I first met Mary James and her late husband, Nelson, in 2006 when I had the chance to visit their hog farm in Maple Hill, North Carolina, a small town tucked in between Burgaw and Jacksonville. Established in the 1750s, Nelson’s family is believed to have been one of the first to settle in the area. Their 25-acre farm is surrounded by fields, woodlands, tall pine trees, and churches but you have to drive a distance to find other amenities.
Returning almost 15 years later, it was as if nothing had changed, including Mary herself! Full of vitality and inner faith, it’s hard to believe Mary is 70 years old. When asked the secret to her youthful energy and appearance, she says, “I take care of myself, eat well, treat people the way I want to be treated, stay close to God and I don’t use soap, which dries out my skin.”
Mary met Nelson in Highschool and they were married in 1969. She never imagined herself becoming a farmer. In fact she recalls, “I used to think that I was ‘too cute’ to be a farmer.” But farm she did and for most of her entire adult life. One of the first things Mary did when she joined Nelson on the farm was to find them another, more lucrative market for their hogs, which they were already raising outdoors on pasture using humane methods. That led the Nelsons to become one of the founding members of the NC Natural Hog Growers Association and enabled them to sell their hogs into premium markets like Whole Foods Market and later Firsthand Foods. “That was a real turning point for us. Our farm finally started to feel like it was going ‘up the ladder’ rather than down.”
Next they expanded their offerings and began producing pasture-raised chickens, eggs, turkeys, rabbits, flowers and mushrooms. They developed a robust direct-to-consumer effort and began selling off the farm and at various farmers markets, including in Wilmington and Raleigh. Mary went on to develop a cooking school video series featuring farm fresh produce, host farm tours and educational events, and speak on panels and at small-farm conferences. In 2008, she and Nelson were awarded “Farmers of the Year” by NCA& T University.
Mary and Nelson have six children, all of whom live and work close by and their eldest son, Gerald, is taking over the hog operation. “This land and the hogs are our legacy. Its unusual that we are African American farmers and I am determined that we hold on to what our forefathers gave us.” When I asked Mary what she perceives to be the challenges facing Black farmers, she replied,” I just want my son to have opportunities. I’d like to see doors opening to him. I’d like to see it be a lot less complicated to access to capital, knowledge and resources.”
Nelson passed away in 2019. Mary recalls that before he died, he whispered to his daughter-in-law, “Tell Pie (Mary’s nickname) to enjoy her life.” Mary has heeded his final wishes. Always active in her local AME church, in 2013 she was called into the ministry and has been pursuing her religious education ever since. In 2018, she received her BA in Religion and once ordained, joined the Ministry’s staff. She took a year off to help Nelson manage his illness and is now pursuing her graduate degree in Divinity from the Charlotte Christian College Theological Seminary.
Mary will be 73 when she graduates. “I miss Nelson. We were together and married for over 50 years. But I know he went home to be with the Lord and that he’d want me to keep on doing all that I do.”