Alex Hitt, Independent Farmer
(Appearing in June, 2003 Weaver Street Market Newsletter; Reprinted with permission from ESNCPartners, the newsletter of Earth Share of North Carolina.) Photo by Debbie Roos, NC Cooperative Extension
Anyone shopping at the Carrboro's Farmers' Market should be sure to visit Alex and Betsy Hitt. Their Peregrine Farm booth is a colorful cornucopia of fresh cut flowers and vegetables. Depending on the season, you'll find it filled with heirloom tomatoes, specialty peppers, lettuce, blueberries, zinnias, sunflowers, turnips, beets, and spinach.
The Hitts grow this bounty of produce15 miles west of Chapel Hill. In 1981, after graduating from Utah State University, they moved to Alamance County and bought four acres of land where they originally planted blackberries and raspberries for a pick-your-own business.
"Betsy and I are both card-carrying environmentalists," Alex says. "We both wanted to make a living outdoors, in the country."
Today the Hitts are growing 57 kinds of flowers and 60-odd varieties of 20 kinds of vegetables. During the last 20 years, they have worked as successful independent farmers, using sustainable agriculture practices to operate a small farm that allows them to meet their economic goals while maintaining a good quality of life.
By definition, sustainable agriculture is environmentally sound, economically viable and socially just. Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI) Executive Director Betty Bailey says the Hitts are model practitioners. "They are community minded and really walk their talk."
"For us, farming is about the growing process, taking care of the land and developing great relationships with our customers," Alex says.
The Hitts' commitment to sustainable farming has received national recognition. In 2002 they were nominated as one of six finalists in the nation for the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture. The award, sponsored by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, recognizes a producer who raises food or fiber in ways that are profitable, good for families and communities, and beneficial to the environment.
Alex credits the Carrboro Farmers' Market with helping them focus on the social aspect of sustainability. "You have to think about how you will affect your neighbors," he says. "The Carrboro Market has helped us realize how important this is."
For years, the Hitts earned half their income from market retail sales and half from selling produce wholesale to local grocery stores and restaurants. Today eighty-five percent of the Hitts' income comes from the Carrboro Market. "We like the customer feedback and the community aspect," Alex says.
Alex served as president of the farmer run market for seven years and still serves on the board today. "We devote time to the market because it's our livelihood," he says. "A lot of people think it's a waste of time, but we disagree."
The Hitts, especially Alex, also spend a great deal of time promoting sustainable farming throughout North Carolina and the South. SARE is a USDA-funded competitive grants program that helps farmers and ranchers adopt sustainable agriculture practices. Alex served on SARE's Southern Region Administrative Council for seven years, first as a representative farmer and finally as the chair of the Council. He has worked with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, SARE's regional organic/sustainable farming membership organization and also teaches at Central Carolina Community College in the Sustainable Farming Program.
Alex used his SARE experience to help RAFI administer grants to NC farmers through its Tobacco Community Reinvestment Fund, a pilot program started four years ago to help tobacco farmers transition away from their reliance on tobacco crops. The program is now in its second phase, and Alex continues to serve on the board.
"RAFI has really been helpful in supporting sustainable agriculture in North Carolina," Alex says. "As farmers are making what can be a difficult transition away from tobacco farming, RAFI has stepped up to help keep land in the family and growers on the ground."
Alex sees a bright future for sustainable agriculture. "I have the benefit of having both a regional and national perspective," he says. He agrees with his mentor, University of Missouri Columbia Professor Emeritus, John Ikerd, that we're more than half way through a paradigm shift toward sustainable agriculture. "In 15 or 20 years, most conventional agriculture will be sustainable. Many farmers are already moving in that direction. Due to lack of fuel and other resources, soil depletion and world markets, they have to change."
Rural Advancement Foundation Int'l-USA is based in Pittsboro. Contact RAFI USA at 919-542-1396 or www.rafiusa.org.