From Barren to Blossom: Conetoe’s Oasis of Education Through Farming


In the heart of Conetoe, North Carolina, where access to fresh, nutritious food is challenging, Reverend Richard Joyner embarked on a transformative journey in 2007. Facing the reality of being situated in one of the country’s “food deserts,” with the nearest grocery store 10 miles away, Joyner envisioned a holistic solution that would address the immediate need for sustenance and nurture the growth of the community’s young minds.

Establishing the Conetoe Family Life Center, Joyner, with the help of more than 80 enthusiastic young people, cultivated a 25-acre property into a thriving space featuring gardens, nature trails, and classrooms. 

This initiative aims to combat the scarcity of fresh produce by planning, planting, and harvesting nearly 50,000 pounds of food annually, benefiting the local residents and generating funds for essential resources like school supplies and scholarships. Additionally, the initiative extended its reach through a youth grant program supporting over 20 small gardens within the community.

The program goes beyond traditional education methods, integrating math, reading, science, and technology through practical applications on the farm. As Joyner called it, “An education and a sustainable piece for your families.” 

The impact of Joyner’s efforts became evident in 2014 when health metrics showed a decrease in emergency room visits, a reduction in health risk factors, and an increase in high school graduation rates. Recognized for his remarkable contributions, Joyner was named a Top 10 CNN Hero in 2015 and honored as one of 22 healthcare heroes by Triangle Business Journal in 2017.

Rev. Joyner proudly declares, “We’ve graduated 100 kids from this program.”  Each success story is a testament to the remarkable impact of this initiative, breaking barriers and shaping destinies. 

One of those stories stood out to Joyner: “Tobias Hopkins. They put him here because they said he was a failure – that he wasn’t going to make it. Now, this guy is doing great: he’s married, he’s finished college. He found himself. He never got suspended from school again after the program.” 

His remarkable journey, as Joyner alludes, mirrors the transformative power of the Conetoe Family Life Center, where futures reshape and resilience is cultivated. “He became a leader of students and he became a leader for his family.” 

Emphasizing the spiritual and communal aspects of the project, Joyner expressed the importance of a relationship with the land and the divine, stating, “This is a spiritual process. This has to be a relationship that is not something about some futuristic process, it’s about how we impact today. If you can’t see God out here, you just can’t see. This is God.”

Joyner’s commitment to community development and human flourishing, especially the town’s youth, was clear: “Our goal is not necessarily raising these crops; our goal is raising these children. This is a by-product, it’s a tool. If we weren’t raising these children, none of this would matter.”

Rev. Joyner and the Conetoe Family Life Center are also teaming up with Pinetops ECU Health Clinic to implement the Food is Medicine program with the aim to “connect community members with food that will improve their overall health and the health of their families.” The process is straightforward: individuals express their interest in the Food is Medicine program to their doctors, visit designated Produce Bus Stops at Pines Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and Pinetops Housing Authority, and incorporate routine doctor appointments to collect medical data. 

Community initiatives in the area continue to spread; less than 10 miles away in Princeville, the oldest town established by African-Americans in the United States, Jason Lindsay worked with local high-school student-athletes on a community garden project. Lindsay envisions one side featuring raised beds for annual crops, while the other side will serve as a seating area resembling an outdoor classroom. The landscape will be adorned with vines bearing blackberries and blueberries, surrounded by perennial fruit trees.

The primary objective of this project, as Lindsay emphasizes, is to create a sense of permanence. He states, “Especially in a community like this that is consistently displaced, to put down something that will naturally come back year after year, it builds principles within people’s minds.” This sentiment is particularly relevant given the recurrent major floods in the area, which have inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the community. 

When reflecting on the challenges faced at the Conetoe Family Life Center, Rev. Joyner spoke of the pain in witnessing the community sometimes rejecting the opportunities for self-sufficiency. “The painful part is to see opportunities that we can produce, people refuse to produce and would rather stand in line and beg for stuff that they can produce. That’s a hard thing to watch people do.”

Now, at the age of 70, Joyner is starting to think of building a succession plan, ensuring the continuation of his impactful work. He says in two to four years he will be working on finding successors, and in five to ten years he’ll shift to being a supportive observer. 

With a vision that extends beyond the immediate future, he hopes seniors increasingly play a crucial role in the community. “Seniors, we need to find a place to coach, support, and be a voice.” 

The story of Reverend Richard Joyner and the Conetoe Family Life Center is one of resilience, collective empowerment, and a testament to the transformative power of sustainable agriculture and education in the community.

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