Alex and Betsy Hitt arrived in North Carolina in 1980 with their new degrees in soils (Alex) and forestry (Betsy) from Utah State University. At that time, there was no “farm-to-fork” movement. There were just big farms and small farms. All of them were hustling to sell their fruits, vegetables and meats wherever they could.
“Even the farmers’ markets weren’t really developed,” says Alex, co-owner of Peregrine Farm in Graham with his wife Betsy. “We were a little naïve, but we wanted to learn and we weren’t afraid to work hard. We even started out living in a tent right here on the farm. But I’m a firm believer that entrepreneurs are born and not made. We just happened to have enough innate business sense to make it work.”
Nearly 40 years after planting the first crops, Peregrine Farm has become a fixture of the state’s thriving farm-to-fork community. Each year, Peregine Farm takes center stage at the 10th annual Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend, June 2-4, 2017. The weekend is organized by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). It brings together independent farms and the North Carolina restaurants whose chefs create seasonal menus from the freshest possible local ingredients. In addition to their involvement in Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend, Alex and Betsy serve on CEFS’ Board of Advisors.
During Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend, attendees have a long list of delicious activities to do:
- Hear the celebrated culinary historian Michael Twitty talk about themes included in his book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,
- Listen to bluegrass bands Big Fat Gap and the Holland Brothers; and of course,
- Sample dishes prepared by some of North Carolina’s leading chefs using fruits, vegetables and meats grown by some of the area’s most talented farmers.
NC: Fertile Ground for Farm-to-Fork
Peregrine Farm has been taking part in Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend since the very first event in 2007. Since then, Alex has watched the farm-to-fork movement expand. It went from a niche market of high-end restaurants to a thriving network of farmers’ markets, eateries and grocery stores.
“There’s been a groundswell of demand for foods that are grown locally in a sustainable way,” Alex observes. “I credit a few things for that. Thirty years ago, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture saw that tobacco was going away. State officials moved heaven and earth to diversify small farmers, expanding the state farm markets and encouraging farmers to try other crops instead of tobacco.”
“North Carolina has also had some visionary chefs who wanted to create dishes from local ingredients. They turned places like the Triangle into food destinations. And of course all of this is driven by consumers, who want nutritious foods that have tremendous flavor.”
Farm-to-fork has become an industry that benefits North Carolina on a number of levels. Access to nutritious fresh foods is probably the most obvious perk for people in our state. But the economic gains are equally important. Independent farms, restaurants and even grocery stores make up a major share of the state’s small businesses dependent on the state’s local food economy.
Alex sees another important reason North Carolinians support farm-to-fork.
“There are a lot of people in our state who want to preserve open areas. They want to make sure all of our state’s beautiful land isn’t developed for housing,” says Alex. “To prevent that, you have to keep open areas as working landscapes. If small farmers can’t make a living, they’ll sell their land. Keeping these viable small farms – and the infrastructure that goes along with them – is all part of the network.”
To support the physical and financial health or the state, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) sponsors Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend. BCBSNC also supports a number of other farm-to-fork initiatives, including planting community gardens in all 100 counties of the state.
Four Acres is Plenty
Community gardens tend to be at the smaller end of the farm spectrum, along with Peregrine Farm. The Hitts cultivate about four acres, which is just the way they want it.
“The larger you get, the less nimble you can be,” says Alex. “We’ve always been fairly small. Our original business plan was 10 acres, but we never got that large. Four acres seems to be the happy place for this piece of ground. And our marketing allows us to stay this size, because we’re pretty much into retail. If we were more wholesale, we’d have to have more acres planted. But we haven’t had to do that.”
“Originally, we wanted to do pick-your-own berries, which was a direct-to-consumer model. But, this changed as we got into it. We realized that farmers’ markets and sales to restaurants were going to be our best market avenues. We’ve moved toward vegetables and cut flowers now. But in the end, we’re still trying to keep the shortest possible distance between the soil and the eater.”
Alex and Betsy approach their work with a hefty dose of practicality, even serenity. They weren’t fazed when 2017’s warm start was followed by much colder snaps in early spring.
“You have to be willing to accept a certain amount of risk. You can’t freak out at every little blip,” Alex explains. “Instant gratification isn’t the reward here. On an organic and sustainable farm, we’re talking about five-year and ten-year timetables. We focus on using long cycles of crop rotation and soil building.”
The Hitts chose the name Peregrine Farm in 1981. At that time, they couldn’t have known that the farm’s slow and steady rise would mirror its namesake bird’s recovery from near extinction in recent decades. Both farm and falcon have found ways to thrive in a finely balanced ecosystem.
“We’re not fighting the land or the weather. We’re in tune with them,” says Alex. “That’s all part of this game. And the fun part is trying to anticipate. It’s like a dance.”
If you’d like to try some of what Alex and Betsy Hitt are growing at Peregrine Farm, visit the Carrboro Farmers’ Market on Saturdays year-round or Wednesdays between April and November.
For Farm to Fork Weekend tickets, visit CEFS’ Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend website.
Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend is a fundraiser for beginning farmer programs at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and the W.C. Breeze Family Farm Extension and Research Center. Training and supporting new farmers is critical to CEFS’ mission of developing and promoting just and equitable food and farming systems that conserve natural resources, strengthen communities, improve health outcomes and provide economic opportunities in North Carolina and beyond. For more information, please visit www.cefs.ncscu.edu.