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A fourth-generation family farm in Warren County in operation since 1865 and a small farm in Cumberland County run by a former U.S. Army officer turned beekeeper are the finalists for the 38th annual Small Farmer of the Year Award, N.C. A&T State University Cooperative Extension announced today.

“Our two finalists are perfect examples of how farmers can be innovative, respectful of their land, and earn profits in new markets that are developing quickly,” said Fletcher Barber, Ed.D., Extension small farms recruiter and chair of Small Farms Week 2024. “We think both of these farmers showcase the determination, creativity and community involvement that it takes to succeed as a small farmer today.”

The Small Farmer of the Year Award is presented each year as part of Small Farms Week, the annual tribute to small-scale agriculture that features educational programs, demonstrations and the announcement of a new Small Farmer of the Year. This year’s Small Farms Week, held in late March, offered workshops, farm tours and sessions on the theme “New Paths to Profits.”

Brown Family Farms: A Century Farm Ventures Into a New Cash Crop

Patrick Brown instructs his nephews in high-tunnel vegetable growing techniques. He is the fourth generation to farm his family’s land.

Patrick Brown is a fourth generation farmer whose land in the tiny hamlet of Hecks Grove in southeast Warren County was first acquired by his great-grandfather in 1865. Over the years, the Browns have cultivated vegetables and tobacco and raised livestock, but the farm’s most recent endeavor is industrial hemp, legalized in North Carolina in 2014. Brown holds a degree in business administration from Fayetteville State University and spent years traveling the world as a federal contractor, including working alongside USDA officials as an agricultural advisor in Afghanistan – all while helping his father manage the family farm.

He came home and applied his business acumen to farming, establishing The Connect Group, LLC in 2013 and delving into hemp production a few years later.  In 2019, he created his own line of hemp extracted products, now known as Hempfinity. He produces hemp as a cash crop and has contracts with Biophil Natural Fibers in Lumberton and an R&D partnership with VF Corporation, an apparel company based in Denver. Brown Family Farms also contracts with Carolina Ground in Asheville to provide bread wheat and milling soybeans.  Brown is a strong supporter of agricultural outreach and education and efforts to diversify farming.

“Our mission,” he said in an article in Business View Magazine in 2020, “is to help provide an alternative, holistic solution to customers naturally, by processing and manufacturing industrial hemp plants, natural herbs and organic vegetables.”

From the Army to Farm: James Hartman and Secret Garden Bees®

James Hartman and his wife Christi have nearly 30 hives on their farm, Secret Garden Bees, He provides honey to The Fresh Market and Harris Teeter grocery stores, in addition to farmer’s markets and at his farm stand.

On a small farm in Linden, Jim Hartman’s honeybees collect pollen from fruit trees, nut trees, wildflowers and clover patches that dot the land. Hartman, a former Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer, started his honeybee farm with three hives as a therapeutic stress reliever and soon found it was a way to earn money and help local farmers pollinate their crops.

Today his Secret Garden Bees includes more than 30 hives and sells raw honey to retailers, including Fresh Market grocery stores; wholesalers; and people who simply enjoy the taste of all-natural raw honey.  The honey is never overheated and Hartman filters it just enough to remove debris but keep it as pure as possible. The farm is a federally certified Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business, and Hartman has taken advantage of the Veterans Small Business Enhancement Act, which gives vets access to surplus equipment before it goes to auction, to help him remain debt free. Retail shoppers can buy Secret Garden Bees honey at Fresh Market grocery stores in 12 states, at festivals, from the farm’s website and onsite.  As a side product, Hartman bottles and sells jelly made from pears and muscadines on his property.

Hartman believes in sharing the therapeutic benefits of beekeeping with his customers; people who purchase honey directly are encouraged to park their cars and spend some time enjoying the peace and quiet of the 22-acre farm. Hartman has spoken frequently to veterans’ groups to introduce them to the therapeutic benefits of agriculture and to provide them with information about the grants and programs available to them to help their efforts.