. Many of its practices have deep roots in Indigenous communities. That includes the Lumbee Tribe, which today is the most populous tribe east of the Mississippi.
“American Indians were doing it for years and years, but it was not as well documented or known,” Millard explains. “The early American Indians that practiced raising crops, they used biochar, digging a slight trench in the earth, piling limbs and leaves on it, and burning it.”
Biochar, or carbon-rich material produced from burning organic matter, is thought to increase soil fertility, and it’s just one of the traditionally inspired approaches that the Locklears use. Indigenous Americans taught European settlers how to grow corn, likely burying fish and other organic matter for fertilizer, according to the National Park Service. The Locklears employ a similar practice, relying on fish emulsion, as well as biochar. The land may have been in the family for generations, but in that way, Millard and Connie are making it “new ground” again.
“We follow the practices of our ancestors,” Millard says. “We try to feed the earth for it to feed us.”
Part of that means returning heirloom seeds to the soil, like the ones Connie saved in glass jars.
“I planted those seeds, they came up, they germinated, and they produced,” she says proudly, adding that the same approach wouldn’t work with commercially available seeds. “These seeds are viable no matter how long they stay in that jar.”
Now, they’re raising pumpkins, watermelons, field peas, butter beans, and other crops that have been in the family for decades. At the beginning of this month, they’ll cut down sugar cane “that’s been in the family for 40-some years,” and then strip it and crush it for syrup around Thanksgiving. If all goes according to plan, the Locklears will also be harvesting sweet potatoes for other North Carolinians’ holiday feasts.
There’s a sentimentality with certain crops, like the sweet potatoes that Millard’s father loved, or the prolific muscadine grapevine that Connie tends, which descended from seeds on the family homestead of famed Indigenous outlaw figure Henry Berry Lowry. But it’s also about preserving a way of life, ancestral wisdom, and the more robust agricultural world that sprang from it.
“When you buy a tomato, you want to taste that tomato,” Millard says. “I’ll never be raising a tomato for shelf life. I raise it for taste and flavor. You take our heirloom tomatoes — man, you better eat that thing in three to four days, or it’ll be spoiled on you.”
The Locklears grow a cornucopia of tomatoes, including yellow Lemon Boys, Green Zebras that they like to use for frying, Cherokee Purples, Black Krims, and Yellow Brandywines. They raise a white corn that Connie’s family handed down called Silver Queen, oblong Black Beauty eggplants, and a whole host of plants that “self-proclaimed herbalist” Connie uses to make tinctures and medicines. Some of their crop goes to UNC-Pembroke, originally founded exclusively for “the Indians of Robeson County.” Most of it sells to wholesalers, often ending up in restaurant kitchens.
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Millard no longer works at New Ground Farm full-time — last year, he took a job as the manager of the Lumbee Tribe’s newly formed Agriculture & Natural Resources Department. There, he’s tasked with everything from addressing pollution in the Lumbee River to developing a farmers co-op. He dreams of a pop-up market, incubator farms, and other methods of teaching younger generations to care for the land.
Students often tour their farm, and Connie — who shares “the urge to keep doing this and pass it on to the next generation” — says that the kids, ranging from pre-K to college age, love it. Her own children don’t always understand why their parents took up farming as a retirement plan. She and Millard are getting to be old enough that some physical aspects of the job, such as hand-harvesting okra, don’t come as easily. Yet the couple is unfazed.
“A lot of people retire and they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do, sitting in their house, looking at the walls,” Millard says. “Ain’t nothing happy about that.”
In contrast, his grandfather, whom he tries to emulate, died on his feet, standing down a row of his apple trees, right here in Pembroke.
“He was happy as a bedbug,” Millard says. “That’s peace in life.”