Tag Archives: NC

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.

DoD and Environment Q&A with NC House Representative John Szoka

North Carolina House Representative John Szoka is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. He spent 20 years in the military, and continues to serve his country now as a member of the NC General Assembly.
Szoka is a supporter of renewable energy. Check out what he had to say about environmental issues, the Department of Defense, renewable energy and climate change.

What got you to notice and care about the environmental movement?

When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, steel manufacturing was huge. The Cuyahoga River was by a factory downtown, and a homeless man nearby was standing on a little wooden bridge over it. He dropped his cigarette butt in the river, and the river caught fire. The fire unfortunately killed that gentleman, and then burned for two days.

Also as a kid, my uncle and I would go out to the forest and he would talk about the trees and how the acid rain from all the coal fired plants was killing the forest.

So as a little kid, it makes kind of an impression and it’s like, “What the heck is this all about?! This can’t be good, are we doing this on purpose?”

Then flash forward to when I got out of the Army. Actually I didn’t become an environmentalist through the Army because usually the environmental regulations restricted the areas where we could train, so I didn’t really like that.

But I guess I got into it a little more after I was elected because I thought I knew what renewable energy was. But I didn’t really. I just had these preconceived notions. By self education essentially I realized that it was something I needed to be involved in just because too many of my compatriots were not taking the time to learn the ins and outs of it all. So you know, you can’t be an expert on everything, but this is one of the things that I decided to become more of an expert on.

“You can’t be an expert on everything, but this is one of the things that I decided to become more of an expert on.”



Did the military have anything to do with your passion for renewable energy?

The military tie is definitely there. One time when I was in the Corps on active duty, the rest of the guys were out on a training exercise but I stayed back, there was a general and myself. And there was a hurricane that went through the Saint Thomas Virgin Islands, and everything lost power, and it was a real mess – this was back in ninety-something. So basically all the support that came from the Army flew through Fort Bragg. We were sending so many energy generators and power units, stuff that I didn’t even know existed in the Army let alone anywhere in the world. So we were doing that for a week straight, and so we started having discussions about, like, what would happen if we ran out of power here? What would this do, how would that be? They were just delirious two-in-the-morning conversations until the next plane came in, but even back then it really got me thinking about our over-reliance on the conventional grid.

And then jump to when I get elected and now I’m thinking about those same kinds of conversations. We’re so dependent on the grid and we’re so dependent on all these power generation plants, that, you know, what if someone took them out?

So It’s never one thing that makes someone decide to do something, it’s usually a series of of things where eventually a light bulb in your head turns on and you say “Hey, I need to do whatever.” So for me it was becoming aware that the environment was important as a kid, then – throughout my Army career – being sensitive to the environmental effects it had on training, and then this incident with the hurricane. And you know, just with an over-reliance on the grid and an over-reliance on computers and everything – this just seems like the natural way to go.

What do you think about the relationship between the DoE and DoD?
Do you agree with the proposed ban on their collaboration?

Let’s back up a little bit and take a look at the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense’s relationship over the years. You know, it’s been a very close relationship, and some would argue that the DOE exists primarily because of the military. A large portion of what they do, to my understanding, is in nuclear power and things like that where there’s this very close relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons right now, so I think putting in a prohibition from the two talking to one another isn’t really smart.

I don’t really know what the major motivation to keep two major agencies from talking to one-another is. At face value it doesn’t seem like it makes a whole lot of sense to me.

Do you think that the national security argument for renewable energy is the military’s only argument?

No, I don’t think that’s the only argument. I mean, the DoD is the largest consumer of energy in the world. Which means that the biggest part of their budget every year is for energy. So, in terms of saving money, I would do anything I could to save taxpayers money, and reduce that bill. So it’s not just a “hug a tree kiss a unicorn” kind of thing, there’s real dollars and cents savings in this for the military which should translate to savings for the taxpayers. So the energy security part is certainly important, but the money part is definitely there too.

Here’s the question that lawmakers and the public has to answer: right now energy is cheap, but is it always gonna stay like that? If it isn’t, how do we keep total energy costs down in the future if the price of petroleum based products rises? And for me, the answer to that is simple: renewable energy.

“For me, the answer is simple: renewable energy.”



What are your thoughts on global warming?

I don’t dispute that there may be global warming, what I take issue with is that it’s due to humans. And my argument for that is the geological history of the Earth. We’ve been through ice ages; we’ve been through humid periods. There’s a lot of things that affect the atmosphere and the climate, so to pick out a couple-hundred-year period and to say that that shows a trend? With me being a math guy – no it doesn’t. Not when you have a five-billion-year history, or if you’re a fundamental Christian, six thousand years. See my point there? I have not yet been convinced that global warming is man-made.

[Editor’s note: There is a strong scientific consensus that the Earth is warming and that people are extremely likely to be the cause.]

How do you respond to reports of increased carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution?

Personally, I don’t use global warming as any type of argument for my support of renewables. I’m about free markets and just the military aspect as well as common sense.

There’s nobody that’s been able to show me enough statistical evidence that is consistent and goes back more than fifty years that lends credence to the fact that what they’re saying is true. I just haven’t seen it, and if something exists, I’d love to see it.


“I don’t use global warming as any type of argument for my support of renewables.”



What’s one thing that you would change about how this country deals with the discussions about renewable energy?

If I could change one thing, I would just want people to get beyond their own talking points and do some critical thinking…on every issue…instead of just rushing to conclusions based on limited knowledge. There should be more well-rounded and informed conversations instead of just blind arguments.