Demonstrating innovation, environmental stewardship and support for their communities, four farmers have been named winners of the 2006 Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture. The honor is awarded to exemplary farmers in four U.S. regions by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

The Patrick Madden Award is sponsored by the four regions of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. The regions are funded through cooperative agreements with the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), USDA.

Small-scale specialists who are among North Carolina’s greatest examples of profitable, sustainable farmers, Alex and Betsy Hitt were named the Southern Region winners of the Madden Award. Since 1981, the Hitts have committed to farming practices that protect natural resources and have turned a five-acre farm into an environmental gem and profit center. Tirelessly, the couple shares their tried-and-tested experiences with other farmers and participates in activities that benefit their community.

When they began farming in 1981, the Hitts cultivated five acres and set a goal of going smaller without sacrificing income. Over the years, they reduced acreage and labor by improving their soil with cover crops, concentrating on high-value crops that grow well in the area, and direct marketing through a farmers market and a cooperative grocery store. Each acre returns a minimum of $20,000 annually, while four high-tunnel greenhouses bring in $1,000 per crop.

Maryland farmers Edwin and Marian Fry, who have spent decades building diverse, profitable enterprises, have been named the 2006 Northeast Region winners of the Madden Award. Combining crops and livestock has allowed the Frys to earn a comfortable income and practice good stewardship.

At their farm on the rural Eastern Shore, their farming mainstay is dairy — they milk 250 cows and raise 225 replacement heifers annually. In a cyclical, symbiotic relationship, they feed their extra organic grain to their herd and spread dairy manure back on the crop fields as organic fertilizer.

The Frys saw a lucrative opportunity when Horizon Dairy purchased a nearby farm in the 1990s. They began transitioning to organic crops and now sell organic feed to the dairy at premium prices.

Then, in 1999, the family began leasing crop land on the former Naval Academy Farm near Annapolis. Today, Maryland Sunrise Farm is the largest certified organic farm in the state, and its location in Anne Arundel County allows the public to see organic principles in action.

One of Ohio’s greatest examples of profitable, sustainable farmers, Rex Spray of Mt. Vernon was named the North Central Region winner. Spray has used progressive farming techniques for decades and became the first Ohio farmer to achieve organic certification.

With his brother, Spray perfected a rotation of soybeans, corn, wheat, and hay, alternating with grasses and legumes to improve fertility, on 680 acres. Spray also raises beef cattle, which he sells to Ohio’s only certified organic slaughterhouse. But one of his biggest — and most lucrative — farming successes comes from raising and preparing tofu-quality soybeans.

Paul Muller, whose well-integrated, diversified farm harvests year-round and sells to outlets like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, is the Western Region winner. Growing up on the family dairy in rapidly urbanizing San Jose gave Muller an understanding of farming’s many challenges. As he weighed his options, he concluded that organic farming had a tremendous upside.

Today, he heads a team that runs the 250-acre Full Belly Farm, which sells nearly 80 crops — vegetables, fruits, nuts, flowers — and animal products and employs 40 workers. They focus on diversified products and varied, lucrative marketing outlets, such as three farmers markets; an 800-member community agriculture enterprise; (people joining a community farm buy into a farm season, then receive weekly portions of the harvest); and 20 Bay-area restaurants.