Hill Family Farm Featured on “Good Morning America”
New Approaches to Farming Breathe Life Into Rural North Carolina Communities
Story by: Drew Wayland
Photos by: Hanna Wondmagegn
Eunice Hill came to Edgecombe County so Sly could fly.
Sylvester ‘Sly’ Hill Sr. is her husband, an aerospace engineer from northern Virginia with a knack for tinkering, building and small details. At the end of a long gravel road just off Highway 33, the couple lives in a little brown farmhouse surrounded by herb gardens, animal pens, bee hives and an overgrown runway for the single-seat aircrafts Sly builds by hand.
Inside, they display a veritable herboristeria of plants, herbs and medicinal tinctures collected by Eunice over the 12 years they’ve called Edgecombe home.
“We’re not your typical farmers,” says Eunice, 59.
The Hills are part of a community of Black farmers in the Rocky Mount area who are doing atypical work to breathe life back into Black agriculture in the South. Friends of theirs, such as Dallas Robinson and Earl Ijames, are focusing on history and education to help change the local perceptions about Black farming.
This past summer on the Hill Family Farm was a little different. A year ago, there might have been as many as 250 children on the farm on any given day, learning to feed Pancho the Mediterranean donkey, or observing as Sly delivers the kids of a mother goat. This was called the Youth Agricultural Summer Program, a skills-learning opportunity for low-income students and those with learning disabilities to earn extra credit toward their high school diplomas.
In the wake of a generational pandemic, Eunice and Sly must tend to the animals on their own again.
“Having the children out here, it brought so much life to this place,” says Eunice, gesturing out toward empty fields. The vegetables are still being grown and harvested, but the heart of the farm is missing.
The advent of COVID-19 canceled the 2020 summer program. In the past, the Hills, with the help of a few volunteers, taught the students where food comes from, how to care for animals, and how to prepare healthy food. Volunteers taught zumba, yoga and meditation.
“Animals are great teachers,” says Sly with a wry smile. “You gotta learn that if you walk behind a donkey, you’re gonna get kicked.”
Eunice says that the Youth Agricultural Program doesn’t make them any money, but that the children are a worthy investment for the future.
“It’s important for us to make this a community of love and healthy living,” Eunice says. She learned the value of these things growing up in Puerto Rico, where, “you could go walk 10 minutes out of town and pick a dozen mangoes from a tree that everybody got to enjoy.”
Sharing, and helping others who have less than yourself, is part of Eunice’s faith and her core philosophy. From 2012 to 2015, she traveled around the country with the United Church of Christ. She loved this work, but in 2015 she lost her job. It wasn’t long after that she got a call from Halifax High School exceptional children coordinator, asking if she would take some exceptional students on her farm, to teach them life skills for extra credit.
The decision to welcome so many strangers into their home was not an easy one. But Eunice and sly prayed about it in the end they opened their arms to a community of children. “I remember there was one little girl from town who didn’t really have much,” Sly says. “She saw one of these goats have a kid and she said to me and Eunice, ‘I could you name the baby goat after me, and they did.
“We would see her time to time after that,” Eunice adds, “and she’d always ask ‘how my baby doing Ms. Hill?’ and I’d say ‘well now your baby’s got babies! Your baby’s a grandmother now!’ It’s experiences like that, they mean so much to these kids.”