Durham wanted a Black woman farmer on its soil and water board. It didn’t happen.

·4 min read

Phoebe Gooding does conservation work and has a small farm in Durham County. So she was excited when she was nominated for the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District board.

The N.C. Soil and Water Commission appointed Kenyon P. Browning to fill the vacant position on the board instead.

Browning grew up on a farm on the edge of Durham County and served as a long-time assistant football coach at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s also served on the the county’s Farmland Protection Advisory board and the farm bureau, he said.

But Gooding said she had more relevant experience to fill the vacancy.

“Members of the board enthusiastically voted for me because of my background in conservation and environmental justice, my board experience, and because of the perspective and insights I can offer firsthand as a BlPOC [Black person of color] female small farmer,” Gooding wrote in a petition that started on Dec. 1.

Aside from running Hawk’s Nest Healing Gardens, a family-owned farm in Durham, Gooding serves as the program and organizing director for Toxic Free NC, an agriculture program.

She has a bachelor of science degree in Natural Resource Studies with a minor in Recreation and Wildlife, as well as a master’s degree in Environmental Studies with a concentration on Conservation Biology. She is also a vendor at the Black Farmers Market and is working with her older son to start an environmental club at Middle College High School in Durham.

Browning told The News & Observer he could not comment on being chosen over Gooding “because I didn’t know about it, and I’m just getting started with board.”

Soil and Water Conservation District

Durham’s Soil and Water board oversees farmland preservation, offers best practices for maintaining farmland and prioritizes the financial costs associated with repairing the health of Durham’s farmland and waterways, as required by state and federal governments.

It has five voting members, three currently appointed and two elected, according to its website. The board also has seven associate supervisors who contribute but do not vote.

“Over the years, we’ve realized that more and more farmland is being sold to developers,” said Melissa Rooney, an associate supervisor who has served for eight years. “Our big farms are disappearing, and we are having more urban farms.”

Rooney described Gooding’s farming at Hawk’s Nest as the kind that represents the growing population of urban farmers throughout Durham.

“There are big components these days that have a lot to do with urban farming and these rural farmers feel threatened by that,” Rooney said. “And whether the rural farmers like it or not, she is a farmer.”

How the appointment was made

The local board unanimously recommending Gooding for the board’s vacancy in June.

The state commission was scheduled to discuss it in July but pushed it to September without explanation, according to the Durham board.

After the September meeting, the local board received a letter that the commission had appointed Browning.

In the letter, sent by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the state cited N.C. General Statute 139-7, which authorizes the “commission to appoint any resident for a County to their local District Board who is willing to serve in that capacity. “

According to the letter, the state commission appointed Browning because he “more closely aligns with the commission’s recent emphasis on increasing farmer representation among district supervisors.”

The state agriculture department did not respond Friday to The N&O’s requests for comment for this story.

Overturning the appointment

According to Rooney and state Sen. Natalie S. Murdock, who served on the Durham County Soil and Water board before joining the legislature, the state commission has always accepted the local board’s recommendations..

“During my time as a soil and water supervisor, I was not aware of a time where we submitted a recommendation for someone to be appointed and it was not approved, “ Murdock said. “I am very concerned about the news that I have heard.”

The local board believed Gooding’s experience suited her for the role, according to a letter signed by six members of the board.

“I will be reaching out to the North Carolina Soil and Water Conservation Commission myself to find out and get more information about why they that made that decision and how they justified that decision,” said Murdock.

The Durham Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6, in the second-floor conference room of the Durham County Administration Building at 201 E. Main St. Meetings are open to the public.

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