Tiny Farm keeps producing even when many farms slow for the season | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Tiny Farm keeps producing even when many farms slow for the season 

Theo Kerr harvests lettuces in one of several hoop houses on the property of Tiny Farm in Hillsborough.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Theo Kerr harvests lettuces in one of several hoop houses on the property of Tiny Farm in Hillsborough.

A dog barks feverishly whenever anyone crests the walkway to Mark Hockney's two-story home in Hillsborough. Nestled in the middle of 11 acres of farmland, the brick house is the nucleus of Tiny Farm, a small-scale production focused on clean food and clever growing techniques. The not-so-tiny dog's peppered fur, thick for the coming winter, bristles as he howls through the screen door.

Hockney calls him off. "Herman's just a big ol' farm dog," he says. "He's loud because we've had a little problem lately." The problem is coyotes, which are beginning to fill an ecological vacuum left in the wake of Eastern wolf eradication. Though Herman has guarded Tiny Farm for eight years, this is the first time he's ever had to face his chicken-snatching cousins.

Even if the coyotes are new, Herman is far from inexperienced. Hockney, a "fifth-generation farm boy from Indiana," has had pups from Herman's line for five generations, too.

That sort of generation upon generation tradition is more common in Indiana than here. As a result, Hockney felt North Carolina provided more opportunity for farming innovation.

Those opportunities involve reimagining what this area's small-scale farms are capable of. Throughout the fall, when most farmers are pulling up spent tomato plants and cutting back labor, Tiny Farm is preparing for its most profitable season of the year.

Like the coyote, Hockney is filling a vacuum. "My philosophy is to grow to a market," he says. "I noticed there were no greens here in the winter. I knew there was a niche."

Using a series of hoop houses and passive solar techniques, Tiny Farm supplies restaurants like Mateo, Pizzeria Toro and the Federal, plus the Durham and Carrboro farmers markets, with organic greens 52 weeks a year. Hockney attributes this feat to a little stubbornness and a lot of hard work.

In 1971, while he was working on his masters of food science at Purdue, Hockney's dean—a man named Earl Butz, famous for supporting large-scale, industrial farming—was appointed Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon.

"While I was there, Butz kept making these speeches about 'get big or get out,'" Hockney remembers. "I didn't buy that message, and it's always been a challenge for me to prove him wrong. That's the reason we're named Tiny Farm."

Tiny they are. The farm's seven hoop houses, in which the majority of the greens are grown, equal a combined third of an acre. Ground plantings nudge the total to just more than a half-acre. Hockney, with the help of a few hired hands, has built and managed the beds in Hillsborough for the past eight years.

Chase Newman, a soft-spoken Nebraskan, found Tiny Farm through an ad on Craigslist when he relocated to North Carolina two years ago. He's now the lead farmer.

"When I pulled up on my first day, I was like, 'Where's the farm? Where's your corn at?'" Newman says. "In the Midwest, it's not uncommon to see 500-acre farms monocropped in corn or soy. What we're doing, farming on the small, organic scale and growing through the winter, is somewhat innovative."

Though he's only 22 years old, Newman will take over Tiny Farm when Hockney retires. That kind of long-term planning is important to both men, who lament the disappearance of small-scale and family farms because of poor planning or broken government systems. Hockney's father, who is 86, is still listed as a farmer for tax purposes, although he hasn't been in a field for 20 years. He owns more than a million dollars worth of land, but generates no income.

"That's really the essence of the problem," Hockney explains. "You don't need to build so many new farms. You just need to figure out how to get older farmers to turn it over to someone else, and it's got to be a professional person. They've got to be compensated, and you've got to keep them around."

Sustainability is a cornerstone of Tiny Farm, and not just in the way it grows produce. No worker starts at less than $10 an hour, and Newman takes home a competitive salary. He has a 401k and medical insurance. Of course, growing year-round means Tiny Farm doesn't have to cut labor during the winter, either.

After 12 years of trial and error (and extensive documentation), Hockney has developed a sustainable business model that retains farmers, produces clean greens and doesn't rely on propane or supplemental heat to grow during the coldest part of the year.

Between Nov. 22 and Jan. 22, when sunlight is minimal and average temperatures hover around 50 degrees, Tiny Farm's seven hoop houses act like large-scale terrariums, trapping heat from the soil beneath plastic sheeting. The farmers will spend up to four hours a day managing the heat in the hoops.

It's an arduous process, but it works. At a time when most farms have shuttered for winter, Tiny Farm is pulling in $2,500 per week from restaurants and markets. And they're supplying customers—who don't stop eating salad just because it's winter—with fresh produce they can't find elsewhere.

"There are pictures of us in Durham when we're the only ones at the farmer's market," Hockney says with a chuckle. "We were first to grow through the winter. Not to brag, but we found a niche, and we pioneered it. That's our nature, I guess."

Just don't tell that to the coyotes.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Finding a Niche."

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