Kendrick Ransome hoes an elevated row of dark, nutrient-rich soil. It’s early March—planting season. Behind him, his daughter Kazaiah, 6, and assistant farmer Jessica Williams plant baby collards, which glow, backlit by the slanted evening sun. They eventually cover the row with a thick layer of leaves, carefully spreading and tucking it under the collards. The leaves prevent erosion and add nutrients as they decompose, and help hold carbon deep in the ground where it belongs.
Kendrick, 30, is co-founder of Freedom Org, and he runs Golden Organic Farm on land his family has owned for over 100 years in rural Pinetops, a small town in Edgecombe County just southwest of Princeville. Here he grows healthier food for his family and for his community in a majority-Black county dotted with food deserts, where 1 in 5 people experience food insecurity.
Kendrick is the fourth generation in his family to farm. He’s among North Carolina’s vanishing number of Black farmers who own only 3% of all farms in the state. Kendrick’s ancestral farming techniques, including conservation tillage and composting, also help regenerate soil depleted by monoculture crops like cotton and tobacco, and prevents carbon from escaping into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide by sequestering it in the soil.
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Conservation tillage, like no-till farming (allowing soil to remain intact after harvest) or low-till (only tilling once or twice a season), leaves the fungal, microbe and soil carbon systems intact. That creates fertile carbon-rich soil that can reduce erosion and hold more water, which makes floods less devastating, especially from the hurricanes that flood eastern North Carolina.
Kendrick takes a low till approach at Golden Organic Farm. He calls it “growing the soil.”
“It's a healing process, as in we're healing the soil, we're healing the land, you know, along the way,” Kendrick said.
And healing the soil can also help heal an atmosphere harmed by humans. Research shows that protecting and rebuilding soil carbon across forests, wetlands and farms represents 25% of natural climate solutions potential, including sequestering the equivalent of 23.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year.
Scientists say that restoring soil carbon in agriculture alone can help sequester about 1 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide annually, offsetting about a third of total annual human carbon emissions. Black and Indigenous farmers, like Kendrick, know how to do this, but decades of systemic racism have kept them from holding onto their farmland, and lack of funding makes it difficult to expand their operations.
'It's About Healing'
Project Drawdown estimates that adopting regenerative agriculture techniques globally could cost $115 billion to implement, but long-term these practices could yield lifetime net savings of $3.5 trillion, $205 billion in net profits, and reduce emissions by as much as 23 gigatons by 2050.
Yet sustainable agriculture can be hard to sustain financially. It can cost hundreds of dollars to be certified as organic by the USDA, and requires an annual renewal fee. No-till farming is hard to scale because with less machinery it is labor intensive. It also poses challenges. Tilling breaks up and aerates the soil. Under no-till, heavy rains and the use of heavy harvesting machinery compacts the soil, forcing out the air so the microbes can’t form pits that give the soil structure.
“Farmers trying no-till find that after a few seasons, the soil gets hard and it's difficult to get water to run into the soil, it tends to run off, or it's difficult to plant,” according to Dr. Ron Heiniger, of North Carolina State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. He is also the cooperative extension corn specialist at Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth.
Healthy carbon-rich soil can reduce erosion and hold more water, which makes floods less devastating, especially from the hurricanes that flood eastern North Carolina.
Heiniger thinks compaction can be solved by injecting microbes into the soil to “inoculate” and loosen it. But drainage is harder to solve. Porous, uncompacted soil is better at absorbing and filtering floodwaters. More ideal is a balance between allowing the water to move through the ground, so it still captures the soil carbon and runoff is less destructive, but also allowing the soil to dry enough for farming.
A solution is low-till, like the one Kendrick employs, or tilling less frequently. Compared to old plows that disturbed 8 to 10 inches of soil, new tiller technology disturbs an area just 2 inches deep by 2 inches wide, allowing enough room for sowing seeds and sequestering carbon, Heiniger said. At scale, that specialized equipment can be expensive, and low-till farming can yield less produce.
“It’s a very thorny problem to feed a big population and still be able to sequester [carbon] and maintain the soil,” said Heiniger. But he holds hope that microbes can replace machinery that disturbs the soil carbon.
To Kendrick, scaling his farm to feed the world was never the point. He’s an advocate for local farms, serving local communities with fresh organic produce.
“You can scale so much, but I’ve always been about local, local, local. It’s about healing,” he said.
He is inspired by George Washington Carver, one of the most famous but least understood Black heroes in America. Celebrated as the “peanut guy,” Carver was a pioneering conservationist who saw nature’s abundance as a means of Black liberation. He understood the interconnections between ecology and Black people’s social and economic needs.
Instead of farming cotton for the north’s textile mills, he taught Black farmers to save money by growing their own food and using natural fertilizers, like compost and swamp muck. Carver showed Black farmers the importance of using crop rotation and cover crops to prevent erosion and to revitalize soil depleted by continuous cotton farming.
Small-scale sustainable farming like Kendrick’s or even in your home garden won’t feed the world or outright stop climate change, but it can address community food insecurity or turn your yard into a carbon sink. You can grow food close to home, which creates a local food system more resistant to global disruptions, and reduces reliance on wasteful, carbon-emitting industrial food production.
Learning sustainable ways of being and taking individual climate action can also lead to collective political movements that challenge power and create systemic change, according to a study by Shahzeen Z. Attari from Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Individual climate action is broad. It includes things we often don’t connect to climate, but nonetheless add up: Building intentional communities, sharing resources and mutual aid with neighbors, participating in local government, advocating for democratic ideas and equality, or simply naming and processing your feelings about climate change with people you trust.
Kendrick personifies this path. He drove dump trucks and paved highways around Raleigh before he became a farmer. On the side, he bred American bully pit puppies that he sold for emotional support animals or pets. To feed them a high-protein diet, he raised chickens that he slaughtered. He loved the fresh eggs and composted the manure. He started growing squash in raised beds. He read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and became more spiritual. One interest led to another. He grew tired of processed food at the grocery store and went vegan. When he had children, he saw an opportunity to have more control over his food, and have more space.
When his cousin showed him the family farmland near his grandma’s house, he thought to himself, “Dang, maybe [I’m] the one that's supposed to be [farming].” So he kept driving dump trucks by day and farmed at night, and saved money until he could farm full time.
He’s been farming and raising hogs on pasture for five years. Kendrick also teaches organic gardening classes, is involved with local food sovereignty in the Coastal Plain and serves on the board of the Just Food Council of Nash and Edgecombe Counties. He wants to start talking about climate change in his work now, he said.
Attari says that individual action is a way to invite curious people into the climate movement without shaming them. It’s a way to show up for yourself and your community, a way to live into your values and integrity; a way to create, in your own life, the world you imagine. Most of all, it's a powerful form of self-care. Maintaining your mental health amidst climate chaos is crucial to taking climate action.
Kendrick says that watching his pigs run free in the woods, seeing their strength and the way they hunt for nuts, is like free therapy. He loves his chickens. “I can sit in the shed and watch my chicks for hours,” he said. Their chirps are soothing, and he says watching them grow is good for his soul.
Solutions in Soil
“You can scale so much, but I’ve always been about local, local, local. It’s about healing,” Kendrick said.
Soil is one of the largest carbon sinks on Earth. It is part of Earth’s carbon cycle, which forms and fuels all life and transfers carbon through the rocks, soil, sky and sea. Plants feed on carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and nutrients from the ground; but they also give nutrients back to the soil
through roots connected by fungi networks. Fungi are eco-engineers, keystone organisms abundant in soil.
In turn, plants, fungal networks and microbes cooperate to turn sunlight into energy, creating humus, the foundation for fertile soil. They also deliver carbon deep into the soil, where it is more stably sequestered, and less likely to be disturbed, transforming the ground into a “battery” for entire ecosystems on Earth’s surface.
But by the 1800s much of the soil carbon across the South was gone.
Colonial agriculture is best understood as a “mining operation,” said Justin Robinson, during one of his online classes about how plants shaped the destiny of the United States. Robinson is a botanist at the North Carolina Department of Natural Heritage. He is also a musician, cook and member of the Earthseed Land Collective, a collective led by people of color in Durham, dedicated to “amplifying traditional agrarian foodways, and regenerative agriculture practices.”
Colonists mined the soil carbon and nutrients through a process of displacement, enslavement and destruction, Robinson said. They forced Indigenous people off their land, while forcing Black people to farm vast acres of “enslaved” crops like cotton, indigo and tobacco. The process destroyed the southern soil by draining the nutrients; then the colonists moved on and took more land to repeat the cycle. Massive deforestation in the South to farm single crops ensued.
The ecosystems have yet to recover, Robinson said.
The flat surface, wet clay soil and poor drainage of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain are the result of the Atlantic Ocean rising and falling across the land several times over the last 2 million years, in rhythm with drastic climate changes and periods of polar glaciation and melt. The phosphate-rich marine sediment layers running beneath Edgecombe County likely added nutrients that otherwise couldn’t be created by vegetation, Heiniger said.
As far west as Edgecombe County, the Coastal Plain of eastern North Carolina is also pockmarked with mysterious swampy lakes known as Carolina Bays. Oddly elliptical in shape, legends say they are craters from meteor strikes, or from whales wallowing on the prehistoric ocean bottom when the land was covered by the sea. Scientists say they were more likely created by glacier melt and wind.
Carolina Bays are full of peat, a decayed carbon-rich plant matter. One such bay, the Conetoe Poquoson, once covered all of eastern Edgecombe before it was drained for farming. Consequently, the farmlands near these Carolina Bays and the Tar River and its tributaries are among the most fertile in the county for growing cotton, and were crucial to sustaining the colonial plantations across the county, according to Heiniger.
Hurricanes and floods like the ones that drown the towns of Princeville and Pinetops also helped build the fertility of the Coastal Plain by sequestering carbon in the soil, Heiniger said.
Over millions of years, storms toppled trees and buried vegetation, which decomposed and, like compost, added organic matter to the earth, creating carbon-rich soil well-suited for farming. The effects of these storms were less dramatic further inland in Edgecombe County. But the low-lying land in Pinetops and Princeville doesn’t drain well, and flooding from the Tar River kept the earth saturated.
In turn, water prevented microbes from breaking down the carbon, creating a thick layer of rich soil across Edgecombe County and the Coastal Plain.
Constant tilling, plowing and leaving farm soil uncovered disturbs the soil carbon cycle. Tilling destroys the fungi networks and brings carbon to the surface, where it remains exposed for most of the year, particularly after harvest. Microbes decompose carbon in the exposed soil, and without cover it rises into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Currently, agriculture, including food production and land use, is responsible for 24% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to Project Drawdown. Human agriculture has released 133 gigatons of carbon from the top 6 feet of soil in the last 12,000 years, a rate that has dramatically increased since the 1800s during the height of slavery, and through the rise of big agribusiness.
From 1850 to 1970, farming released twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning fossil fuels, and then their contributions flipped. Some estimates suggest between 50 and 80% of carbon in topsoils worldwide has escaped into the atmosphere.
Cotton is a notable culprit. Because cotton is a smaller plant above-ground it doesn’t cover the soil very well, said Heiniger. Nor does it efficiently recycle carbon into the ground via photosynthesis, the way grasses or other crops do. Think of all those cotton fields that exhausted the soil. All that carbon dioxide released under chattel slavery.
Land Grabs, Lawsuits, Reparations
In 1920, the number of Black farmers peaked at almost 1 million, making up about 14% of all farmers in America. But from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s, according to a report from the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Black farmers dwindled in number because of decades of racist lending policies enacted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These lending policies barred Black farmers from receiving the same credit support and debt or disaster relief given to white farmers. They were part of a historic land-snatching scheme that deliberately drove Black farmers into debt so their land could be grabbed by whites.
To this day, Black farmers call the USDA “the last plantation.”
In majority-Black southern counties, USDA funding and credit was distributed by county committees that were majority white.
“The Decline of Black Farming in America” report of 1982 detailed how USDA Farmers Home Association county officials in eastern North Carolina rejected black loan applicants, loaned less money than requested or withheld payments, and issued bad credit reports to businesses, which cut off other sources of credit.
The USDA’s vision for agriculture also shifted labor-intensive farming—which provided jobs to the rural poor—into a capital-intensive farming that favored wealthy white farmers with political ties. These farming methods were dependent on machines and chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, according to historian Pete Daniel in his sweeping book Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights.
Project Drawdown estimates that adopting regenerative agriculture techniques at scale globally could cost $115 billion to implement, but long-term these practices could yield lifetime net savings of $3.5 trillion, $205 billion in net profits, and reduce emissions by as much as 23 gigatons by 2050.
This shift shattered Black farmers’ connections to the land, the seasons and the annual cycles driven by their crops, writes Daniel. In the push to modernize rural America, USDA employees, often educated at land-grant institutions, dismissed as “backwards” any traditional farming knowledge that was handed down over generations or learned by experience. Time-tested farming techniques that nourished the soil and sequestered carbon—essential to combating climate change—were erased.
Kendrick wants government reparations to Black farmers for the theft and discrimination they have faced.
“We missed a whole lot of money. You think about all the generational wealth that a lot of these white families have—it came from agriculture,” he said.
Heiniger is concerned about climate change bringing higher temperatures and stronger hurricanes with increased flooding, which jeopardize Edgecombe County farmers. Heat can stunt crops, and they can’t recover from hurricanes and flooding that occur earlier and earlier in the season. These climate impacts can particularly hurt Black farmers, who historically have fewer resources and less support.
It’s July 2022, and heat indexes topped 100 degrees across North Carolina’s Coastal Plain. It hasn’t rained much in months. The Tar River at Princeville is low, around 2 feet. Weeds grow on a sandbar yards from shore. Kendrick’s well is producing about half as much water as normal.
But for two hot weeks, Freedom Org held its inaugural Farm Olympics summer camp, where local children learn about sustainable farming, compost, soil compaction, ecosystems, climate change, healthy food and exercise. They identify native plants on the farm and ride horses. You have to be fit to farm, Kendrick tells them. So they run relay races on an obstacle course, jump hay bales and haul sacks of animal feed. They eat plant-based lunches and practice yoga to calm their nerves.
They also get to play and just be themselves. Some chase a soccer ball, while Kason Frazier, 9, smacks a piece of wood against a small metal pipe that he found. “These things aren’t really touching—it’s just the molecules touching,” he exclaims. Isis McBurrows, 9, lies on her stomach, and scoots under a small trailer where she pets a hen that is hiding with her eggs from the heat.
Aerhealle Chace, 31, who volunteers as Agriculture Program Director at Freedom Org, herded the campers like cats from activity to activity. She said it’s important to teach Black children about sustainable agriculture because Black people often don’t have as much access to that knowledge.
At Emory University in Atlanta, Chace studied culture anthropology and minored in predictive health, which sparked her interest in plant-based medicine and ultimately led her to studying food deserts and sustainable agriculture. She hopes to work for Freedom Org full time once there is enough funding.
“The fact that [sustainable agriculture] has been deemed the key to solving climate change and, or the issues with our food systems …, why wouldn't you want to teach Black children—children, period—about the different ways that they can become more self-sustainable, and help their communities, have better, healthier, active lifestyles, more economic freedom and independence?” she said.
This is an example of “multisolving,” solutions, meaning they address “multiple problems with one policy or investment,” a termed coined by Elizabeth Sawin, director of the Multisolving Institute.
How do you explain soil carbon and compaction to children? Compare it to another system: their own body. “You don't want anybody stepping on your toes, right? So don't step on the plant's toes. It would hurt you just like it would hurt them,” Aerhealle said.
A holistic view of ecosystems teaches teamwork, partnership and interdependence—lessons children can apply to their own relationships, communities and political decisions, she says.
On the last day of camp, Kendrick and the kids are weeding the collard patch at the edge of the greenhouse. His baby collards planted in March are full grown and healthy despite the heat. At 10:30 in the morning it’s already 87 degrees Fahrenheit, but feels like 103.
“Why do we have to weed?” Kendrick asks the sweaty little farmers.
“If weeds compete with vegetables they compete with us,” shouts Isis, who always has an answer and a curious mind.
For a while, they twist and tug the dog fennel and weeds that are invading the collard patch. Kendrick is crouched down in a row, and his daughter, Kazaiah, flops on her stomach across his back with the kind of faux drama that only a child can muster, and complains about the heat.
They move on to a raised bed where he shows them how to transplant okra and peppers. The young farmers take turns digging little holes and inserting the plants by the roots. On his hands and knees, Kendrick helps them press the soil around the stems. Rich black earth collects under their fingernails.
Jada Smith, 12, from Tarboro, has had enough of the heat and rests under the big white tent.
“I don’t like gardening at all. My grandma has a green thumb but I don’t,” she tells me.
(“She doesn’t have a green thumb yet,” Kendrick emphasized.)
But Jada raises goats and lambs, and has won some awards.
“We learned little lessons about climate change in school …,” Jada says. “I don’t want that to happen, and we should do something about it. In a century or so it’s gonna be too late.”
Justice for Black Farmers
The environmental justice movement was born in eastern North Carolina, and Black farmers have been essential to its activism through the decades. In 1999, Timothy Pigford, a farmer from Bladen County, led the Pigford v. Glickman class action discrimination lawsuit against the USDA. The Bladen County Farmers Home Association office repeatedly denied Pigford loans to buy equipment and a farm in the 1970s, offered worthless advice and stonewalled him. They also discouraged his interest in soil conservation and crop diversification—climate solutions.
Instead, they encouraged him to rent equipment at rates that were more than the cost of installments for new equipment. He had to rent farmland from 14 different landlords who refused to sign a contract. In eight years, he spent enough on rent to purchase the farm he wanted to buy.
But the suit resulted in only $1 billion in payouts to fewer than 20,000 Black farmers, barely making a dent in their losses. USDA discrimination against women, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people continued into the 21st century, as documented in lawsuits and reports from independent consulting firms hired by the USDA.
Twenty years later, in 2021, Senate Democrats introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which includes $8 billion for land grants of up to 160 acres to new and current Black farmers, and funding for agriculture programs at historically Black colleges and universities. It establishes an equity commission to combat discrimination at the USDA, and an independent board to address civil rights complaints. It also requires the USDA to establish a Farm Conservation Corps to provide socially disadvantaged young adults with paid farm apprenticeships.
A similar bill, the Black Farmer Restoration Act, was introduced in the NC General Assembly. It would appropriate over $8 million for Black North Carolina farmers.
Yet the federal and state bills have never been brought to a vote, leaving them stuck in legislative limbo.
Later this year, Congress is expected to renew the Farm Bill, which sets funding priorities for America's farmers. The Farm Bill is also an opportunity to address these systemic inequities and reform agricultural practices to address the climate crisis. In a letter to President Biden, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 150 other organizations insists that the “next Farm Bill must also be a climate bill” that centers racial justice, ends hunger, increases access to nutritious food, ensures safety for farm workers, protects farmers and consumers, and ensures the safety of the U.S. food supply.
Two other pieces of federal legislation also address climate change and agriculture.
The Inflation Reduction Act provides $20 billion to help farmers adapt to and help mitigate climate change, including about $4.5 billion annually for climate-focused technical assistance, and mandates that the USDA prioritize projects that use agriculture to address climate change.
The 2021 Agriculture Resilience Act aims to improve agricultural soil health and carbon sequestration by increasing diverse crop rotations, cover cropping and conservation tillage in order to reduce emissions from U.S. farm soils by 75% by 2040.
The bill prioritizes funding to Black, Indigenous and other historically disadvantaged farmers, and will create a national network of regional hubs to help farmers adapt to climate risks and mitigation, and to deliver “science-based, region-specific” support to farmers.
A growing call for reparations for African American descendants of enslaved people could not only help Black farmers hold onto their family land, but also invest in the equipment they need to adopt less-till methods, as well as scale their sustainable farming practices.
Reparations could also cushion the effects of climate change as Black people adapt to a warming world, according to Kirsten Mullen and her partner, William Darity, authors of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.
Mullen is a writer, folklorist and museum curator; Darity is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University. They have spent 40 years making the case for reparations for African American descendants of enslaved people.
“It may be the case that by the time a reparations plan is actually enacted, it may be too late to really have any significant benefit in terms of coping with the climate crisis,” Darity said.
By August 2022 the weather has cooled but the land thirsts for rain. Kendrick is preparing to plant fall crops. Behind his greenhouse is a grassy plot that he hasn’t farmed in two years. The land is resting. He needs to break the soil again.
Kendrick’s maternal grandfather, George Brown, Sr., grew up farming, so he wears the red plaid shirt that his grandfather always wore. He turns the key and his orange tractor roars to life. Driving away from the greenhouse he tows a disc tiller that turns over the dirt in long, shallow furrows. Then he makes short perpendicular passes over them. After about 30 minutes of discing, he churns up a layer of loose soil clods about 4 inches deep that he will later shape into rows with another steel contraption. He said that with the aid of compost and leaves, he won’t need to till this plot again.
Kendrick shuts off the engine. He hops off the tractor and kneels on the freshly tilled soil. It’s a sandy clay good for farming. “Eastern North Carolina’s finest,” he calls it.
He picks up a handful and checks the texture and moisture. It’s damp despite the drought. He lets the soil run between his fingers back into the ground.
He thanks his ancestors and the land. A week later there is a soaking rain.
In January 2023, with the help of a private investor, Kendrick and Freedom Org purchased a 100-acre farm near Princeville with a house, silos, mechanic garage, and a horse pasture. It will host a business incubator, an equipment sharing program, and will be divided and leased as a co-op for Black farmers who will use sustainable methods.
Kendrick is taking pig farming classes at NC A&T.
Freedom Org won a grant to fund a community garden in east Tarboro, and hired Aerhealle as the full time Agriculture Program Director. The community garden is located on floodplain land purchased by FEMA. Aerhealle says she and Kendrick will be experimenting “like nature’s mad scientists” with different flood-resistant landscaping and gardening methods, including “swales and berms, native perennials and fruit trees, rain gardens, heavy mulching, no/low-till in larger production areas, and really anything and everything else that could help increase the land’s ability to divert and absorb water where it’s more beneficial.” You can support Golden Organic Farm by purchasing produce, CSA plans and accessories, or by making a donation.
This series is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative presented in partnership with NC Newsline, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.