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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Wanted: Positive Deviants (Part 1)

Jessie and Don Burnette with youngest son, Roy.

Everywhere that I’ve engaged in agricultural development work, I’ve benefited from at least one farmer or gardener who served as a model and source of inspiration for myself, my colleagues and especially our community-based partners. Having exceptionally productive and well run holdings, these people stand out from neighboring smallholders despite facing similar environmental challenges as well as poor access to inputs (fertilizers, etc.) and finances. Often living on the margins of society, they may also experience discrimination. These achievers are sometimes referred to as “positive deviants.”

In many ways my grandparents, Don and Jessie Burnette, were positive deviants among small-scale farmers and gardeners in Western North Carolina from the 1940s on through at least the 60s. Owning 80 acres of very mountainous land - which was bought during the Great Depression – and lacking access to tractors, gasoline-powered tillers or even a farm truck, they still produced enough for their family of 10 to eat along with certain products to sell. Despite limited schooling, they were smart and knew where to get help when needed.

For example, the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service partnered with my grandparents to improve their farm productivity and income. This agency helped them with tobacco farming (this was 60-70 years ago), egg production, growing apples and raising ornamental crops such as boxwood as well as hemlock and Christmas trees. In return for the assistance, Don and Jessie served as local home and farm demonstrators.

By the early 1960s, with most of their eight children out of the house, they had downsized their farm efforts. However, they continued to supplement their modest household income through gardening, tending chickens and milk cows as well as continued production of ornamentals. And as long as the gardening continued, neighbors appreciated that they walked-the-walk and came to them for advice.

Burnette family farm, Brush Creek, NC

As one of 22 grandchildren, I learned much from their example. I came to realize that to promote good agriculture nothing can beat the knowledge and demonstrative efforts of exceptional farmers and gardeners. Over the past three decades of international agriculture development and extension work, in every location of service, I have looked for Dons and Jessies; those positive deviants who can inform and inspire others to do what they can with what they have.

I will introduce more model farmers and gardeners that I have known in upcoming posts. And I’ll keep you updated on our ongoing search for positive deviants in Southwest Florida’s farmworker community.

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