NCSSM alumnus Julius Tillery ‘04 gives back to communities like the one that raised him by focusing on small farms. He also own his own business, Black Cotton, and continues to run his family’s intergenerational farm.
NCSSM alumnus Julius Tillery ‘04 is a rising star in North Carolina’s agricultural industry. A mover and shaker in the field, he has started his own company, while also taking on various additional projects to stimulate rural development in the state. We sat down to talk about the inspiring work that he does, and how his time at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics helped him get where he is today.
Following his family’s vocational legacy in agriculture, Tillery’s position as a farm resources coordinator with The Conservation Fund helps to spur advancement in agrarian communities across the state. A notable young leader in the field, Tillery sits on national boards for the American Community Garden Association as well as the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Advisory Council. He owns his own company, called Black Cotton, and continues to be active in running his own family’s 125-acre farm in Rich Square, NC, where he grew up working the land. According to Tillery, his time at NCSSM has been instrumental in his success.
Tillery explains that, despite agriculture being the number one industry in North Carolina, small farms are suffering, and black farmers even more so. His mission is to find creative solutions in both production and marketing to bring opportunity to his community and others like it. “I’m always trying to come up with tools to help farmers,” he said.
As farm resources coordinator for The Conservation Fund, Tillery takes on a myriad of activities. His undertakings range from funding farmers’ markets and establishing food co-operatives; to working with small-scale farmers to outline business plans, arrange workshops, and implement training activities; to bridging the gaps between food producers in need of new markets and food deserts in need of buying options for fresh produce.
“The focus of our food and farm initiative work is to connect limited-resource farmers to low-income consumers. So farmers that have a tough time keeping their farms sustainable, we connect these people to the people who are in need of good food,” he says. His position with The Conservation Fund also involves supporting food access groups with storage and transportation as well as starting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) marketing programs.
Connecting producers and consumers by establishing food hubs, or areas of food aggregation and distribution, is another major way to spur economic growth. Tillery’s work involves establishing new hubs in underserved areas. Jobs created through the food value chain system trickle into many different sectors, says Tillery. “If you create a food hub, you’re giving jobs to farmers, farm hands to help them plant the crops, then you’ll have people that work in the washing stations and the butchery departments.”
In Vance County, a community garden Tillery helped start in partnership with the Green Rural Development Organization and the Southern Organic Female Farmers Association has grown in scale to become a “micro-farm.” Due to the farm’s presence, Tillery says, policing of the area has increased and the area’s perennially high crime rates have gone down. Marion Brodie Williams, who was instrumental in the development process, now sits on the City Council for Henderson, NC, illustrating the link between this kind of development and pro-social community engagement, says Tillery.
Projects like this one have also sparked an increase in agritourism dollars flowing into many cash-strapped counties in NC. Tillery has been an advocate for legislation that waives permit fees for infrastructure that will attract agritourism, an endeavor that has shown success and been repeated in many areas across the country.
Agritourism is just one of the creative solutions that Tillery utilizes to stimulate the farming industry. His company, Black Cotton, represents another facet of his diverse approach. While the United States is the world’s third largest cotton producer–behind India and China–Tillery sees black farmers often being shut out of the market. He aims to address this by finding new end-uses for cotton with a product line spanning bouquets and boutonnières. “No one is really being creative in uses of cotton besides clothing right now. I’m trying to create jobs here in America with our cotton products, locally… and hopefully the business grows to be a national business,” he says.
His team just opened a brick-and-mortar office in Garysburg, NC, where Tillery sits on the Town Advisory Council. As prom season approaches, Tillery hopes to see not only Unicorns but high schoolers statewide sporting the unique and timeless pieces, which, unlike traditional flowers, will last forever.
Land conservation and technology form two more prongs on the pitchfork of innovation undergirding Tillery’s endeavors. “The future of vegetable food growing is vertical hydroponic systems. With farmers, we don’t need to have them doing more land, we need to have them doing more space, but higher up. I think that’s the future,” he says.
Tillery spoke highly of the things he learned while at NCSSM both in and outside of the classroom. “Science and Math gave me skills to be able to learn very fast and be able to communicate what I’ve learned even faster,” he says. Coming from a rural background to a school with a diverse student body taught him to communicate across demographic divisions. “I feel like all day long I’m interpreting English to different types of people… black folks to white folks, poor to rich, academic to non-academic. You name it, I’m always translating, and Science and Math helped me with that,” he said.
The school also gave him a better sense of the state’s geography and the backgrounds of the people spread across it, something instrumental in his work, which takes him all over the state. He gained the skills to learn fast and in many different styles, which has enabled him to tackle many different projects at once.
And, while the value and meaning of a university degree has changed over time, according to Tillery, his degree from the School of Science and Math has made him stand out and helped him open doors that otherwise would have remained shut. Tillery recently started a Facebook group for black alumni, called “Black Unicorns are Real,” to connect fellow black alumni with the goal of leveraging their collective power to achieve common goals in the black community.
When asked how he manages all the different aspects of his career, personal business, and farm life, Tillery laughs and says, “Every day I’m shuffling.”