WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - When Nathan Pitts puts his hands in the dirt, he's not playing.
He's counting on that dirt for a paycheck.
Pitts, 31, is the owner and sole employee of Shore Farms Organics, where carefully tended, rich soil is the foundation for picture-perfect produce.
Good soil is important because Pitts doesn't use any pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Pitts is a new breed of farmer. He's learning to make a living off just a few acres by diversifying crops and revenue sources. He sells directly to consumers and restaurants.
"I've always loved to grow things," he said. "Starting a seed and watching it grow into food that people are going to eat - it's just fun."
Pitts farms land that has been in his mother's family for generations.
Once, it was about 600 acres and was used by his grandfather and great-grandfather for training bird dogs.
Now 25 acres remain, but Pitts needs only a few of those. He grows basil, fennel, chard, broccoli, tomatoes, okra, squash, pumpkins and more. He sells the vegetables and he sells the plants.
Even the sunflowers, which he uses to attract bees, will be sold as cut flowers.
Just as important as the diversity of crops is the diversity of markets. On Tuesdays, he's at Krankies farmers market at Third Street and Patterson Avenue. On Saturday afternoons, he can be found at City Beverage on Burke Street. And in peak periods when he has lots of produce, he goes to the Dixie Classic farmers market on Saturday mornings.
He also has started a Community Supported Agriculture program. About 20 people signed up to receive a box of produce every week for either 10 or 20 weeks. He sells in bulk to a handful of restaurants, such as New Town Bistro, Meridian and Sixth and Vine.
And he keeps in touch with his customers through his website - shorefarmsorganics.com - and Facebook.
For years, Pitts dreamed of having his own farm.
"He's always been good with the earth," said his mother, Gaye Shore Pitts, a retired teacher who lives on the farm with Pitts. "When he was a toddler, he used to follow me around the garden. And when he was young he said, 'I don't think I would ever be happy working inside.'"
By the time Pitts graduated from high school in 1997, the land wasn't being used. Pitts went to work for Lowe's home-improvement and worked in a garden shop. Later, his green thumb got him promoted to the district level, where he traveled to any Lowe's garden shop with sagging sales. His job was to fix the problems.
But that job just wasn't dirty enough: "I like to be outside. I'm not a suit-and-tie kind of guy."
He migrated to Florida, quit Lowe's and started working in construction.
Then, in 2007, he was seriously injured in a car wreck.
"A guy hit me at 130 miles an hour from behind," Pitts said. "It rode over me and crushed the right side of my body, destroyed the car. I was lucky I wasn't paralyzed."
Skin was torn off the right side of his face and scalp. He had to have surgery to implant a permanent rod in his femur to help him walk again.
He came back home for physical therapy, and his recovery gave him lots of time to think.
"As I was getting better, I started getting this idea," Pitts said. "I always wanted to do this but never had the means."
From the beginning, Pitts has used organic practices at his farm. He eventually hopes to become certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I figure if I can grow things without chemicals, why use them?" he said.
For a natural fertilizer, Pitts uses worm castings, composted worm manure that he gets from NatureWorks Organics in Clemmons. A one-time application of a small handful of castings at the base of each plant can increase growth 300 percent or more, he said.
To avoid chemical weed killers, he composts leaves around plants, which also helps retain moisture and conserve water.
He deals with insects by applying clove and peppermint oil or by just picking them off by hand. But a lot of organic farming starts with good soil and healthy plants.
Pitts' growing practices led the Piedmont chapter of Slow Food to give Shore Farms its Snail of Approval award, for farms that are committed to quality food and sustainable agriculture.
Pitts said that though he's making money, so far he has been putting his profits back into the business. Sometimes he wonders what he got into. "I work seven days a week, 16 to 17 hours a day. I'm always planting something," he said.
Gaye Pitts doesn't think that her son would have it any other way.
"He's always been a 24/7 kind of guy," she said. "And he's doing what makes him happy."