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Nelson and Mary James - 2008 Small Farmers of The Year


Greensboro – A Pender County couple with a penchant for pastured pigs and chickens, as well as specialty crops, are the 2008 Gilmer L. and Clara Y. Dudley Small Farmers of the Year. Nelson and Mary James of Maple Hill were honored with the award Wednesday in ceremonies that were part of the 22nd Annual Small Farms Week, celebrated at N.C. A&T State University.
The James’s were lauded for enthusiastically delving into niche markets, for their community outreach and for their willingness to try new techniques and approaches on their 20 acres of Dogwood Nursery Farm.

Mary JamesThe intrepid duo were also recognized for - among other things - their creative and innovative farm-production methods, including pastured poultry, pesticide-free production and the design of their own mobile chicken tractor, which helps chickens roost and feed, while the land is simultaneously being fertilized by chicken droppings. Extension staff worked with the James on those farm enterprises, as well as with their ventures growing mushrooms on logs, developing a farm Web site and joining farm-market organizations.

“When a person loves what they do, it shows,” says Mary James who, with her husband, founded N.C. Willing Workers, the cooperative that helps other limited-resource farmers navigate sustainable agriculture and marketing practices.
Nelson James is a third-generation farmer, who likens his passion for farming to an addiction.
“I don’t mean to keep doing this every year,” says James, 62. “But then the spring comes and I’m right back in the field turning ground again. I’m just like that alcoholic; I go right back to it.”

The Gilmer L. and Clara Y. Dudley Small Farmer of the Year Award, named on behalf of the late parents of Dudley Products entrepreneur and A&T graduate Joe Dudley, is presented each year to a farmer or farmers who exemplify the best of small-scale agriculture, defined as land that produces $250,000 or less annually in gross income.

“They have worked thoughtfully and creatively to keep their family farm and to be a good example of success to all small farmers,” says James Hartsfield, the Cooperative Extension Area Agent for Sampson, Duplin and parts of Pender County, who nominated the couple for the award.

Nelson James handles a demanding herd of 90 pigs, some used for breeding, and others sold for meat. Mary James tends hens, turkeys, rabbits, a heifer and a bull, and also grows romaine lettuce, carrots and cabbage transplanted from her greenhouse to the fields. She also grows loofa, mushrooms, eggplant, garlic, watermelon, onions, tomatoes and several other assorted vegetables, herbs and fruits. Mary James has learned by working in Community Supported Agriculture organizations, cooperatives, and with Nelson Jamesretail customers that include a four-star restaurant in Wilmington and Whole Foods, how to meet the demands of the marketplace. As Nelson James sees it, the specialty markets that his wife has cultivated with the help of A&T Extension experts, are the future of small farming.

“Niche marketing is what it’s all about,” James says. “That’s what small farming is going to come to: a pick-a-pack here and a pick-a-pack there. You just cannot have one thing and survive.”

Both are retired from other full-time, off-farm jobs: Nelson James retired four years ago after 39 years as a carpenter at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base; Mary James left the local school system a decade ago after working as a reading tutor and coordinator of parent volunteers. Yet, the couple farmed the entire span of their other jobs, having taught their six children and now their five grandchildren along the way.

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