He gave up the grind for growing

Staff WriterMay 12, 2010 

  • This is the second year for our Meet Farmer Joe series. Every couple of weeks, we will profile a farmer or vendor at a local farmers market until the growing season ends in the fall. We encourage you to visit these markets and get to know who sells you your food.

  • You can buy Hilltop Farms produce at these locations:

    Every Wednesday at the Raleigh Downtown Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. 442 Fayetteville St. City Plaza, Raleigh, www.godowntownraleigh.com /farmers-market/eat-local

    Every Saturday at the Holly Springs Farmers Market, 8 a.m.-noon, 128 S. Main St., Holly Springs, Town Hall parking lot.

    Every Saturday at the farm, noon-5 p.m., 6612 Kennebec Road, Willow Springs.

    You can call Fred Miller at 552-5541 or send him e-mail at info@hilltopfarms.org

    Or check out the website, www.hilltopfarms.org/

By the late 1990s, Fred Miller had spent almost 20 years selling Ikon office equipment. He was burned out on sales quotas, managers' meetings and the regular day-in, day-out corporate grind.

One morning Miller read an article in The News & Observer about "community supported agriculture," known as CSA, in which people pay farmers for a weekly share of their crops during the growing season. At the time, only a handful of CSAs were in North Carolina.

Miller turned to his wife and said, "Virginia, this is what I want to do."

Lucky for Miller, his wife and her two sisters had inherited about 400 acres in southern Wake County. Miller has since carved out 35 acres for Hilltop Farms, the county's "first and only certified organic grower."

Miller, 51, met his wife at East Carolina University, where he got a business administration degree with a concentration in accounting. (He jokes: "I tell people I still turned out to be a bean counter.")

The farm is named after Hilltop Road, where the couple lives in the farmhouse that Virginia's grandparents built in 1921. They are surrounded by family. Her sisters live within sight in their own houses, and cousins live up and down the road.

Miller says it was not an easy transition from copier salesman to farmer.

"We had one little tractor," he says. "I didn't have any help, any know-how, any facilities."

The first three years, he farmed after work and on weekends. His first CSA had two members who split a share. He couldn't grow enough to supply this lone pair of CSA members and instead had to buy produce from other organic growers.

"The next year, my vow was to grow everything myself, and I have ever since," he says.

Miller now has about 170 CSA members. He sells at two weekly farmers markets and from a stand at the farm, offering organic strawberries, blueberries, mustard greens, radishes, lettuces and more. He also supplies produce to Eastern Carolina Organics, a farmer-owned cooperative that sells to retailers and restaurants.

As a farmer, he still faces deadlines, franticness and unhappy customers, but he says, "Nobody every thanked me for being a copier salesman."

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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