Can Two Black Millennials Come Out of College, Farm, and Get it Right?
Davon Goodwin describes his journey to a life in agriculture.
The following has been excerpted from interviews conducted by the report editors.
The text has been edited for length and clarity.
A Journey to Farming
After graduating from high school, I came to North Carolina to wrestle at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. That’s where I met my wife. We met at 18, freshman year, kinda by luck. We were both biology majors, met through a mutual friend, and hit it off from there.
My freshman year I took on a lot of debt to attend that university because of the out-of-state fees, so I had the crazy idea that if I joined the army they would pay it off and everything would be perfect. And that was the plan. That was their agreement. I went to basic training, came out, and was feeling like I wasn’t being a soldier because I was reserve, so me and a couple of my friends said, “We need to deploy.” I think, “Well, if I can deploy I can save up enough money to pay off all my student loan debt and then I’m back to normal.”
About a year and a half after I joined I volunteered to go to Kuwait and got deployed in 2009. At that time Kuwait was easy compared to Iraq. It was chill mode. You were at war, but it wasn’t like at war war. People weren’t dying.
About two or three months into that deployment, my squad was moved to Afghanistan. So I’m thinking, “Holy shit! Now this has gone from play–play to war! People are dying there. This can’t be good.”
Then came August 31, 2010. We’re on a routine mission and my vehicle hits a roadside bomb. From the accident, I broke my L1 and L2 in my lower back and suffered a traumatic brain injury. I remember before going unconscious I asked God, “If you get me out of this truck, I’ll make sure I live right from this point on. I’ll do everything you tell me to do.” Then I blacked out.
I won’t say the coolest thing, but one of the coolest things from having a TBI is I forgot everything. When I woke up in Germany, I didn’t know what I wanted anymore. It was like a new me almost.
When I got back to the US and was trying to figure out college, the Army didn’t want me to go back to school because they thought school was going to be too much for me. They wanted me to go through rehab and that’s it, but for some reason all I knew was school, so I had to get back to college. I called Dr. Debbie Hamner, president of the GrowingChange board and a professor I’d had at UNCP, and asked her, “Do you think I can go to college again? Because the Army is telling me no.” She says, “Well, we can do one class at a time.”
Being in school after the injury was so different from the first time. The first time I was going out partying and drinking, having fun, living the college experience. The second time, I was a little older, obviously a little wiser, but the drive was a lot different. I had a different passion, because after being blown up like that, it’s life-altering. You’re not going to have an accident like that and leave the same way you came. It just doesn’t work that way. People say your life flashes before your eyes, and that’s kinda how it was. That was my awakening moment.
So through that one class, I ended up taking two classes and I ended up getting Cs in both of those classes. Well, to me, a C was like failure almost. Dr. Hamner said, “The rest of your classmates got Cs too, and they’ve never been injured. If you can get a C, you could probably get an A.”
From that point right there, that changed my whole life, because that gave me the confidence that I needed to make it. Sometimes in life you need someone else to believe in your dreams other than you. I kinda believed in it, but I needed someone to push me over the edge, and Dr. Hamner was the person. After that first semester, the second semester I took 18 credit hours, and that became the journey.
When I got back to Pembroke, I also still felt a big need to serve. The military ended my career; they retired me, so I felt kinda helpless. All I wanted to do was serve my country—that didn’t work—but I still had this mission to do the right thing.
A year before I graduated, Dr. Hamner introduced me to Noran Sanford, founder of GrowingChange, at a Growing Power meeting.1 Noran Sanford serves as one of this report’s editors and is the founder of GrowingChange, a youth-led not-for-profit. Growing Power was an urban farm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, started by former basketball player and son of sharecroppers Will Allen.2Behind the Rise and Fall of Growing Power | Civil Eats She mentioned that he was working on a project about flipping prisons—turning a decommissioned prison site into a community agricultural center with young people. At first I think, “This doesn’t make any sense!” But Noran tells me about it, gives me a booklet, and I think, “Maybe this could work.” Then I met the youth leaders and thought, “Wow!”
And so throughout my junior and senior year of college, I started really diving deep into understanding the food system and sustainable agriculture. Honestly, growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a farm to me was what you see in the movies. I was never on a farm, so I had no idea what a farm was. The food system is so complex, but once I learned about it, it became this hunger to learn more about a system that’s broken. Being in Pembroke, one of the most poverty-stricken counties in the state, I started looking around and thinking, “Man, you have all of this farming land and all of this hunger. It doesn’t make sense. How can we grow all this food but we have the largest populations in hunger in the state? We grow food, but there’s hunger; we have farmers, but they’re old.” I started to have all these questions and I didn’t have any answers to them.
I started to think about what I was going to do after graduation, when six months before graduating I was diagnosed with narcolepsy. Another blow. So when I finally get to graduation, I’m going on interviews, but no one will hire me because of the narcolepsy. I slept on a friend’s couch, and I slept on Noran’s couch a lot during that summer. Even though I’d graduated and started my little family, on the surface life looked like it was perfect, but deep down inside life was not perfect. At that time I was struggling. I was struggling with a lot of suicidal thoughts. I just wasn’t happy inside because what my life was supposed to be like and what it was were not the same. On my calendar, I was supposed to be in graduate school climbing that ladder to get a PhD in botany, and I still had a bachelors degree in biology and botany. It was one of those things where I thought, “Man, you’re a failure.” I was at a low place, even though there were days with Noran and I was smiling and everything was fine, when I would go home that’s when those thoughts would be there. I was on a lot of medication and life just wasn’t right.
Since I didn’t have a job, I was volunteering a lot around the community, and Noran had a friend who was a pretty wealthy farm owner, Dr. Neil Griffin. Dr. Griffin and his wife, Soledad Griffin, needed a new farm manager of their farm, Fussy Gourmet in Raeford, NC. I sent them my resume, they said, “This is great. You’ll be perfect.” I came up to the farm and I said, “ Where’s the farm?”
Fussy Gourmet: Well, we own the whole entire street. The whole street is ours.
Davon Goodwin: How much land is this?
Fussy Gourmet: 466 acres.
I had no idea of what an acre was. I couldn’t put it together. We drove around the whole farm, and it took hours to drive around the whole farm.
Davon Goodwin: You want me to manage all of this? I know nothing about farming.
Fussy Gourmet: Yep. We have pigs, chickens, and goats. We have grapes, pines, and we have hay. Your job is to put it all together and make it work.
It was one of those moments where you have to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. When I got to that farm, I put my hands in the dirt and started working there, and life just changed. I started to feel, like, an awakening: Maybe this is where I’m supposed to be. I wasn’t making a lot of money at the time, but all that didn’t matter anymore. Something inside is feeling really good about this, so I need to figure out how to keep this going. That farm probably saved my life.
I farmed at Fussy Gourmet Farm for almost four and a half years. I learned everything about farming there. It was incredible the journey that two white old people from rural Alabama gave a young, Black kid. When we look at race now, and I look back at them, they gave me a chance that most people wouldn’t have. Obviously they’re very wealthy, but they gave me a playground for a young farmer. I had every piece of equipment you could have.
One day I left the gate open to the farm and this old woman walked in and wanted to pick some grapes. We had 10 acres of grapes, but at the time we didn’t do pick-your-own. We just sold the grapes commercially, wholesale, and that was it. I gave her a bucket, and that experience was the second awakening to my purpose in life. This lady had to be 80 years old, she couldn’t walk that fast—very slow—but we talked about life and spent hours out there. Through that conversation I realized I needed help and that my community was going to be that help that I needed. From that day on we started doing pick-your-own, and it became the greatest thing for the community and for me.
Farming was great, but it started to become isolating. I lived in a camper on the farm and, like most farmers, I worked by myself, which isn’t good for returning veterans. You need someone to hold you accountable, and my community was that thing to hold me accountable, other than Noran and his group. I think one thing the GrowingChange youth did for me is they became my accountability partners.
I started working with GrowingChange immediately post-undergrad and it was just an opportunity to get more oriented in the community. I participated in a lot of their different initiatives, like FYI, the Food Youth Initiative, and helped in the community garden. When I was with Noran and the GrowingChange youth leaders it was like a little therapy group. The one thing about GrowingChange is that everybody in the group has been through something that normally shouldn’t happen to someone, but it does. GrowingChange, to me, is about what happens when life doesn’t happen on your terms: What are you going to do? That’s the mantra. It’s about resiliency, the resiliency I needed to get me and myself over the edge to become successful.
Through that group and my community, they saved me. If I would not have had these spiritual awakenings or these moments where I did things like leaving the gate open to the farm—something I normally don’t do—I really don’t know if I’d still be here now. If I was still here, I wouldn’t know how life would be, because when you let somebody into you and you become able to share your story it’s powerful. I really believe in storytelling, because I feel like stories will change you to hear someone else’s story. We often think, “You’re fine, nothing’s ever happened to you,” but when you hear someone else’s story they have a whole different perspective on you and what you’ve been through.
Building OTL Farms
When I was at Fussy Gourmet Farms, I started thinking to myself, “I want to be a farmer. How can I afford my own land, and how can I do this at a level that feels good to me?” I wanted to be able to do this as either a full-time job or some type of part time, but I really wanted to figure out how to fix this food system. At the same time, when I look around I don’t see anyone that looks like me; I see old white guys. Where are all the Black people at? We have to farm! We came from slavery to sharecropping, somebody gotta own some land?
As I started diving deep into the food system, I started looking at all the inequities and the inequalities in this system, and it dawned on me that when it comes to agriculture, history is not on our side when it comes to being a person of color. That started to bother me, and people not having access to food started bothering me, so I started to join all these boards across the country, like the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Farmer Veteran Coalition. I started to really become vocal, and people wanted to listen to me. I used that to kick in the door and get my foot in, and it became this thing where people said, “Wow, maybe what he’s saying makes sense. Maybe we have these problems in the system that can be fixed if we look at how history has done marginalized groups of people. How can we look at the past to fix the future?”
Also at the time, me and my girlfriend, who is my wife now, were living separately. She lived in Charlotte; I lived in Raeford, which is two hours away, so I didn’t have my family with me. It was kinda like a push and a pull. On one end, I’m having this great experience, but my family can’t share it with me. I started looking at my finances and trying to figure out, “How can we afford a farm?” Well, then the bad news is: farming is really expensive. Working for two multimillionaires, I didn’t see it. I didn’t pay the bills; I didn’t buy the land; I didn’t buy tractors—it was kinda like the Cribs edition of farming. I’d taken out some money and bought some sheep. I was doing some hay and the grapes, so I had a little bit of money. Then, in the beginning of 2017, the Griffins said they were getting out of farming. When they told me they weren’t going to pay me anymore, I had to sell everything, including my sheep flock.
Eventually, I took a job with Cooperative Extension of Richmond County. Deep down inside it was almost going back to when I didn’t pursue graduate school. I was supposed to be a farmer; now I’m not farming no more. I wanted to feed my community, but I have no money.
I come from a spiritual family and we tend to pray a lot. My grandma said, “Just talk to God and tell him what’s on your heart. Tell him what you want to do and it may happen today, it may not.” So I prayed about it, and I started working with Richmond County starting the summer 2017. At the same time, I started to work on my farm. I had money saved up—about $30,000—because I lived in a camper, so I didn’t have any bills. I asked God, “I don’t know how much this farming thing is going to cost, but I know it’s going to cost more than $30,000.” It was like what I said when I was in that truck: If you could just save me again and get me here, I’ll do the right thing.
Eventually, I bought a 42-acre parcel of land almost on the other side of the prison site from Noran and GrowingChange. Growing up, my brother was a rapper and had a group called Off The Land. One day towards the beginning of starting my farm, I walked into his room in Pittsburgh and saw the group’s logo on the wall. The logo was the letters O-T-L with a crown above it. I told my brother, “You know that’s what we’re doing with the farm, we get everything off the land,” and that’s how the name OTL Farms was born.
Now at OTL Farms we have half an acre of blackberries, we just started vegetable production this spring, and we have 3 acres of Muscadine grapes. Before I saw the vineyard at Fussy Gourmet Farms, I thought grapes only came from California! Then I ate one and, “Oh my god, this is the greatest thing ever.” The grapes are like the size of plums. They have this thick-ass skin, this fleshy inside, all these damn seeds, and I’d never had a grape like that. When you eat it, it’s a whole experience. Everyone has their own way of eating it. Some people, they’ll squeeze the grape in their mouth and only eat the fleshy part. Some people, like me, they eat the whole thing. Some people cut the grape and get all the seeds out.
The whole thing about grapes is there’s a lot of purity in grapes in their life. You don’t get grapes all the time. You go to the grocery right now and get grapes, but that’s because we get grapes from all over the world. Grapes have their season. You spend all this winter—and I look at life the same way—you spend all this time getting ready for an event. Then comes spring and you have buds break. Then comes summer where you have all this adversity. Then comes the fall where you’re bearing the fruits of your labor. That’s how I look at life. You’re going to go through a point in your life when you’re going to have to self-reflect and bring it all in. Then you’re going to have that period where shit’s shining and everything is going right. Then you’re going to have to have that harvest where you pull it all together. I really started liking the process of grapes, from winter pruning to fertilizing in the spring, because it’s so unique—the transition from dormancy to life to fruit to eating.
This year we’re going to plant a little under an acre, next year we’ll plant another acre, so each year we’ll be planting an acre until we get about six to eight acres. So just to give you a little perspective on how many grapes that is: one acre of grapes will produce anywhere between five and seven tons per acre. So you can see when you multiply that over six acres times $2 per pound, it adds up. We hope by the time I’m 35, that’s four years from now, that part of the farm is established, we’re still doing a little vegetable production, we got blackberries coming off, we’re doing value-added, and we’re having fun.
“I want to have fun; I want to feed some people”
This whole time has been a whole journey. These past six years have been about, number one, finding who I am. After 2010, I lost my sense of who Davon was, and through this farming journey, as crazy as it may seem, I found that person again. I’m happier now than I’ve probably ever been. When my wife and I were 18, we were thinking she’s going to be a doctor, I’m going to get my PhD. We’re going to drive Audis and wear fancy clothes. We’re going to be ballin’ with no kids and we’re going to just be so stylish. Now, we’re in rural America. No doctor’s degree, no PhD. Now, my wife’s an ER nurse and I think we’re where we need to be. It just feels right.
I feel like God puts you where He wants you to be. The work that I’m doing to figure out how to make this food system work for everybody, I feel like I went to school and got a PhD. I feel like I work harder to figure out the nuances of a system that’s broken—that was designed that way to work for some and not work for a whole bunch of other people. I’m 31 now, and when you get to a place and it just feels right, you know that’s where you’re supposed to be. Now I’m in Scotland County, owning 42 acres with my wife and our family, and it’s good now. When I look back, it’s like I got everything I wanted—it just looks a lot different. Instead of the Audi A8, I got an F250.
If it wasn’t for Dr. Hamner, if it wasn’t for Noran, I don’t know where I would be. My community stood up for me at a time in my life where I needed someone to stand up for me. What I do now I look at as repayment on that investment. When COVID-19 outbreak began in the community, OTL Farms decided to start a CSA program. I’m not a part of everybody’s community; it’s not right for me to go into a community and decide who needs boxes and who doesn’t. Often people go into other people’s communities, tell them what they need, and that always backfires. Instead we partnered with existing community stakeholders who knew their communities and could identify who needed the boxes. We worked with GrowingChange, Cooperative Extension, and God’s Garden in Norman, NC, to pack and distribute the boxes. The boxes contain five to eight produce items, eggs, and a meat product.
I feel like I’m in debt to my community. It’s a debt that by me doing the work that I’m doing, I can pay this one off. It’s different from student debt, paying on a mortgage, or car payment. I owe this to them to make sure that I give a community that doesn’t have access to fresh food. Every time I make a decision, my mindset is: What do I have to lose? I’m trying to figure out how to feed people who need healthy food—that’s what the next 30 years is giong to look like. Our farm is a case study. Can these two individuals that come from no farming background pull it off in today’s economics? My accountant would say, “Hell, no. It ain’t working.You need to stop right now.” But I do think you can make it. You’re gonna have to pull a rabbit outcha ass, the stars have to align, everything has to go right, but at the end of the day if you’re doing it for the right reasons, your community will stand up for you and make sure you reach the level of success you want.
For me it’s not about becoming a millionaire. No, I want to have fun; I want to feed some people; I want to employ people in my community; I want to make sure they have something to eat. That’s what success looks like to me.