In Agriculture, Bigger Isn't Always Better Peregrine Farm in Graham, N.C., grows 160 varieties of flowers and 80 types of vegetables on just three-and-a-half acres. It's also an example of how a small, environmentally sound farm can work -- and be profitable. Owners Alex and Betsy Hitt are the southern winners of this year's Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture.
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In Agriculture, Bigger Isn't Always Better

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In Agriculture, Bigger Isn't Always Better

In Agriculture, Bigger Isn't Always Better

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of farm animals)

BLOCK: At Peregrine Farm in Graham, North Carolina, the heritage-breed turkeys are nearing full size. It's been a good summer for vegetables and cut flowers, and the farm's owners, Alex and Betsy Hitt, are getting an award tonight honoring them for sustainable farming in the southern region.

They started the farm outside of Chapel Hill 25 years ago, lived in a tent for eight months and hauled water by hand. They've had as much as five acres in production. They're now down to three and a half. They sell their goods mostly at farmer's markets and to a few restaurants and stores. And they are an example of how a small farm can work.

Alex Hitt gave us a long-distance tour as he looked out over his crops.

Mr. ALEX HITT (Farmer, Graham, North Carolina): The tomatoes are tall and floppy right now with the last of the early tomatoes on them. The peppers are standing really straight and green and starting to turn colors. There's a huge number of orange bells hanging out there right now. The figs are just starting to turn, and we've been eating a few as we walk by the bush.

But yet the fall crops are starting to go in. The brussels sprouts are now about 12 inches tall and looking very strong and green. The last of the sunflowers are individually standing out in the field, but the new zinnias look really beautiful, and the great, huge, ruffled, velvety Cockscomb, Celosias, that are about 4 feet tall now, the bees are just buzzing all over the top of them.

BLOCK: You know it surprises me that you are trying to get smaller. You're trying to farm less land, not more.

Mr. HITT: I know. It's counter to the general trend in any business, and part of that has been we've refined what we do. And as we get smaller, we actually make more money. So smaller didn't necessarily mean were foregoing income. It just meant we got better. You know, sometimes you can do a better job on a small project than you can on a big project. And for us it had to do with quality of life. We didn't want to have to hire any more folks than we do. We wanted to be able to have time off. But every time we have made a decision to get smaller or to change in some way, it has resulted in more income.

BLOCK: You know, I don't mean to be terribly intrusive here, but I am curious about a sense of your balance sheet. How does it break down in terms of your profit per acre?

Mr. HITT: Our goal at a minimum is that we gross $20,000 an acre, and we have been doing that. For a number of years we actually do more. And some crops of course do far better than that than others. But in our scale, we don't have a whole acre of any one thing. So our real rule of thumb is in a 100 by 300 feet of production area, if it doesn't make $200, then we have to reconsider that crop.

BLOCK: And is that a lot? That seems like a lot.

Mr. HITT: That's a lot. You know, and on most commodity farms, tobacco, say, is the one they always hold up as being the one that makes the most money. And most tobacco farmers, if they can gross $5,000 or $6,000 an acre that's a good year. And so for us we're doing much more than that.

BLOCK: Do you think, Alex, that you're in a special spot there? You're near a university town, that there may be something that you're able to do there that wouldn't necessarily translate somewhere else?

Mr. HITT: It does help. Most of the really good markets in the country, farmer's markets, are in or around university towns. But I think the country and customers are really interested, one, in really good food. They're concerned about where the food's coming from. I think part of what we saw after 9/11 was that people wanted the community of farmer's markets, or they wanted to be a little more secure in knowing where their food was coming from. And so it's beyond just the food part. It has to really go towards the community as well.

BLOCK: You really noticed that after 9/11 specifically?

Mr. HITT: We did. You know, I had fellow farmers who said oh, you know, I'm going to plant less next year because I think the market might be down. I said are you crazy? This is exactly what people want. They're going to want to come down to market. They want to see their neighbors. You know, for instance, for us the farmers market is really the town square, and people come down on Saturdays to visit with their friends and see what's going on because they don't have time during the week. They're all so busy. And they're buying food at the same time. So it's kind of an interesting mix, and we did see a jump in traffic at farmer's market.

BLOCK: Alex, thanks so much. Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Mr. HITT: You, too. Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm in Graham, North Carolina. He and his wife, Betsey, are the southern region's winners of the 2006 Patrick Madden Award, being presented tonight by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. The slogan on Peregrine Farm's weekly newsletter is food with a face, a place, and a taste. But Alex tells me their unofficial motto is we're too dumb to quit.

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