Small But Mighty Farms
Third-generation farmer Albert Beatty and his wife, Ada, have spent the last 45 years slowly growing their small farm in Harrells. AA&S Farms sits on 500 acres of forestland, about 70 of which is set aside to grow corn and soybeans. Over the years, the Beattys have diversified, adding pine tree production to their operation in 1978, followed by several successful okra crops. They added a swine operation in 1996 and cattle and goats soon thereafter.
The Beattys represent a growing number of small farms, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census as farms that are 179 acres or less in size or earn $50,000 or less in gross income per year. While North Carolina agriculture is an $84 billion industry that employs 16 percent of the state’s workforce, the vast majority of the state’s farms are small farms being run by families committed to providing the food and fabric we all need.
North Carolina A&T State University leaders understand the vital role small farms play within the state’s agriculture industry and in their local economies, as well as the challenges faced by small farms like AA&S. The Greensboro-based university established the Small Farms Collaborative, driven by faculty and staff in the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, to coordinate resources and expertise in and outside N.C. A&T to focus on helping small-scale farmers reach maximum profitability. The university also sponsors demonstration farms and offers workshops and classes for farmers in the latest farm technology and techniques.
“Our objective is to establish a hub that brings together resources and expertise to help not only small farms, but to guide them in the directions that grow local economies,” says Dr. Bill Randle, dean of the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at N.C. A&T.
The university’s Cooperative Extension service hosts Small Farms Week each March to celebrate the economic and social contributions of small-scale agriculture. The week’s events include farm tours, panel discussions, workshops, exhibits and the awarding of the North Carolina Small Farmer of the Year recognition, which highlights the efforts of small farmers who are innovative in their practices, leaders in their communities and good stewards of the environment.
Good Stewards of the Land
The Beattys, who were named the North Carolina Small Farmer of the Year in 2012, say a key to their success has been a love of what they do.
“We were both raised on farms, so farming is nothing new to us. We have quite a bit more to deal with now than we did previously, but it has been wonderful farming as a family,” Ada says.
Albert agrees. “We reinvested. If we made some profit, we purchased another piece of equipment, or we purchased another piece of property,” he says. “I worked for the DuPont company for 30 years, and I couldn’t hardly wait to go out that gate every day and come home and get on that tractor. It’s in my blood.”
Beatty says small farms might face challenges larger farms may not – such as securing capital for growth and improvements, as well as procuring the best prices for what they grow.
“Some of the problems you have a lot of the time is that you’re not big enough to get some of the equipment to get your harvest,” he says. “You have to rely on somebody else to do the harvest or rent equipment, and lots of times you are the last to get your crops in because you’re not on the big scale, and by you being last, the price could drop and the quality of your harvest could deteriorate.”
While the challenges can be daunting, Beatty says farming on a small scale offers more flexibility than large-scale farms, and that can be an advantage. That flexibility, for example, has enabled the Beattys to experiment with production practices. After attending a course on plasticulture – the use of plastic film to insulate the soil – at North Carolina A&T State University, the Beattys implemented the process on their farm. The plastic has helped keep precious moisture from escaping the soil during periods of drought, cutting down on irrigation costs.
“North Carolina A&T and our local extension agent have both helped us a lot,” Ada says. “They’ve helped us with assistance and information and any other items we need – they’ve always been there for us. We appreciate everything they’ve done for us and our farm.”
– Teree Caruthers