Pine Knot Farms
8906 Hester Road
Hurdle Mills, NC 27541
Well, it’s the people. The people really support what you’re doing. You know, they’re there for you. – Stanley Hughes
The unincorporated community of Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, lies thirty miles north of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. It is there that Stanley Hughes and his family—including his teenage daughter, Xandria, and his wife, Linda Leach—maintain Pine Knot Farms. This land, over one hundred acres of it, has been in the Hughes family for nearly a century. It is the land he grew up on. Stanley follows in the tobacco-farming tradition of his father, uncles, and grandfather, but in the last 15 years he has transitioned his tobacco crop to certified organic. In addition to the tobacco, Stanley also grows certified organic fruits and vegetables, which he sells through CSA shares, directly to area restaurants, and at both the Carrboro and Durham Farmers’ Markets. They bring to Market a wide variety of vegetables, including sweet potatoes, collards, kale, cabbage, broccoli, winter squash, and turnips. Stanley represents a segment of farming that uses old-fashioned farming techniques such as tobacco barn-cured sweet potatoes. On Saturdays at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, Linda takes pride in creating eye-catching displays and handing out samples, while Stanley’s sociability has earned him the nickname “Mayor of the Carrboro Market.”
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Stanley Hughes
Date: July 10, 2011
Location: Hughes home at Pine Knot Farms
Interviewer and Photographer: Kate Medley
Stanley Hughes: I’m Stanley Hughes in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, and a tobacco and vegetable farmer.
Kate Medley: How did you get into farming?
Well, I grew up on the farm, and we’re here with my parents’ farm, and it just grew on me.
And tell us about your parents’ farm.
Well my parents, they grew tobacco here. I’m the third generation, so my grandfather purchased this farm in 1912, and he grew tobacco and then it was passed onto my father and my uncles and them, and they grew tobacco and wheat and corn, and had regular farm gardens and just had cows and horses—well, cows and mules. And they lived here until they was deceased.
On this same land where you farm now?
Think back to some of your earliest memories on the farm; do you remember working in the fields with your dad or any memories along those lines?
Yeah, I can remember back when I was real small, I wanted to plow the mules myself and so forth. And I got big enough, then after I got large enough to start plowing mules, that ain’t really what I wanted. I wanted to use a tractor. [Laughs]
Were you required to work on the farm, or did you want to work on the farm as a child?
Yeah, I wanted to work on the farm, yes. I wanted to be like my older brothers. [Laughs]
And what would your job be?
Well, whatever would need to be done, what I could do—you know, the size, you know, as you grew up you get to do more of the manly things.
Well, you start off, like first when we’re harvesting tobacco, it would be either hand the leaves, or trucking it back and forth to the field. And then you go into priming, and that’s when you get your own row and you learn to chop tobacco, put it in the barn and all like that.
This area was big into tobacco, is that right?
Yes, that was the number one cash crop right here in this area.
And did everybody grow it the same way? Did y’all have the same processes, or did your family do anything different in the way of growing tobacco?
All of it was grew the same way here. I mean, you grew it and then all of it was marketed the same, you know. I mean, all farms did pretty much the same process.
Where did you sell it?
Well, we had different markets. Some would be Durham, Mebane, Roxboro, Danville; wherever they feel like they could get the best dollar for it at the time.
And was it hard work? Was it easy work?
Well, I guess it was harder then than it is now, but you had you, know more people on the farm, so it wouldn’t be as bad as some people talk it up to be.
Tell us about an average day on the farm—you got up at what time, and what kind of chores you’d do.
Got up at five o’clock and took tobacco out of the barn and then feed the cows and mules and have breakfast and get ready to go to the field and start harvesting tobacco. And you stopped for lunch and go back and harvest some more tobacco. And at the end of the day you put it into the barn, and that might be ’til dark-thirty.
When you were a teenager, did you think that you wanted to work on the farm as an adult?
Hmm, no, because I had car fever. I wanted to get me a job and get me a car. [Laughs] And stop working, you know—or get off at five o’clock at least.
So what did you do?
Well I did that for a while, and you know, you don’t never make enough. So I started back—I had a couple acres of tobacco and worked an off-farm job, and so, you know, like what would be hard: for after you’ve been farming you would be on a job. You’d come back up the road and you’d smell the fresh soil, the birds started telling you, “You can make it, you can make it,” and I was just damn fool enough to try it, you know. I wanted to keep on working [Laughs]; I wanted to be home on the farm.
And so you quit your off-farm job. What was your off-farm job?
Well, back early on I worked at Eaton in Roxboro. It was a place where we made valve stems for tubeless tires and big truck tires.
And then after that job, I come home and I did some hog farming for four or five years, and the hog market dropped—plummeted—so then I got me another full-time job, and I was going to farm part-time. I worked at Nortel for about for twelve, thirteen years, and then they were having the cutbacks, and I came back home. After I found out about organic farming, I started trying some organic tobacco plus traditional tobacco. And after that with the organic tobacco on the land, they was saying you couldn’t put nothing else there but organic products, and later on we found out about different markets with only organic. So I started switching to organic vegetables.
And when you say you found out about organic farming, what did you find out? What pushed you in that direction?
Well, what really pushed me on it, this company, Santa Fe, was coming to Oxford [North Carolina], and I heard that they was going to be buying tobacco. You grow tobacco, and they would pay you four dollars a pound. So that got me all excited about growing organic tobacco when we was barely getting two [dollars a pound], so that was the part of the transition right there.
So you would get double the money if you could grow it organically?
And did they teach you how to grow it organically, or you just had to figure that out?
Well, they told us what inputs we had to use for to grow it organically, and so it really wasn’t any different growing it than your normal traditional tobacco. It was just the stuff that you would have to use to grow it.
Did you have to let your fields lay fallow for a few years to transition them to organic, or how did that work?
Yes, it had to be fields that had no chemicals or commercial fertilizer put on them for the past three years. And at that time I had some farms that we weren’t using, but by me just growing tobacco and working a job, I didn't plant nothing but just tobacco and like wheat behind the tobacco. So I had some fields that was eligible for it.
So you could just experiment with it on those fields and see if you really wanted to do it full-time?
Yes, really the first year was an experiment for me, yeah.
And at what point did you decide to come back to farming full-time?
Well, the company I was working for, they started cutting back in 1996.
What did you like most about being on the farm full-time after having to go away for work each day and then you were back here? Did you like that?
Yeah, I liked the thoughts of being your own boss, but you don’t have that, even on the farm.
What do you mean?
Because you got all your suppliers, your lenders, telling you what you need to do. So some way or another, you can figure like they’re still your boss. [Laughs]
And when you came back to the farm, did you think you would farm just organic tobacco?
Well we had some organic, and still we had some conventional. I had enough to where it was feasible for me to be on the farm. Then eventually, I converted it on over to organic. And plus, we started bringing in organic vegetables during all this transition of time, so that helped.
Tell us more about that.
Well after going to different meetings we found out that being organic and certified, we couldn’t plant tobacco on the same land for three years. But also they was telling us we could grow other crops on it, other vegetable crops on there during that time where it had to be left out for the three years. And so that’s when we started getting involved with collards and sweet potatoes. They was my first two other crops. Then we started like developing a market; we got involved with selling. I think I started selling with a company out of Asheville a little bit; organic products. And then later on after we sort of like made a failure. CFSA [Carolina Farm Stewards Association] came up and got a grant and developed this Eastern Carolina Organics co-op, and so I was a part of that when it started. So that’s how we got into doing organic.
If you had grown tobacco all your life when you started growing collards and sweet potatoes, how did you know how to do it?
Well, we had experimented with some little small garden plots, you know. And then one reason we went with collards and sweet potatoes, we had the same equipment as far as planting, and like we used the tobacco barn for storing and curing the sweet potatoes.
And today, tell us what all you grow here on your farm.
Well, we do sweet potatoes, collards, kale, winter squash, summer squash, white potatoes, red potatoes, corn, beets, cabbage, tomatoes; well, just a variety of vegetables. Some years we have different types depending on what’s available and then at the time of the year we plant it, because like some years we have broccoli and cauliflower, fennel, all like that.
You still grow some organic tobacco?
Yes, we still do right much organic tobacco.
Where does all of your product go?
Well we sell the tobacco with Santa Fe, which makes the Natural Spirit Cigarettes [editor’s note: Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, based in Oxford, NC, makes the Natural American Spirit brand of cigarettes], we sell with Whole Foods, Chatham Marketplace, and we do some with Weaver Street [Market, a local grocery store] and some with restaurants. We got about four to five restaurants that we sell to.
And the Carrboro Farmers’ Market?
Yes, Carrboro and Durham Farmers’ Market.
When did you start taking your product to the Carrboro Market?
I guess probably about ten years ago, I would say somewhere around that time.
How did you first hear about it?
I think I was over at the Extension Service, and we got talking about different markets. And with the products I had, I was trying to find out a way of selling them, and someone was telling me about the Carrboro Market. And I think I put an application there, and then I sort of like refused to go. I didn't think I’d want to do no markets. What really got me started is this lady came from the Durham Market and doing CFSA tours. She kept telling me, “We want you to come to the Market this summer; just come to the Market; over to the Durham Market.”
So we started at the Durham Market that summer, and then as the fall came on, we still had right much product was going to be coming like sweet potatoes and collards. I said, “We ain’t going to be able to move them all at just one market.” So then I started going to Carrboro and my cousin continued going to Durham for me.
What do you like about the Carrboro Market?
Well, it’s the people. You know, the people really support what you’re doing. You know, they’re there for you.
Tell us more about that.
I guess since it’s there in their community, they want local foods. They want from the local farmers and the ones that they can talk to and see where their stuff is coming firsthand right there, you know. And then they ain’t got to worry about just reading the label where it come from. They can meet the people who actually grew their food.
Do you have regular customers?
Yes, we have repetitive customers every week. Which is very supportive, you know, because they be asking you what you got this week, what you going to have next week, and so they can—I guess plan their menu. They got some, when we got sweet potatoes, they is loyal to be there for their sweet potatoes. They’re loyal for their collards—I mean just loyal customers. And they be talking about the weather, and really the prices of stuff, and what you’re going through, and just make it like a family outing sometimes.
Do they ever say, “I want to get some of your fennel, but I don’t know what to do with it?” Or “How do you cook a sweet potato?”
Well yes, they always asking about the recipes, how you fix yours, and I answer most of the time, “Well, my wife do it.” Because I just feel like, “I just grew it.” You know, I ain’t no cook, you know—even though I could cook—but I just turn them over and let my wife explain how she would fix it.
What time does your alarm go off on Saturday?
Three-thirty in the morning.
And then what do you do?
Well, we get up and shower and start loading the trucks. My wife leaves here about five o’clock in the morning and I leave probably about quarter to six. I sort of like bring up the rear—some things we didn’t load, or some things have been forgotten—so I try to stay back and piece that together and come on.
And by the time you get there, does she have your booth looking pretty?
Most of it, yes, uh-hmm. I might have a couple extra things that, you know, we couldn’t put on her truck, or we had forgotten, so I bring it on. But most of it is already set up.
If you’re at the Market for five hours, when is the busiest time?
For me, I guess it’s like from 9:30 to 11:30.
Do you go around the Market and see other folks that are there?
Yeah, they call me “the Mayor of Carrboro Market.” Somebody gave me that name.
Well when you walk around, who are you talking to?
Well, some customers and some vendors, you know. I feel like that’s part of the PR relations, you know. You got to sort of like see what the other farmers are doing; you’re going to be competitive, so see what they’re doing, how they do it. And then they asking me the same thing.
Who might you go visit and say hello to?
John Soehner, Ken Dawson—.
What do these people grow?
A variety of vegetables; then flowers, like Alex Hitt and his wife, they do a lot of flowers; and Chris Murray, he do eggs; and Michael Brinkley do a bunch of vegetables and meats; and then Kathy Jones there, she’s doing a little bit of everything. And then we got one guy, he just do tomatoes. And I’m amazed at him, because the way he do his—he come in there for about seventeen weeks, and then he can always make enough money to go rock-hunting. [Laughs]
Do you ever buy from the other vendors at the Market?
Yes, we buy from other vendors.
Who do you buy from? Tell me one item that you really like. Who grows like one thing really well?
The cornmeal from the Brinkley Farms—yeah, we like that. And then we like the flowers from Alex Hitt, yeah, and also Leah Cook’s—she have a different variety, and we like her flowers, too.
And what’s the best seller at your booth?
Well, we got three. That’s collards, kale, and sweet potatoes. If that was the only thing left for me to sell, that would be the three.
What’s one thing that’s really hard about selling your product at a farmers market?
Well, I guess when you look at, it you’ve got to have something that you’re really good at, you know. And then the product you have has got to be good enough where it really sells itself. You got to be doing a decent job with that.
Do you like having the opportunity to talk to your customers?
Yes, you know sometimes someone might get long-winded if you got a line of customers, but other than that it’s okay.
What do they talk to you about, or what do they ask you about?
From the weather, on to where you live, and what you’re doing, how’d you make it this week; what you’re going to do next week, and all. And then if anybody who’s been coming with you to Market, where they at today, you know, so you got all them questions.
For somebody that might never get to visit your farm, tell us what it looks like out here.
Well, I think it’s a normal working farm. Sometimes it can look real good, and then some days we won’t. We get in tobacco, it sort of suffers from the appearance. Well, I guess tobacco really pays the bills, so we sort of put some things off and be in tobacco. It’s a decent-looking farm, and a nice area to live in; quiet. Well out here it’s sort of hilly, and we got some rocks and then we got some good soil. And then some places just holding the world together, so we got all that out here [Laughs]. Whatever you want to find: we got some of the best land and then some sorry plots on it, too, where we’re trying to bring it in, because we got some acres we still hadn’t got certified that we’re working on building the soil, yeah.
How big is your farm?
The part that my family and I own is 125 acres totally. And then we lease about another 200 acres, where it’s four different tracts that total about two more hundred acres.
And how long has your family been farming on this land specifically?
Well, my grandfather moved here in 1912. And that’s the year he purchased this farm, so it’s ninety-nine years old right now.
Do you think that it’s a harder economy to farm in today than it was when your dad was farming?
Yes, it’s more expensive.
What’s more expensive?
The inputs for farming.
And name what the inputs are.
Well, your fertilizer, your seeds, diesel fuel, and different parts, attachments, everything—it’s just done escalated from what it was, say, twenty—well, fifteen years ago.
So why do you do it?
Well, the addiction that you have of farming. And the habit is hard to break, so I guess I got the addiction.
If [your daughter] came to you tomorrow and told you that she wanted to become a farmer, what would be your advice?
Well, I’d tell her to try to get all the experience and, you know, do all the studying like what makes farmers good, to come up with a good business plan, do all like this research of the growing of plants and that. Just do some studying in agricultural business, so she would be fully aware of what’s going on.
Okay, well, thank you for sharing your stories with us.You’re welcome.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.