As I carry out my SAF fellowship from June to November, I am living and working about an hour east of Raleigh in Johnston County, North Carolina. The visitors’ guide with which the local chamber of commerce provided me when I moved here proclaims that Johnston county is “often characterized by such phrases as ‘small town charm’, ‘friendly’ or a ‘taste of Americana’”. The county is most well-known by outsiders for its tobacco and sweet potato production, Southern cooking at Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N BBQ, the outlet shopping in Smithfield, and the annual Mule Days festival in Benson. Yet after two months here so far, I can say that those who look a little closer will find a variety of realities being lived in Johnson County. From taquerias to yoga studios, there are all sorts of surprises beneath the dominant veneer of the small-town, conservative (North) America stereotype that the county leaders try to sell in their promotional materials.
Proud of their Past
The towns of Benson, where I work, and Smithfield, where I live, are urban enclaves in a sea of agricultural land. This region is the crop-producing center of North Carolina. Johnston County has the most farms and receives the most income from cash crops of any county in the state. In past eras, as in today, Johnston County has succeeded economically due to strategic geographical and transportation advantages. In the eighteenth century, the area’s location between two river basins – the Neuse and Cape Fear – led to the founding of Smithfield and its establishment as the county seat and an important antebellum agricultural center. In the nineteenth century, the arrival of national railroads in the area initiated the settlement of Benson and further strengthened the region’s importance as an agricultural hub because of the distribution advantages offered by a transportation route. Today, Benson and Smithfield are located at the crossroads of two major interstate highways – 40 and 95 – which continues to benefit its focus on agricultural production as well as bring economic opportunities from the Research Triangle and Fort Bragg nearby.
The agricultural production of the region has also evolved over time. Pre-civil war, the region’s plantations were most focused on producing cotton whereas for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tobacco became the most important crop. Today Johnston and surrounding counties continue to produce tobacco as well as a variety of other crops including sweet potatoes, soybeans, corn, cucumbers, blueberries, and watermelon. While industry has recently become an important and growing sector of the region’s economy, agricultural production still continues to maintain the economic importance for the region that it has historically held.
A visitor to Smithfield or Benson today would learn all about this history at one of the many local history museums in the county: from the Boyette Slave and Schoolhouse and the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site to the Selma Historic Union Station and the Tobacco Farm Life Museum. For being so small and rural, Johnston County has put a lot of effort into public history initiatives and reflecting on the historical events and actors that have helped make their county into what it is today. In many ways, I have felt like I am stepping back in time as I adjust to life in small-town Eastern NC, and the local fascination with “history”, “tradition”, and “heritage” just serves to amplify that sensation.
Beyond the Public History
Yet one important facet of the county that I have yet to see reflected in any prominent public displays is the region’s surprisingly large Latino labor force. Despite the dominant discourse, trips to Wal-Mart or the laundromat on a Sunday afternoon tell a different story than an area of solely white, middle-class conservative types. As I have learned most directly through outreach with my job, camps and homes of Hispanic families, mostly from Mexico, are tucked away in all sorts of corners of Johnston county. And this is hardly a new phenomenon. For at least twenty years, there has been a large and growing flow of Latin American and Latino workers to North Carolina (despite a recent slow-down). Many farmworkers who I interview each week at work tell me that they have been coming to the area (often to work for the same farmer) for ten years or more.
According to the 2000 census, only 7.4 percent of Johnston County’s permanent, documented population is Latino, but the impact of this demographic on the region is much larger than the numbers suggest. At face value, this is because the number of Latinos literally swells each summer with arrival of a wave of guest workers with H2A visas and undocumented migrant workers, both who stay only until November. During summer of 2011, there were an estimated 2,623 farmworkers employed in Johnston County and around 12,000 when neighboring Harnett and Sampson counties are included. The majority of these workers are single males from Mexico, but sometimes, whole families come, too, which would make these numbers even larger. These men are not just workers and consumers – their labor is integral to the Johnston County’s ability to continue on as an agricultural powerhouse, carrying forward a heritage of which the area is still very proud.
Evidence of Johnston County’s Latino population is subtle but widespread as I go about my daily life. There are a handful of Mexican and Latin American tiendas, panadarias, and taquerias mixed among other area businesses. “Se habla español” signs in shop windows are fairly common. And a trip to Wal-Mart, the Chinese buffet, the flea mart, of the laundromat on a Sunday afternoon will find me surrounded by Spanish-speaking workers enjoying the town on their one day off.
But while I do see farmworkers and Latino workers around town fairly frequently, in order to really interact with them, I have to go looking for them. Most of the H2A and migrant farmworkers live in camps and trailers tucked away in remote corners of the county, usually off behind a field of crops. They usually have no transportation to go to town whenever they want and only leave home in their employer’s bus, which comes to take them to the fields each morning and drop them off again in the evenings.
For these men and families, life in Johnston County is hard. They are thousands of miles from their families in a country where they do not know the language. They work long hours in the hot sun and then return home to often depressing living conditions. When they get sick, they have no insurance and often no transportation or understanding of the medical system to get them to a public clinic. In many ways, they, too, are grateful for the agricultural “heritage” of Johnston County in that it gives an opportunity to make extra money to send home to their families. But this same agricultural system also causes them many hardships: from housing codes and work safety standards that go unenforced to extremely low wages that barely cover the costs of getting to North Carolina in the first place.
And Then There Was a Spanish-Speaking Gringita Vegetarian…
How do I fit into all of this?? Surprisingly, I have uncovered a few small surprises. Oddly enough, I live right next to a vegetarian restaurant (although it is too expensive for me to actually eat there, I enjoy the irony of it). There is a yoga studio just down the street where I was able to take a free class. I live a five minute run from a three-mile greenway that is perfect for running, and I found a Crossfit gym in the next town over. And one great advantage of living in an agricultural community is that there is always an abundance of fresh fruits and veggies at roadside stands and local farmers markets to fuel my love of cooking.
In reality, I never really fit in. But feeling like an outsider is a learning experience in and of itself. And despite this fact, I can still be of use. While my official duties at work revolve around being a health outreach worker, unofficially, I have decided that one of my most important tasks during my short stay can be to help facilitate the interaction between all the layers of culture in Johnston County. That they rarely mix on their own says a lot about the root causes of the deep problems in our health and agricultural systems that I officially work to address at my job each day.