The farming needs of Brit and Fleming Pfann might seem a little unusual, but they’re actually part of a growing trend of niche farming taking hold in the heart of North Carolina.
The Pfanns say they’re part of a “new style of farming” in Chatham County that includes raising high-value crops or animals and selling the products to restaurants, gourmet food stores and farmers markets in urban centers like Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill where higher prices are likely.
There’s a lot of competition to get products raised early and getting them to the market first to command the best price.
The Pfanns know of a nearby greenhouse operation that grows tomatoes using integrated pest management and drip irrigation. Tissue samples of the product sent regularly to a lab so the nutrient information can be analyzed.
“We have some very good people in small-scale farming around here, who are putting their kids through college farming on 8 acres. They’re working worn out soil, putting organic matter back into it,” Brit explains. “A very important part of farming here is the small-scale farmer. It’s not capital intensive. It’s labor and intelligence.”
Early in the state’s history, agriculture meant small family farms with row crops, tobacco and cattle. After World War II, poultry farms became more dominant.
“That really put lots of people through college here,” Brit Pfann says. “Coming out of the 1920s, people had been farming the subsoil for 150 years. Nobody had the money for fertilizer. But the chicken houses made fertilizer that allowed people to reclaim the land. These areas were barren places 50 years ago, but now they’re much greener and much higher-quality farmland.”
As land has become more expensive in eastern Chatham County, where the Pfanns live, the chicken farms have moved further out, although 3 chicken processing plants can still be found in the area. Since the heavy clay soils aren’t ideal for row-crop farming, cattle farms are becoming more significant.
“We have a sale barn in Siler City that is supposedly the largest east of the Mississippi River,” Brit says. “People drive from out of state to sell them there. The banks around here look at livestock as a liquid asset, you can take the animals to the barn tomorrow and have a check.”
That brings the Pfanns to their future. They don’t plan on running a dairy and inn forever, so they’ve been in discussions about allowing Central Carolina Community College’s Pittsboro campus to use some of their property to expand their small-scale and organic farming program, which Brit describes as cutting edge.
This year, the college is embarking on a “natural chef” program that will emphasize the use of local, seasonal foods.
Should the Pfanns retire from their business, Brit says they’d like to see a farmer on the property that could instruct students on small-scale and organic farming. “We’re looking for this to be an incubator for them.”