Stanley Hughes runs diversified operation

If Stanley Hughes can't find a new way of doing things, he might as well go back on the porch and sit a spell. The only problem is, while he's sitting, he's liable to start thinking and bound off the porch steps in search of new opportunities.

It's been that way for a while with the Orange County, N.C., producer, who was named the North Carolina Small Farmer of the year this past spring by North Carolina A&T State University.

“It's a pretty enjoyable life,” says Hughes, with just enough of a smile that makes you think he knows a secret “unknown to the rest of us,” farmer colleagues say.

Hughes, 55, is a third-generation black farmer, tending land his great grandfathers on both sides of the family bought more than 100 years ago. He owns the 75-acre farmstead, in addition to farming 300 acres. Those are the facts. The reality is, he's a limited resource, black farmer who's thriving on ingenuity and hard work.

(He's also a single father, raising his 8-year-old daughter, Xandria.)

“Operating capital is the biggest obstacle,” says Hughes, during a springtime interview at his house near Hurdle Mills, N.C. “We just keep robbing Peter to pay Paul. Lending institutions are only going to loan money for tobacco if you can expand.”

Many times, short-term loans have kept him operating on the farm. He points out, however, that the high price of fuel this year is making things more difficult than in past years.

As a limited resource farmer, he's learned to take advantage of funding opportunities to keep him on the farm. He collaborates with North Carolina State A&T State University, Fletcher Barber, Orange County, N.C., county Extension director, and North Carolina State University with on-farm tests.

By working with Extension, Golden Leaf and Operation Spring Plant, a non-profit farmers-training organization, Hughes learned about other opportunities. He's used the funds to diversify with organic farming.

The lack of funding never stopped his love for the land and farming, even when he was classified as a full-time farmer.

For 20 years, he worked a second-shift, full-time job and tended up to 25 acres of conventional tobacco. When he was laid off from his manufacturing job in 1996 and became a full-time farmer, his perspective began to change. The lay off came about the time of the slide in tobacco quota. Hughes went from 25 acres to 15 acres in one year.

That year also marked the beginning of a pleasant change of events for this farmer who rarely slows down. In 1996, he became the first Orange County, N.C., farmer to grow organic tobacco, along with his conventional crops of soybeans, wheat and a few head of cattle.

He also grows organic kale, collards and sweet potatoes on 45 acres of land certified to produce “organic” produce.

During the season, he brings his produce to the Carrboro Farmers Market and the Durham Farmers Market. It's there, he shines, interacting with customers seeking fresh-grown produce. The trips to the farmers' markets sparked his interest in diversifying.

“Going to the farmer's market puts you into contact with your customers,” Hughes says. “It's like getting a day of vacation. It gives you an idea about what people like and need.”

He attributes his success selling his produce to people “wanting to get back to the taste they experienced when they were young. You go to the grocery store and buy produce and it doesn't taste like what comes out of my fields.”

The collards, kale and sweet potatoes go fast. He's since branched out into free-range chickens and grass-fed beef.

Such is the success of his operation that he was featured in Gourmet magazine's July 2003 issue as having some of the best organically-certified produce in the country.

“It takes a lot to get in that magazine,” Hughes smiles.

Raised up across the country road, Hughes walks down to the old log tobacco barn his father used to cure tobacco.

“We plowed with mules back then,” Hughes says. “We milked cows, raised hogs, and raised chickens. We hardly ever went to the store.”

The youngest of 12 children, Hughes was the only one who heard the call to stay on the farm. “At one time, this farm was supporting three families,” Hughes says.

While he continues to look for opportunities to continue farming, Hughes acknowledges the uncertain future of agriculture. “There's a lot of uncertainty because of land prices and developments in our area,” Hughes says.

“Farming is expensive,” he says. “If you're not a large farmer, you just about need to do other things if you're trying to stay on the farm.

“I feel good to be the only one carrying out our grandfathers' dreams,” Hughes says. He doesn't anticipate his two daughters — one a Charlotte businesswoman, the other still in grade school — taking over the farm.

“I have a great interest in trying to stay on the farm,” Hughes says.

“To be able to be free, work out in this air and to see the things that you can grow — that's what it's all about,” he says.

e-mail: [email protected]

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