The moment you turn into Catawba Trail Farm, you are immediately transported. It feels unfathomable that downtown Durham is just six miles away. The trees, grass, gardens, birds chirping, and overall tranquility feels magical. You just need to exchange a few words with Delphine Sellars, Executive Director of Urban Community AgriNomics (UCAN), to quickly realize this oasis exists as a result of her grit and determination. And while this story is technically about Urban Community AgriNomics (UCAN), it would be a great disservice to the reader to not focus some attention on Delphine herself.

Planting the Seeds

Delphine grew up on a vegetable farm in eastern North Carolina. “We grew all the vegetables you could ever think of, and as a child and young adult before I left for college, I’ll be honest I really hated it. My passion was to do well in school so I could have a way out. Of course, in hindsight, it was a wonderful experience, because I worked with my mom and grandfather. I'm the seventh of 10 children and from that work I learned who I'm a part of.” Most of the nearby farms exclusively grew tobacco, which meant that after September when harvesting was done, many neighbors were left without enough income to afford adequate food. “Vegetables grow year-round, so my mother would take food to people, and they could come to the farm to get some. I learned the spirit of giving and the spirit of helping from her.”

While Delphine went on to college at North Carolina Central University and a career away from farming, that spirit of giving was clearly ingrained in her. For many years Delphine moved around the country while her husband was in the Navy. In Washington state she worked at a nonprofit focused on Vietnamese refugees, creating a nursing assistant program. In Virginia she worked for the Department of Social Services alongside raising her two boys, and then became director of an adult vocational center.

Delphine and her family eventually made their way back to Durham to be near aging parents. She worked with the Durham County Department of Social Services for a time, and when Durham County was looking to hire its first community outreach coordinator, she knew it was the position for her. “That job got me into the streets of Durham, and I was amazed at some of the things I saw. There were still some dirt roads. I even ran across a couple of outhouses. This was in the 1990s! I saw levels of poverty I didn't expect to see - people living in houses that reminded me of how I grew up in the country.” Delphine eventually became Durham County's Cooperative Extension Director, which got her back into agriculture, full-fledged, with farmers working with North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T.

Growing Her Passions for Community and Service

Around 2016 Delphine began thinking about retirement. “As I considered what I wanted to do next, I continued to see people who were poor, and people who needed food. I still remember vividly the first time I went into a grocery store while in college and saw the vegetables available for purchase. I walked out with nothing. What I saw in the store was vegetables for sale that we would have thrown away on the farm. I realized then just how many people had no idea what fresh vegetables really were, and decades later that was still the case.” Perhaps no one was more surprised than Delphine when she came to realize what she actually wanted to do was create a garden to teach people to grow their own food and be more resilient and self-sufficient. Over the years she had served on the Board and worked with Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) and told them she was looking for some land. “The moment I stepped foot on Catawba Trail Farm, I said to my sister Lucille, ‘This is it. This is IT!’ She looked at me like I was crazy. There was so much work that needed to be done and we had less than $300 in the bank as a nonprofit, but I knew this is where we needed to be. All I asked TLC for was access, not ownership, and didn't ask for money, because if I'm going to teach people to depend on themselves and their ability to engage with others, I had to be willing to go through all the hoops and heartache myself.”

After lengthy negotiation, UCAN got access to the land in November 2017 and started clearing the land in January 2018. After clearing a portion they did the first planting in early summer. The early days were challenging, as there was no irrigation system and Delphine and Lucille had just a handful of volunteers. There are several old farm buildings on the site, adding to the overall historic charm, but a few of them were deemed too unsafe and had to be torn down. UCAN has worked hard to incorporate the history into the farm, and in fact is in the midst of restoring the millhouse, which will include a demonstration kitchen and gathering space. On the day we visited the farm, Delphine was eagerly awaiting the addition of a septic system for the building, which was going to be dug in the coming days. Along with the original community garden plot, there are now beehives, a children’s garden, a hoop house, chickens, and composting bins. The farm is open every Saturday (weather permitting) for gardening workdays and is expanding its youth garden to have summer camp this year.


Looking Towards the Future

Delphine’s ultimate goal for the farm is for it to be a community agriculture center – a place where people can come, at least five days a week, to relax or maybe take a class. To make that happen there needs to be an on-site caretaker. She is one step closer to achieving that since TLC is currently in the process of transferring over the property to UCAN, and not just the 53 acres they were originally given access to, but the entire 176 acres. Over time it just made more and more sense to do so, as the need to ask permission for everything to run operations was becoming onerous for both sides. Of course, this change will come with a new set of challenges, like dealing with the Forestry Department, but Delphine is not deterred. As with any obstacles in her way, she will take the time to educate herself to figure out how to use this resource to the advantage of the Catawba Trail Farm and UCAN.

Delphine’s other main goal is to find a successor. “I turned 70 in April, and I know I need somebody to succeed me. But the thing right now is I can't afford to pay somebody full time. I just started getting paid myself last year! We have very part-time, very underpaid employees - a garden coordinator, a farm maintenance person, assistant director, a media manager, bookkeeper, and me. Right now, I am searching for unrestricted funding for capacity building so I can eventually hire somebody full time. We also need people on our board who have lived the experience or are currently living the experience. That perspective is crucial for our future growth.”

In conclusion, Delphine emphasized, “This isn’t the Delphine show. I might be the face right now, but there are so many others who believe in what we are doing here. I'm a dreamer, and so are they.” While it might not be the Delphine show, there is no doubt she has left an indelible mark on UCAN and everyone she crosses paths with.


Mission: To improve the health and wellness of our community. Our programs shall provide education on healthy lifestyles, seed-to-table food preparation and preservation, and hands-on STEM and agricultural skills. We empower Durham families with access to resources to grow their own healthy food using sustainable practices in a supportive environment.


  • Create opportunities for all people to have equal access to fresh produce and the knowledge of how to grow it themselves.
  • Honor and respect the environment
  • Educate individuals in how to create gardens; especially for communities that have limited green spaces
  • Cultivate safe community spaces where residents come together to build relationships around agriculture.
  • Collaborate long term relationships based on trust and inclusion.

To learn more about how you can get involved with UCAN, click the button below.