Small Farms, BIG Rewards

by Crissy Neville | Photography by: Morgan Masson

Old MacDonald is up to something. These days, he can be found pitching ideas. Diversifying. Trending. Employing new revenue streams. And, even fishier, this famed farmer is not even old after all; often he’s young and in his prime, or mature, yet entering a new season of life. Old Mac is not working solo in the pasture, barn or back 40, either. The gregarious grower operates in hoop houses, farmers’ markets, urban spaces, small backyards, and even online. And, for an added twist, he could be she as well, hence the popular TV show and hashtag, #FarmHer.  Looks like Old MacDonald is set to a whole new tune. 

Agriculture has always been a top industry in the Tarheel state. According to the 2018 USDA North Carolina State Agriculture Overview, there are nearly 50,000 farms operating in the state on over 8 million acres. These farms produce everything from field crops and dairy to livestock and fruits. 

Farmers are growing edibles such as the customary corn and sweet potatoes, but also products like asparagus, mushrooms, kale, and herbs for more variety. Non-edibles like cotton and hay are still a mainstay, but some farmers are branching out to grow flowers, nursery plants and even hemp, which was legalized as a pilot program in 2014. Animals raised range from the traditional cattle, poultry, hogs, and goats to the not-so-ordinary llamas, emus, and trout. Today’s trend is for farms to be more creative than in times past — so creative that people flock to said farms for tours, vacations, and farm-to-table dinners, to read their blogs, and increasingly source them for healthy, local foods instead of the big-box stores.

Another change is that of farm dynamics. According to USDA census data, more young people are seeking out a more agrarian lifestyle now.  While the number of farmers aged 35-54 dropped from 2007 to 2012, there was an increase in Millennial farmers by 2.2%. Female farmers are on the rise, too. 

And contrary to popular belief, these farms are not always on the large tracts of land that first come to mind. Based on the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Census of Agriculture, small-scale farms make up 88 percent of all farms nationwide and 87 percent in North Carolina. By definition, a small farm is one of 179 acres or less in size or earns $50,000 or less in gross income per year. So, a Piedmont ten-acre pumpkin patch or 20-acre coastal blueberry farm fits the bill.

Little River Eco Farm in Erwin, a small Harnett County town, does too. Owned by John and Mary Jane Bartlett, Little River was started in 2012 as the latter Bartlett was looking for a career change.

“I have an environmental engineering background,” she explained. “I had worked in the Triangle and did not want to be a cubicle rat any longer or commute long distances when we moved to Harnett County in 2005. John is a wildlife ecologist and professor of biology at Campbell University. So, my second career was in real estate but with the recession, that did not work out so well. 

The farm was my way to get back to my green roots and have a flexible job I could enjoy.”

Little River Eco Farm specializes in grass-fed beef shares and pasture-raised pork shares delivered directly to customers in central North Carolina. The farm’s name is derived from its location on the Upper Little River and focus on environmentally-friendly, sustainable
growing practices.

The Bartletts are also very concerned about animal welfare and the humane treatment of livestock. Their animals are pasture raised and rotationally grazed so they stay healthy and happy. They do not use antibiotics, growth hormones, synthetic pesticides or herbicides.

Customers to Little River Eco Farm can order selections of chicken, turkey, pork and beef.  Most popular is their sausage, including bratwurst, country, maple, Italian, and Polish varieties.  Meat shares may be purchased in sizes ranging from one-fourth of a pig or one-eighth of a cow, all the way up to the whole animal delivered in individual, consumer-sized cuts. They sell at the Apex Farmer’s Market seasonally and at various “meat-up” locations in Fayetteville, Sanford, and Southern Pines. Picking up at the farm is also an option, with a tour if interested. Customers can also order online at their website or from the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative’s artisan category.

Another small farm a little further south that stands out is New Ground Farm, LLC. Owned and operated by husband and wife team Millard and Connie Locklear, New Ground has been in the Locklear family for five generations. Located in the town of Pembroke in Robeson County, New Ground was started in 2015 as the former Locklear’s second career.

After retiring as a Project Manager with DuPont after 37 years, Locklear was ready to endeavor into the farming trade he learned from his father, grandfather, and even great-grandfather. 

“When I left the farm to get a public job, I was the first person in my family to leave the farm to work,” he reflected. 

“All my people had farmed this tract of land for generations and I felt called back to do the same. I am of Lumbee Indian descent and everyone in this community is my cousin or relation. 

Farming was a traditional way of making a living for the Lumbee, especially in a rural and impoverished area like this one. After working for DuPont, I had the personal resources to put into the farm to modernize and I was glad to do it.”

The farm offers a wide variety of fruits and vegetables along with culinary and medicinal herbs. It is all grown on 11.2 irrigated acres of Locklear’s total 26-acre parcel, both in the field and in four large greenhouses. Vegetables grown include greens such as collards, kale, turnip, mustard greens, broccoli, and cabbages. In the summer months, there’s a host of other choices including heirloom tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini, okra, peas, butter beans, sweet potatoes, peppers, eggplants, onions, cucumbers, and sweet corn. Herbs grown and sold include rosemary, oregano, chamomile, chives, basil, and yarrow. Other specialties include blackberries, blueberries, jams, jellies, and their best-selling chow-chow.

Their produce is available at a farm-site stand on Alvin Road in the Pembroke area, at local farmer’s markets in Robeson County, through Sandhills Farm to Table community-supported agriculture (CSA), and arriving at local grocery stores after final “Harmony” certification is earned. New Ground is already GAP certified, which stands for Good Agricultural Practice. This allows them to sell their produce wholesale to distributors such as Fresh Point, a company that provides food to large cafeterias such as that found at the local University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Small farms such as these are the backbone of North Carolina as they contribute to and build upon the state’s agriculture industry. Bartlett describes the success small farms like hers have found as being due to “the mindset change” she has personally seen in consumers over the past years. 

“People want to know more about where their food comes from and how it is produced,” she concluded. “They want to know their farmer, and that is all a part of being small and local.”

So, mystery solved. Lyrics rewritten. Old MacDonald had a SMALL farm. E I E I O