Despite Urban Sprawl and Industry, a Durham Family Collard Farm Lives On | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Despite Urban Sprawl and Industry, a Durham Family Collard Farm Lives On 

click to enlarge 161204_ab_collardfarm_0027.jpg

Photo by Alex Boerner

The rows of collard greens at Jenkins Farm owe their tidiness to a 1959 Ford tractor. A walk through the Jenkins farm, tucked just inside the city line in southeast Durham, is a tour of mid-century machinery, names like Farmall, Ferguson, and Ford. Near the '59, a 1952 Ford Golden Jubilee sits waiting for repairs. It was originally on a neighboring farm, purchased new from the Ford tractor dealership less than a mile down the road. Both the neighbor's farm and the dealership are forest now.

"This all used to be farm," Greg Jenkins says, waving his hand at half of Durham County. The surrounding Lowe's Grove community was so invested in farming that, a century ago, it had a residential farm-life school with two hundred students and North Carolina's first credit union, overseen by the Department of Agriculture. Now the landscape is dominated by strip malls and the Research Triangle Park. Bayer CropScience replaced the actual crops. Except, that is, for the nine acres of collard greens at Jenkins Farm.

The Jenkinses survive because, as one woman tells me as she loads her SUV with the massive plants, "They grow the best collards you've ever had." They also sell firewood, sweet potatoes, and pickled vegetables, but collards keep the gravel driveway full of cars, especially the week before Thanksgiving. Locals come regularly, some to haul as much as possible to relatives too far north to be in collard country. Mail-order requests go to New Jersey and California. Their customers, a mix of white, black, and Asian, look like Durham.

And at four dollars per plant, the price for the last decade, Jenkins Farm collards are a better deal than the $66 frozen greens Neiman Marcus will sell you. There's no debate over whether the Jenkins family can grow collards. But what makes them continue when the neighbors have all called it quits?

Before I can ask, a customer arrives, and Gene Jenkins, who first farmed this land in 1971, walks her into the field. She totes a plastic bag only slightly smaller than the ones used to store mattresses, and he carries one of the long machetes the family uses to chop the plant from its roots, creating what looks like an oversize bouquet of green elephant ears. Jenkins Farm customers choose their plants, but Gene suggests ones with smaller, more tender leaves.

When his father received a terminal cancer diagnosis and sold his farm in Chatham County, Gene brought his parents to Durham. And there on Jenkins Farm, the first two generations lived and farmed together until his father died in 1990.

"I'm sure that being here, in these fields, saved him," Gene says. Generation three came soon after the farm started, when Gene's children, Greg and Cindy, were born. Greg married, and his wife, Kim, became the farm's bookkeeper. Greg and Kim's eight-year-old daughter, Langdon, is generation four. Langdon was less than two months old when a Thanksgiving rush hit, so they put her bassinet in the barn and Kim jumped back into the steady stream of customers.

When I ask who cooks the collards on Jenkins Farm, Greg and Kim send me inside the house, where Greg's mother, Tootsie, also known as the Collard Lady, coaxes a pot of greens to a boil. On the counter nearby, turnips rest like a box of new baseballs. Two slabs of fatback wait for their cue. The eggs and fats for her other task before lunch—a pound cake—sit beside the sink, coming to room temperature.

Tootsie worked at the Liggett & Myers factory until she left to be the Collard Lady, full-time farm matriarch. Her guide to greens is less a recipe than a plea for patience. Have the patience to wash the greens two times, maybe more, to remove any grit. Have the patience to let them simmer on the stove as long as they must. Salt and pepper? Sure. Serve with vinegar? It's not her preference, but that's fine. Those things matter so much less than patience.

Back outside, I still want to know why the family continues to plant and harvest. The work is hard. Both Greg and Kim hold day jobs in addition to farming. Nine acres of crops aren't going to make anyone rich in North Carolina, but an RTP-adjacent tract that size could bring a big return in the current market. The answer comes when Greg mentions organic farming.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner

"We make it as organic as we possibly can," he says. At first, I'm puzzled. Jenkins Farm isn't chasing trends or selling at markets. Why organic, then?

"Because that's the tradition, the way we've always done it." Greg recites a long list of natural fertilizers and biopesticides his family has used since "forever." This place, and its crop, lets Greg and his clan reach back generations, keeping them alive, as present as their old tractors. When Greg tells me he is sure his daughter will carry it on, I understand why. I want him to be right. We walk into the field to find my plants.

Back home, I rinse my greens twice, as Tootsie says. I don't rush them off the stove after an hour, letting another thirty minutes pass. The end result is a pot of dark, tender greens and potlikker worth drinking on its own. Patience pays off. But with as little as I did, I know the true credit goes to Jenkins Farm. After all, they grow the best collards you'll ever eat.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Patience for Potlikker."

More by Matthew Poindexter

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