By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Taij Cotten and Victoria Edwards-Cotten quit their jobs in the restaurant industry because they wanted something different – not just a job, but a lifestyle they could share with their kids.
“We wanted to farm, but we knew nothing about farming,” Victoria says. “No one in our family farms.” The Pittsboro natives enrolled in the sustainable agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College and began their search for the perfect farm where they could learn on the job.
“So that’s when Taij and Victoria and little Carleigh came driving up the driveway,” says Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm, a property located just south of the Orange-Chatham county line along White Cross Road that she’s owned since 1984. “And then we started hearing their story.”
“They had the desire,” Cathy says, adding that only a few of their former employees went on to become farmers. “We knew their hearts were totally there. And [those are] my favorite people to farm with.”
Taij says part of his motivation to farm is to provide organically grown vegetables for their daughter, Carleigh, now 7, and son, Titus, 2. Taij originally trained at CCCC to be a barber, but realized he wanted to be outdoors. Victoria, on the other hand, studied forestry at N.C. State University and always knew she didn’t want a desk job. Both were ready to embrace the physicality of farming.
You’re always trying to keep up that certain stamina,” Victoria says of the daily dawn-to-dusk weeding, planting and harvesting. Cathy remembers when Victoria was eight months pregnant with Titus and still working the fields.
The physical demands of farming is a major topic of conversation at agriculture conferences Cathy attends. The 71-year-old former softball player, along with her husband, Michael Perry, 68, a former brick mason and athlete, have learned to use – and protect – their working bodies.
“We’re realistic enough to know that we are one illness or one shattering injury away from not being able to do what we’re doing,” Cathy says. “Michael says that I live in la-la land. I’m aware every day that I am lucky to be able to do what I’m doing. We are above the average age of the farmers in America. I really believe that Taij and Victoria are giving us an opportunity to farm longer.”
Cathy says the mentoring and advice she and Michael give Taij and Victoria is similar to coaching. “But that’s part of being an employer: You have to teach people how to do a job,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re right back there redoing everything. If we’re out transplanting, I’m going to talk about moving your body in a certain way. I think that’s part of just being a supervisor or a teacher.”
The relationship is mutually beneficial. Taij and Victoria bring a contemporary element to farming – social media and Google. “They don’t have an iPhone,” Victoria points out. “They didn’t grow up with all the technology. It’s not second nature for them.”
Both couples genuinely enjoy working side by side. Taij and Victoria consider Perry-winkle Farm their second home and think of Cathy and Michael as more than mentors. “They’re Farm-ma and Farm-pa,” Taij says with a grin. “They’re farm-ily.”
Cathy admits she and Michael avoid hiring couples or anyone with young children because breakups and illnesses can disrupt business continuity in the middle of a season. The Cottens have been the exception since 2018.
“We love Taij and Victoria, and we want to do whatever we can to keep them happy and keep them here working with us,” Cathy says, adding that she and Michael would have to give up farming without their young apprentices. “We’re not going back and training teenagers again. No.”
Farming While Black
Taij and Victoria were unaware of the stigma and historical land loss among Black farmers until they met Tahz Walker, a senior program manager for the Farmers of Color Network at the Rural Advancement Foundation International–USA, which is based in Pittsboro.
“Our history of farming is the day we started until now,” Taij says. “When we reached out [to Tahz] we kind of got immersed into the Black farming world and urban farming and land loss. It was kind of overwhelming and depressing, and that made us look at it like, ‘Do we really want to farm?’”
Cathy and Michael listen and nod their heads as Taij and Victoria talk about their concerns about being Black farmers, especially in a rural area. “If you’re a Black farmer, it was compared to slavery so much that you didn’t want to farm as a Black kid growing up,” Taij says. “You wanted to get out of the country.” Victoria agrees that she also hoped to live in a more urban setting, but they kept finding themselves back in Chatham. “This is home,” Victoria says. “We’re in a farming mecca. There are farms everywhere. And people just kept welcoming us.”
Both couples are grateful for serendipity. At Perry-winkle Farm, Taij and Victoria can live the life they imagine for themselves and their growing family, which includes Cathy and Michael. “When you get here, the world just kind of melts away and it’s like, OK, we’re here to do this,” Victoria says, turning to Taij as they say in unison, “together.”