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Organic, sustainable and in its fourth generation, Pine Knot Farms turns 100

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Paper-covered tables form long lines near the entrance to Pine Knot Farms in Hurdle Mills, mimicking the tidy rows of tobacco that grow nearby. Under a large, white tent, family members, fellow farmers and friends gather with fried chicken and sweet potato pie to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the property, which belongs to Stanley Hughes.

As evidenced by abundant fields and a sign at the entrance that states such, Pine Knot is still a "working farm." It doesn't stop for a celebration.

And on this Saturday in September, long before hundreds of guests arrived from as far away as Wisconsin, Georgia and Maryland, Hughes was up at 3:30 a.m., loading produce into his truck. With the help of his family, including his 16-year-old daughter, Xandria, the fourth generation of Hughes farmer, he sells vegetables at the Carrboro and Durham farmers markets and supplies food to Eastern Carolina Organics and several local restaurants.

Hughes raises chickens and hogs on the hilly property located near the Person and Orange county lines. He also grows tobacco and organic vegetables including kale, broccoli and squash, though he's particularly known for collards and barn-cured sweet potatoes. The leafy greens were featured in the 2003 produce issue of Gourmet, and the rough vegetables got a nod two years ago in The New York Times. But in the beginning, a century ago, Pine Knot Farms grew primarily tobacco.

Fletcher Hughes, Stanley Hughes' grandfather who worked land nearby as a tenant farmer, purchased the property from R. A. Baines in 1912. Three of his children went on to farm there, and Hughes pitched in however he was needed while growing up on the property. "If you're broke, you keep filling in—shucking corn, priming tobacco, collating tobacco," he recalls.

But when he was old enough, he left the farm. As Hughes told oral historian Kate Medley for the Southern Foodways Alliance, like many young folks, he had "car fever." "I wanted to get me a job and get me a car. And stop working, you know, or get off at 5 o'clock at least."

Hughes worked for the Eaton Corporation in Roxboro, followed by a 12- to 13-year stint at Nortel, all while occasionally farming part-time to make extra money. When the RTP-based telecommunications company started to cut positions in 1996, however, Hughes decided to return to the farm full-time.

There was new opportunity at Pine Knot. Hughes had heard rumors that organic tobacco was bringing in double the price of conventional. So he attended ameeting in Oxford and signed up to begin selling to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, which manufactures American Spirit cigarettes.

The move to organic introduced new crops in the Pine Knot fields. Hughes sowed collards and sweet potatoes into soil that had to rest before tobacco could be planted there. Farming organically hasn't been cheap or easy. "You have to dot every I and cross every T and then come back and dot the J, because you have to document everything," says Hughes' wife, Linda Leach, of the certification process.

Still, Hughes credits local demand for organic goods with keeping him in business. "That's the only reason we've made it on the farm," he says. "Otherwise, I would have been gone."

Pine Knot seems poised to continue well into its second century, particularly through the aid of Xandria. A junior at Orange High School, she has been at her father's side on the farm for as long as she can remember. "I was pretty much following Daddy around since I could walk," she recalls.

Now she stands by a metal shed where a slain hog has been smoking. Her role for the celebration is to oversee the dozens of small children who've come to the festivities. They run through nearby rows of crops, jump in a bouncy house that's crowned with a larger-than-life inflatable dolphin and dance in front of a former curing barn where a DJ is set up.

The role seems to be a fitting one for Xandria, who cites connecting youth to farming as her passion. She spoke on the topic at a 2011 conference in Oklahoma and traveled to Washington, D.C., over the summer with members of her local 4-H chapter to visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among other places. On both trips, Xandria says she enjoyed meeting with other young people who share an interest in the future of farming. But she doesn't have to travel too far to do that.

Many of Xandria's Orange County High School classmates spend summers helping on Pine Knot Farms. In fact, Xandria says, there's a waiting list for folks who want to be involved. She works beside those selected and occasionally oversees tasks.

"They call me a little bossy sometimes because I've done everything and sometimes I have to tell them what to do," she explains. "I'm kind of like the miniature Stanley."

That's something in which she takes great pride. Last year at Orange County High's Ag Day event, her project—green tobacco hanging from a sawhorse that Stanley helped construct—revealed lessons from and an interest in the family farm. Her entry earned a ribbon at the competition.

At the 100th year party, the project is displayed in one corner of a metal shed, where guests file through to fill plates with ham, chicken, field peas and, of course, sweet potatoes in various baked forms.

Xandria stands outside with a group of her friends, who all wear Pine Knot T-shirts. Louise Parrish, known by many as The Cake Lady at the Carrboro Farmers Market where she sells pound cakes each Saturday, approaches Xandria to say she's impressed with her involvement on the farm: from working the market just that morning to now helping lead the gathering.

"I'm proud of it," Xandria later says, surveying those in attendance and the land. "I want to keep it in the family. I know I want to farm and I'm not giving it up."

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