One farm grows many farmers

aweigl@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2013 

  • Where are they now?

    Many new farmers have spent time working at Alex and Betsy Hitt’s Peregrine Farm in Graham. ( peregrinefarm.net) These apprentices have continued in farming. (Their years with the Hitts are in parentheses.)

    Greg Dusenberry (1993-1995) owns The Inn at Tabbs Creek in Virginia. innattabbscreek.com

    Kim Meehan (1996-1999) and her husband, Kevin, run Turtle Run Farm in Saxapahaw. They sell at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. They also make the “use-yer-foot” hand washing sinks seen at many popular outdoor concerts and other local events. useyerfoot.com

    Mark Gallo (2000) manages King’s Hill Farm in rural Wisconsin and sells at farmers markets in Chicago and Glenview, Ill. kingshillfarm.com

    Joann Jurney (2002-2007) owns Castlemaine Farm in Pittsboro. She sells at the Carrboro and Durham farmers markets. castlemainefarm.com

    Shiloh Avery (2002-2003) runs Tumbling Shoals Farm in Millers Creek with husband Jason Roehring. tumblingshoalsfarm.com

    Rett Murphy (2004-2006) owns Aardvark Farm in Burnsville. goo.gl/lP6Q2

    Will Roberson (2006) recently sold his Rocky River Farm in Chatham County and relocated to his hometown of Washington, N.C., where he is looking to start a new farm.

    Dan Shields (2008) owns Fatty Owl Farm in Pittsboro where he raises rabbit for meat. He sells at the Chatham Mills Farmers Market. facebook.com/FattyOwlFarm

    Liz Clure (2012-2013) owns Bushy Tail Farm in Saxapahaw and specializes in fall and winter crops. She sells at the South Durham Farmers Market. bushytailfarm.com

    Jennie Rasmussen (Since 2011) is the couple’s first year-round employee and is in discussions with them about continuing to manage the farm after they retire.

Greg Dusenberry remembers attending a sustainable agriculture conference in the early 1990s with Graham farmers Alex and Betsy Hitt.

At the time, Dusenberry, a recent college graduate with a philosophy degree, was trying to figure out his future. Without any prior farming experience, he lucked into a job at the Hitts’ Peregrine Farm. The Hitts took Dusenberry to the conference to further his farming education.

One of the main things Dusenberry learned was how big a deal his mentors were in the world of small-scale farming. Alex Hitt was the conference’s keynote speaker. Dusenberry recalls how other farm interns would ask him in awed tones: “You work for the Hitts?”

The Hitts have been farming for 32 years and selling at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market since 1986. Alex Hitt is renowned as a pepper and heirloom tomato expert. Betsy Hitt is a pioneer in growing cut flowers. In 2006, the couple was honored with a prestigious regional award from the USDA that recognizes farmers whose methods “are profitable, good for families and communities and beneficial to the environment.”

But the Hitts aren’t just leaders in their industry. They also are helping to grow the next generation of small-scale farmers. Over three decades, they’ve had 21 people work full time on their farm from late March to early October. Of those, 10 are still in farming.

Dusenberry, 42, owns an eco-friendly bed and breakfast and farm on the Chesapeake Bay. Others have stayed in the Triangle, including Joann Jurney of Castlemaine Farm in Snow Camp (the Hitts call her “our best offspring”); Kim Meehan of Turtle Run Farm in Saxapahaw; and Danny Shields, who raises rabbits for meat on Fatty Owl Farm in Pittsboro. Others are farming in Western North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Over the years, the Hitts have had more proteges successfully launch farms than some formal programs designed to do the same thing, according to Scott Marlow, executive director of the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International.

Eight years ago, Marlow’s group surveyed such programs in California, Vermont, Pennsylvania and elsewhere to see how many participants ended up with their own farms. In a conversation with Hitt at the time, Marlow lamented the low numbers of young farmers making the transition despite assistance from these big, well-funded entities. With a simple count, Marlow and Hitt realized that the Hitts had helped more new farmers successfully transition into farming than some of the biggest programs in the country.

While a lot more funding has been spent on these efforts in recent years and the numbers likely have changed, Marlow insists the point is still valid: “Alex and Betsy’s farm has mentored as many successful new farmers as many programs designed for that purpose, and has done it as a part of their business and without any external funding.”

Doing things differently

The reason for that success, according to Marlow and the Hitts’ former employees, is because the couple does things differently.

In the world of small-scale farming, many young people seeking experience work in exchange for free housing. The Hitts pay an hourly wage – $8 plus raises and bonuses – for 30 hours of work a week. They offer a week of paid vacation. And they pay for their employees to take classes and attend industry conferences. Most importantly, the Hitts have a “no secrets policy.”

Some farmers are notoriously tight-lipped about their methods, even with employees. They may not identify the variety of carrot or kale that they grow. And they may say nothing about the business side of their operation. Why? They could very well be training a future competitor, who in a few years could be selling next to them at a market.

That’s doesn’t deter the Hitts. They always believed, Alex Hitt said, that “the more folks in the industry, the more the boat floats.” In other words, more farmers create healthier markets, which helps fuel demand and ultimately helps all small-scale farmers.

And so, the Hitts share their spreadsheets and answer endless questions about their time-tested methods and meticulous ways. Dan Shields, now with Fatty Owl Farm, recalls a tradition called “Beer Fridays,” when at week’s end the employees and the Hitts would share a cold one or two. “It was just a chance to sit down for an hour and talk about everything,” Shields said.

Helping their proteges

Answers are still available even to those who don’t work at Peregrine Farm any more. Will Roberson, who is relocating his farm to Washington, N.C., hasn’t worked for Alex Hitt in seven years but says, “Even now if I got stumped on something, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him.”

The Hitts lend equipment to their proteges. They even lent a couple of employees acreage on which to grow vegetables so they could start their own businesses before they could afford their own land. That’s what they did for Joann Jurney, who ended up working for the couple for five years while also using a quarter-acre to grow her own vegetables for the market. “To get into a good farmers market is a make or break thing for somebody just starting out,” Betsy Hitt said.

Jurney of Castlemaine Farm was accepted as a vendor at the Carrboro market, the Triangle’s oldest and most competitive farmer-run market, even before she was able to buy land in Snow Camp.

Rural Advancement Foundation’s Marlow says the Hitts’ approach does a couple of things that help young farmers branch out. Providing a wage helps their employees maintain or improve their credit scores – crucial for getting loans later on. Giving them land to manage helps prove the new farmers have management experience, a requirement for a federal farm loan.

Almost all their former employees said working with the Hitts made them realize that they could make farming a full-time career.

The Hitts are successful. Both work on the farm. They live a middle-class existence with a beautiful house on 28 acres in Alamance County. They travel in the winter, occasionally to Spain or Italy with their friends, Ben and Karen Barker, chefs and former owners of Durham’s Magnolia Grill. And while they work the farm in the colder months, they take winters off from selling at the market.

The early years

Of course, it took a lot of hard work to get where they are today. As Marlow says, “Their story is legend.”

Graduates of Utah State in horticulture and forestry respectively, Alex and Betsy settled here thinking they would create a pick-your-own berry farm. For the first eight months, they lived in a tent. The first thing they built was an equipment shed. Then they spent $7,000 on an irrigation system to water the crops but went more than a year without running water. Eventually, they built a modest house, a 24- by-28-foot structure with a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. (They have twice added onto the original home.)

In those early years, Betsy worked the farm while Alex painted houses. When they could both afford to work as farmers, Alex spent winters working in the produce section at Weaver Street Market learning firsthand about marketing and display. Now, the couple, who are both 56, farm full time, growing only those flowers, vegetables and fruits that are profitable. And now they have a year-round employee, Jennie Rasmussen, who is in discussions with them about continuing to farm their land after they retire.

Seeing the Hitts’ success gave many of these new farmers the confidence they needed to follow the same path.

Rett Murphy, who now owns Aardvark Farm, about 40 miles north of Asheville, worked for other farmers before spending three years with the Hitts. Watching those other farmers, the life didn’t look feasible. The Hitts made it look doable.

“The most striking thing is that they were actually being successful and making a decent living. It didn’t have to be this sort of horrible struggle,” Murphy says. “That’s really inspiring.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Many new farmers have spent time working at Alex and Betsy Hitt’s Peregrine Farm in Graham. ( peregrinefarm.net) These apprentices have continued in farming. (Their years with the Hitts are in parentheses.)

Greg Dusenberry (1993-1995) owns The Inn at Tabbs Creek in Virginia.

innattabbscreek.com

Kim Meehan (1996-1999) and her husband, Kevin, run Turtle Run Farm in Saxapahaw. They sell at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. They also make the “use-yer-foot” hand washing sinks seen at many popular outdoor concerts and other local events.

useyerfoot.com

Mark Gallo (2000) manages King’s Hill Farm in rural Wisconsin and sells at farmers markets in Chicago and Glenview, Ill.

kingshillfarm.com

Joann Jurney (2002-2007) owns Castlemaine Farm in Pittsboro. She sells at the Carrboro and Durham farmers markets. castlemainefarm.com

Shiloh Avery (2002-2003) runs Tumbling Shoals Farm in Millers Creek with husband Jason Roehring. tumblingshoalsfarm.com

Rett Murphy (2004-2006) owns Aardvark Farm in Burnsville. goo.gl/lP6Q2

Will Roberson (2006) recently sold his Rocky River Farm in Chatham County and relocated to his hometown of Washington, N.C., where he is looking to start a new farm.

Dan Shields (2008) owns Fatty Owl Farm in Pittsboro where he raises rabbit for meat. He sells at the Chatham Mills Farmers Market. facebook.com/FattyOwlFarm

Liz Clore (2012-2013) owns Bushy Tail Farm in Saxapahaw and specializes in fall and winter crops. She sells at the South Durham Farmers Market. bushytailfarm.com

Jennie Rasmussen (Since 2011) is the couple’s first year-round employee and is in discussions with them about continuing to manage the farm after they retire.

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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