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Chatham County's Specialized Farms Thrive

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PITTSBORO — Plummeting prices have put farmers in a financial bind. Everything from hogs to soybeans have suffered on the markets in recent months. But some farmers in North Carolina are thriving.

Critics used to call them "hippie farms" -- weirdos in the woods raising crops and animals. But you don't hear that much any more in Chatham County.

"Nine or 10 years ago, a very good friend told me I shouldn't go into this business because I would lose my shirt. I remind him every now and then that I still have my shirt!" says goat farmer Fleming Phann.

Phann has carved out a very nice niche.

"They are like overgrown puppies, is what they are like," she says of her animals.

Fleming raises goats and makes a cheese coveted by her Carolina customers.

"With a specialty product like ours, which is much in demand, you can make a very good living," she says.

Phann is part of a growing movement in North Carolina called sustainable agriculture.

These are mostly small farms that sell their products locally. In many ways, these farmers are insulated from the shifting winds of the global economy.

Localfarmers marketsacross the Triangle provide that insulation.

"They only allow growers to sell who live within a 50-mile radius and they can only sell what they grow. So that sets a really nice, level playing field," says agriculture teacher Tony Kleese.

Sustainable agriculture is a game that Jim LeTendre has been playing for two decades.

He says he does it just for "the joy of doing it. Having something that I love after 20 years, something that makes my heart skip when I walk in the door."

Customers say they would almost kill for one of LeTendre's greenhouse tomatoes. His tomatoes ripen in late winter, a good four months before the ones harvested outside.

"And probably the most astounding thing to people that know agriculture is the fact that we have grown tomatoes in the same soil for 20 years," says LeTendre.

LeTendre says he and his business partner David Denson have been able to do this because they do not use pesticides. And they are precise about putting just the right amount of nutrients back in the soil.

Jim Letendre is also known for cultivating friendships in Chatham County.

"If I can help my neighbor to be successful farmers, well, that will also help me be a successful farmer because if they make money, they will buy my tomatoes," he says.

LeTendre agrees with his neighbor Flemming Phann down the road: "A peaceful, worthwhile life" is more important than making a lot of money.

"For me, it's the feeling in the morning when I get up that there's a purpose and that the day is so full and directed that I never get bored and I don't ever get depressed," he says.

You don't have to be a hippie to appreciate that sentiment.

Farmers in Chatham County give credit for much of their success toCentral Carolina Community Collegein Pittsboro. This school has the only sustainable farming program in the state.

Instructors help farmers with growing techniques and marketing strategy.