When George O'Neal decided to become a farmer more than a decade ago, no one told him it was going to be easy—especially not his mentor, John Soehner.
Collectively, the two have farmed for more than thirty years, coaxing stubborn North Carolina clay to sprout literal tons of fresh food, nurtured without the use of chemicals or pesticides. Despite the experience and toil, though, every year is a gamble. The methods may be sustainable, but their financial future surely is not.
O'Neal and Soehner agree to meet me for a beer at Hillsborough's Radius Pizzeria on a Sunday evening to unwind after a full weekend of work. The historic county seat makes an ideal rendezvous point from our respective dwellings. Soehner has farmed with his wife, Cindy Econopouly, at Chapel Hill's Eco Farm since 1995. O'Neal runs the land of Lil' Farm, in rural Person County, as he slowly finishes up the construction of his home. I get by in a shabby shotgun rental near downtown Durham.
In farmer speak, a beer translates to at least two hours. Days before we meet, O'Neal warns me that Soehner, one of his best friends, will only to talk to me if I tell "the truth." This does not surprise me. Over the years, any time I would run into Farmer John at an area market, he'd flash a cheeky smile and mumble that he had a real story for me. Farmers aren't making any money, went his consistent refrain. So make that a beer, a pizza, and at least three hours.