Carolinas 2023 Footprints in the Garden Mt. Olive, North Carolina Leopold Conservation Award Recipient

Erin Martin knows the importance of deep roots.

With help from her extended family, she manages farmland that her great-great-grandparents purchased in 1883. They grew tobacco, soybeans, and wheat. Erin grows red okra, Easter egg radish, and yellow flesh watermelons. What hasn’t changed is a conservation ethic passed on to each generation.

Ancestral roots of indigenous members of the Coharie Tribe and formerly enslaved African Americans ground the family’s thoughts and cultural beliefs about land stewardship and traditional farming practices.

Erin’s mother named the farm “Footprints in the Garden” in 2012. At that time, the Martins were growing herbs, kohlrabi, daikon radish, asparagus beans, and specialty cut greens for restaurants in the Raleigh area. They also hoped to inspire the next generation to take an active role in farming.

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It worked. In 2018, Erin, who was in her early twenties, became the seventh generation to manage the farmland and forest at Footprints in the Garden. She’s a millennial combining modern conservation practices with personal, historical, and cultural narratives of nature to connect others with the land.

Footprints in the Garden serves as a learning platform to educate other farmers, landowners, youth, and military veterans about conservation practices and land usage at more than 30 events annually.

As a high school student, Erin established a community garden located amid a food desert. Now she serves as an outreach coordinator for a grocery store cooperative where she communicates the importance of having access to locally grown food. She also promotes health benefits of eating nutrient-dense foods like kale, garlic, blueberries, and potatoes.

No matter the season, growing a continuous rotation of diverse plants at Footprints in the Garden is beneficial to the landscape and wildlife. Keeping the ground covered with vegetation and always having living roots underneath its surface are keys to enhancing soil health and preventing erosion.

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Companion planting, mulching, and cover crops of buckwheat, clover, sunflower, and hairy vetch provide an armor for soils. They also assist with pest control, suppress weeds, and provide nutrients needed for successful fruit and vegetable production. Erin and her family follow a conservation plan that encourages planting native wildflowers for beneficial pollinator insects and managing forestland to provide wildlife habitat.

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Erin sells produce ranging from watermelon radish to Parisian and rainbow carrots at farmers markets in five counties. With cost-share assistance from the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), she erected a high tunnel system to grow during all four seasons.

Locally-sourced compost and wood chips suppress weeds and build topsoil in growing beds. Micro-irrigation drip tape in the high tunnel provides direct root base watering for plants and to conserve water. Instead of leaving the high tunnel empty during the summer, cover crops are planted in its growing beds to retain moisture and build soil nutrients.

Just as new crops emerge each season at Footprints in the Garden, there’s now an eighth generation of family members who are quickly learning and growing a relationship with their land. It’s just what would be expected on a farm where roots run deep.

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Watch the Martin family's story

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