Millard Locklear and Connie

‘Climate heroes’ in Robeson County help lead NC toward more sustainable farming

By Teri Saylor

The temperature was rising on a spring morning in early April as Connie Locklear admired her beehives. She sweet-talked dozens of buzzing honeybees gathering around two colorful wood boxes.

“Good morning,” she cooed. “Just look at y’all.”

Connie recently moved the hives to a secluded sunny spot behind a shed on her Robeson County property where they won’t be disturbed. The bees seem to approve of their new home.

“They are loving it out here today, oh yeah,” she said.

She’ll be gathering honey before the end of May.

When it comes to beekeeping, Connie admits she’s a newbie. But trying new things is all in a day’s work for her and her husband, Millard. Together, the Locklears own New Ground Farm in Pembroke. They were named N.C. A&T State University’s 2022 Small Farm Family of the Year.

Keep up with more news from the Border Belt Independent. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

The Locklears are members of the Lumbee tribe in southeastern North Carolina, and their life stories are woven from history, tradition and the carefully cultivated soil that is their farm’s lifeblood. They are farming on their ancestral ground, where caring for the land and giving back are part of their family’s farming legacy.

For five generations, Millard’s family toiled on a conventional farm, growing tobacco, corn, soybeans, and wheat, along with a sizable crop of vegetables. When Millard came of age, he pursued a career as an engineer with DuPont, making him the first of his kin to leave the farm.

“My mother never worked in the public sector, she always worked on the farm,” he said. “My daddy was in the military and fought in World War II, and when he came home, he started farming.”

Connie Locklear started keeping bees a couple of years ago. She recently moved them into a new, secluded location where they are thriving.
Photo by Teri Saylor

Connie grew up in a farm family too and left for a career in the Robeson County public school system.

Now retired, both are spending their golden years farming their land. But this is neither their daddies’ nor their granddaddies’ farms. They’ve turned New Ground Farm into a laboratory of sorts, a place to fuel their environmental and social activism and to lift up their community. 

New Ground Farm stretches across 100 acres in rural Pembroke. The Locklears use a quarter of that land to raise specialty and experimental crops. Their work focuses on health, safety and environmental stewardship, and they have worked closely with the Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and various organizations to support on-farm research and training programs for students and nonprofits. 

The small family operation runs on hard work and sweat. 

Joining Connie and Millard is their son Duncan Locklear and Marlena Chieffo, an apprentice from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ Boots on the Ground program for veterans. 

Chieffo, of Red Springs, wanted to learn about agriculture after her four-year tour of duty as an Army medic at Fort Bragg. The UNC Pembroke grad describes her role as “just doing whatever anybody tells me to do,” and says she loves the experience.

Marlena Chieffo is an apprentice at New Ground Farm.
Photo by Teri Saylor

“When I came out here, I was green to all of it,” she said. “The Locklears have been so patient, taking the time to teach me.”

As Connie sees it, Chieffo is key to getting work done on the farm. From hauling equipment, to digging potatoes and picking vegetables, to pulling weeds, Chieffo is excelling at her job.

“Marlena’s a weed demon, Connie said.

Stewards of the environment

If the Locklears’ top goal is to pass their knowledge along to young farmers like Chieffo, stewardship of their land and the environment is their passion.

With support from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and the Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T, they have adopted climate resilient farming techniques, including soil enrichment practices like growing cover crops and employing no-till farming methods rather than using commercial fertilizers.

The Locklears are also using high tunnels, a type of greenhouse covered in polyurethane that enables farmers to grow healthy produce in a controlled environment.

Inside high tunnels, farmers use methods like drip irrigation to deliver water and nutrients to their soil and roots. The system provides shelter against extreme precipitation and temperature – hallmarks of climate change. It also allows farmers to adopt healthy soil practices, protect plants from pesticide drift and control air quality.

Marlena Chieffo helps manage a growing tunnel at New Ground Farm.
Photo by Teri Saylor

Priced at a few thousand dollars per tunnel, the technology enables farmers to extend their growing seasons by months. This keeps produce local longer, reduces the distance food travels and lowers the emissions due to transportation.

Last January, a row of early-blooming strawberries greeted a visitor to Connie’s high tunnel, and by the end of February, she had already started harvesting them. In April, when conventional farms were just opening their pick-your-own operations, she was still gathering plump, juicy fruit. 

For Millard, global warming is enemy No. 1, and he’s on a mission to stand up to climate change by reducing the farm’s carbon footprint. 

“This climate resilience thing is about how much we can reduce fossil fuels,” he said. “When Connie saw how those greenhouses can help eliminate fossil fuels on near about every farm, she said she wants 20 more of them.” He laughed and calculated a cost of $100,000.

While that seems like a healthy price tag, investing in high tunnel technology offers a significant payback.

Vincent Gauthier, a senior analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund, has studied the impact of climate-resilient practices on farms in three regions of North Carolina. He has learned that growing plants in high tunnels increases efficiency and revenues while lowering operating costs.

“By investing in high tunnels, the Locklears have been able to extend the length of their growing and harvesting season and grow higher quality vegetables, which increased their revenues by over $9,000 in one year,” he said. 

Sharing their knowledge

Inside a tunnel, Connie pointed to a vast landscape of white grow bags, six double rows stretching end to end across the entire length of the facility. In each bag, small cucumber leaves and stems poked through rich, dark soil.

It’s part of an experiment she’s working on with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association to test different varieties of cucumbers and learn their characteristics, such as disease and climate resistance and production volumes. 

In setting up the study which originally called for the cucumbers to grow out of the ground rather than in bags, Connie ran into an obstacle. She had planted carrots in those beds.

“We didn’t want to take the carrots out of the ground, so we just improvised and put the bags in the middle of the rows, and when the carrots come out, we’ll transfer the cucumbers in,” she said. “It’s not always clean cut, but part of the fun is figuring it all out, sort of like a puzzle.”

As Gauthier sees it, even the Locklears’ methods for correcting mistakes and overcoming obstacles are valuable to the big picture and benefit farmers everywhere.

“They are transferring their knowledge to other producers in their area and sharing it across diverse platforms, like the annual North Carolina Small Farms Week and at events like Farm Aid,” he said. 

Last September, the Locklears joined other North Carolina small farmers featured at the Farm Aid festival and concert in Raleigh, putting them on a first-name basis with performing artists like Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, and John Mellencamp, the faces of the Farm Aid movement, which advocates for small producers like New Ground Farm.

Millard Locklear, left, talks with performing artist Dave Matthews and farmer Ilana Richards from Georgia. Locklear and Richards were featured at the 2022 Farm Aid festival and concert in Raleigh.
Photo by Scott Strebel for Farm Aid

The Locklears were featured in a short documentary and Millard participated in a press conference at the day-long event at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre.

“We pointed to the role farmers play in stewarding our soil, water, and air and how they farm in ways that help us mitigate climate change,” said Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid communications director.

In the years since Farm Aid began in 1985, the event has focused on the ongoing challenges farmers face, including volatility in the financial markets, corporate factory farming, the consolidation of power and the lack of competition, Fahy said.

“And now, climate change is at the top of the list of challenges,” she said. “We call farmers like the Locklears climate heroes, and we want to emphasize how important they are in addressing climate change.”

Fostering a healthy community

Lately, Millard has been spending less time on the farm, holding down a 9-to-5 job at the Lumbee headquarters. He has taken on a new role managing the recently launched Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, a program created from a $1 million fundraising campaign for new tribal initiatives. 

The department aims to strengthen farming communities by creating agricultural opportunities and promoting tribal food sovereignty – the act of raising meat and produce locally, selling it directly to the community and keeping revenues in the community, like a “circle of life,” Millard said.

Blueberry bushes have been thriving on the Locklears’ land for more than 37 years.
Photo by Teri Saylor

“The Lumbee tribe has always worked to improve our community through housing and food, but we were relying on government programs like SNAP,” he said, referring to the food assistance program commonly known as food stamps for low-income residents. “Now we’re looking at how can we go back and develop our systems, so more of the revenue will come back to our community and our farmers.”

As Millard sees it, programs designed to lift up one sector of the population can provide opportunities for others, including farmers.

As a Tier 1 county with a population of just under 117,000, Robeson is one of the most distressed counties in North Carolina, second only to neighboring Scotland County, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce. Nearly 28% of residents live in poverty in Robeson County, where the median household income is just over $39,000. 

Healthcare experts have told tribal leaders that if they can get fresher, healthier food to local citizens, many chronic problems like obesity and diabetes could be reduced or eliminated. 

Focusing on senior citizens, the tribe provides food boxes for residents at local senior villages and has developed a six-acre plot at the Lumbee Tribe Cultural Center to raise basic garden vegetables, which increase supply and feed a larger aging population. 

Millard also has his eye on his community’s youngest residents, worried they are not getting enough nutritious food during the summer months when they are not in school. He’s at work strategizing ways to ensure kids get enough to eat and to open up opportunities for local farmers to provide the food.

Last October, North Carolina entered into cooperative agreements with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for funding to purchase locally and regionally grown food from farmers and producers and distribute it to underserved communities and schools through the state’s network of food hubs. New Ground Farm is part of the Sandhills AgInnovation Center hub in Richmond County. 

“This program kicks off next spring and will help improve child nutrition and offer additional marketing opportunities for local farmers to provide that food,” Millard said.  

Using grow bags inside high tunnels enables farmers like the Locklears to control the climate and water intake.
Photo by Teri Saylor

Paying it forward

Millard’s work doesn’t stop with cultivating his own crops and building his business.

He is also busy developing a local farmers’ cooperative, and with help from the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub at UNC Pembroke, he is setting up an incubator farm to foster young Lumbee growers. 

“I can’t help everyone individually, but for young American Indian farmers, I have equipment I can share with them and we can use our Lumbee resources to develop opportunities for them,” he said.

Mark Blevins, assistant administrator for agricultural and natural resources for the Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T, holds the Locklears out as an example for other farmers to follow.

“As lifelong learners Millard and Connie spend a lot of time attending workshops, trainings and conferences,” he said. “They invite experts onto their farm as teachers and mentors, and then invite students to visit and tour so they can pass the knowledge along.”

The Locklears also work with UNC Pembroke to offer research opportunities and hands-on experiences for students in the school’s sustainable agriculture program. And they provide fresh local produce to the university’s food service, all with good health in mind.

Certification through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Harmonized Good Agriculture Practices enables them to sell to local wholesale markets. They also contribute to produce boxes and sell to Weaver Street Market in Chapel Hill and restaurants across the state. They are marketing fresh, local produce through food distribution services like Happy Dirt and Fresh Point.

Keeping nutritious food close to home is the Locklears’ mission to care for their land and the environment, and to support their community and local producers by ensuring that together they will create healthy and productive systems for future generations.

“The Locklears are unique in that they are not just doing it for their home farm, but also showing others how it can be done,” Blevins said. “They are carrying on their families’ legacies in their community, and they don’t want it to end with them.”

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

Millard Locklear and Connie
Connie and Millard Locklear run New Ground Farm in Pembroke.