Kinston: NC’s Innovative Rural Development Hotspot

Early Saturday morning of the first week in April, long before the sun peeked over the horizon, my alarm jarred me awake. Why on Earth would I get up so early on my one day off? To hop on a bus to Kinston, North Carolina, that was leaving town hours before I usually even manage to crawl out of bed.

Located on the Neuse River, 30 miles south of Greenville, North Carolina, Kinston is a hotbed of innovative and sustainable development. I traveled there with a group of UNC students to tour the town and document its use of renewable energy.

When the textile and tobacco industries left North Carolina in the 1990s, so did a major share of Kinston’s economy. On top of that, severe back-to-back flooding in 1996 and 1999 intensified the downturn.

Today, Kinston is back on its feet, touting a thriving arts district and tourism industry. The town even hosts a reality TV show focused on the local restaurant “Chef and the Farmer.”

View of a solar farm along the highway into Kinston
View of a solar farm along the highway into Kinston.

As it rebuilds, Kinston is paying special attention to clean energy. There are two solar farms along the highway into Kinston that provide the town with renewable energy.

Solar farms provide clean, renewable energy, and they can also be an economic boon for farmers. Installations can provide additional forms of income, and the diversification can help stabilize farmers’ often-volatile income streams.

Solar energy is a theme in Kinston. Panel sightings don’t stop with the solar farms along the outskirts. Installations can be found right in the middle of town as well.

Mother Earth Brewing is one of Kinston's main attractions.
Mother Earth Brewing is one of Kinston’s main attractions.

The Mother Earth Brewing Company, as its name suggests, pays special attention to their relationship with our planet. The building sports a six-kilowatt solar array that provides all of the electricity for its tap room and beer garden.

Mother Earth is the first and only LEED Gold certified brewery in the United States. A gold certification is the second highest ranking that a building can achieve for its sustainability.

Solar panels above Mother Earth Brewing's Beer Garden and Tap Room.
Solar panels above Mother Earth Brewing’s Beer Garden and Tap Room.

Mother Earth’s sustainable practices don’t stop there. It recycles its brewing grains by giving them to farmers to use as animal feed, and it donates grain bags to the Forest Service for use in replanting trees.

Dondi Smith, manager of Leon Thomas Treasures in downtown Kinston, said that the brewery played a major role in starting the recent wave of revitalization.

Smith said that the development trends today have directly progressed from the opening of Mother Earth and the Chef and the Farmer in the early 2000’s.

Handmade soaps from a local artist sold in Smith's shop.
Handmade soaps from a local artist sold in Smith’s shop.

Steven Hill, who owns Mother Earth, has also played an important role in fostering Kinston’s arts district.

Smith said that Hill bought about 50 homes in Kinston’s historical district. He remodeled the homes and rents them out at affordable prices to young artists.

According to Smith, the influx of artists to this community that Hill created has been great for Kinston’s economy. The artists start businesses selling their work that they run out of their homes.

The artists also sell their wares to local businesses. Smith’s store sells local handmade soaps, for example.

“So in this span of about seven years, we have just seen this explosion of growth,” she said.

A series of murals at Kinston's Music Park, part of NC's African American Music Trails.
A series of murals at Kinston’s Music Park, part of NC’s African American Music Trails.

Kinston’s history is rich in the arts. One of the many tourist attractions that bring people to the town is the Kinston Music Park, part of the African American Music Trails of North Carolina. The park pays homage to musicians like Louis Armstrong who played concerts there as well as people like the members of James Brown’s band who called Kinston home.

Small solar panels that power the lighting at Kinston's Music Park.
Small solar panels that power the lighting at Kinston’s Music Park.

Lighting for the Music Park is powered by a series of small solar panels. Local energy retailer Cherry Energy provided the panels for the park.

Cherry Energy sells everything from gasoline to solar panels. They sold the rooftop panels to Mother Earth Brewing, and they donated panels to the local farmers market.

Solar panel-topped benches at the farmers market in Kinston.
Solar panel-topped benches at the farmers market in Kinston.

Kinston’s farmers market has been around since 1979, but has seen an increase in activity in recent years.

Local food movements not only help farmers sell their wares, but they also cut down on pollution. Farmers reduce their emissions by not having to ship their produce hundreds of miles to big-name grocery retailers.

A local farmer's truck at the Kinston farmers market.
A local farmer’s truck at the Kinston farmers market.

Kinston’s local food movement started with the farmers market in 1979. It has experienced a lot of activity since the Chef and the Farmer opened in 2006.

A box of fresh collards at the Kinston farmers market.
A box of fresh collards at the Kinston farmers market.

The Chef and the Farmer, owned by Vivian Howard and her husband Benjamin Knight, has become Kinston’s prize jewel. The restaurant is a tourist hotspot, and even hosts the PBS reality show “A Chef’s Life.”

A menu from the Chef and the Farmer restaurant.
A menu from the Chef and the Farmer restaurant.

The Chef and the Farmer serves high-quality food completely created from local ingredients. The restaurant supports local growers in this way, and it highlights the quantity and diversity of foods that can be found so close to home.

Kinston’s rural revitalization efforts draw from many different sources. Between the arts movement, local food efforts, and renewable energy installations, Kinston is transforming into a thriving depiction of the future of rural North Carolina.