At A Glance
Alex and Betsy Hitt
Graham, North Carolina
• Intensive vegetable
production on about five acres of 26-acre farm
• 1/4-acre highbush blueberries
• Sales to local farmers market,
some restaurants and stores
resources. When Alex and Betsy Hitt
purchased a small farm near Chapel Hill, N.C., they
wanted to develop a small farm that relied on the two
of them, primarily, for labor in a balanced system that
both earned a profit and benefited the environment.
“Our original goals,” Alex says, “were
to make a living on this piece of ground while taking
the best care of it that we could.”
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission. Pp.
91 to 93
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
All: Alex and Betsy Hitt provide most of the
labor for their $20,000 per acre per year farm.
Peregrine Farm is about 16 miles
west of the university town of Chapel Hill. When they first bought
the farm almost two decades ago, Alex and Betsy capitalized it an
unusual way, selling shares to family and friends and working as
employees of the corporation. Betsy has been farming full time since
1983; Alex, since 1990.
Part of the land is sandy loam bottomland, subject to occasional
flooding; part is upland with a sandy loam over a well-drained clay
subsoil. They gradually improved the farm with a 10 x 50 foot greenhouse,
a small multi-purpose shed they use for washing, drying and packing,
and four unheated high tunnel cold frames — mini-greenhouses
that shelter young or delicate crops.
Their only labor other than themselves consists of a few part-time
seasonal workers. They prefer to hire labor rather than use interns
— though workers often come to learn — because it forces
them to take a more realistic look at labor costs.
Alex and Betsy Hitt continue to refine their choices to meet their
goals. For them, making a living doing work they enjoy and finding
a scale that allows them to do most of it themselves are key aspects
of sustainability. Over the years, the crop mix and enterprises
at the farm have changed in response to their markets, their rotations,
the profitability of specific crops and their personal preferences,
but the basic goals have remained.
Focal Point of Operation —
Streamlining for success
Peregrine Farm is an evolving operation, with Alex and Betsy continually
examining the success of each operation and its place within the
whole system. They stand out among small farmers for their clear-headedness,
their planning process and their grasp of how to attain profitability
in both markets and production.
At first, the Hitts raised thornless blackberries for pick-your-own,
but discovered they could make a better profit picking berries themselves
and selling wholesale to local stores and restaurants. They replaced
the thornless varieties with thorny ones in 1991 for an earlier
harvest and sweeter taste.
Now the berries are gone, except for a small planting of blueberries,
replaced by less labor-intensive, high-value flowers and vegetables.
As they began to concentrate on farmers markets and specialty grocery
stores, Alex became a vegetable specialist and Betsy became a flower
specialist widely known for her expertise. They developed a reputation
for high-quality lettuce, specialty peppers and heirloom tomatoes.
Value-added products such as bread and preserves increased sales
and profits at the farmers market. Dried flower wreaths and fresh-cut
bouquets sold well at both stores and the market.
To build the soil and minimize off-farm inputs, the Hitts developed
a farm plan for their many crops that emphasizes long rotations.
They typically start with a cool-season crop, followed by a summer
cover crop such as soybeans and sudangrass, replaced by a fall season
cash crop, then a winter cover. The rotation supports, and provides
fertility for, many different vegetable, fruit and flower families,
from leafy greens to leeks.
“We live and die by our rotation, Alex says. “We could
sell many more heirloom tomatoes, but it would change the rotation
and put things out of balance.”
To keep track of the intricacies of an operation that includes 57
kinds of flowers and 60-odd varieties of 20 kinds of vegetables
in a 10-year rotation, they plan sequences in a spreadsheet program,
where they can sort their data in many ways. For field plots, their
system is less high-tech — rotation plans and crop histories
are kept in a notebook and in weekly calendars.
Since 1997, they have erected four 16 x 48 foot unheated high tunnel
cold frames and have plans to add two more. The pipe- and wood-framed
tunnels, following the “Elliot Coleman model,” sit on
the ground atop rails. Sliding the tunnels offers multiple production
options including earlier production in the spring and extended
harvest in the fall. For example, a vegetable tunnel might have
tomatoes set out in March for a mid-June harvest, three weeks earlier
than tomatoes on open ground, followed by a crop of melons.
“With a number of tunnels, we’ll be able to set up
an effective rotation among the tunnels, although we’re still
learning how to best use them,” Alex says. He is considering
overwintering some crops, or abandoning the plastic covers and covering
one with shade cloth to grow a crop of lettuce in the heat of late
Recently, the Hitts ended most sales to grocery stores and concentrated
on the more profitable and more enjoyable farmers market. Their
value-added products have been streamlined to only a small number
of bouquets for the market.
After adding the tunnels, they took a look at their production cycle,
and realized that they could make the same amount in less time if
they concentrated on the earlier crops and on making slight improvements
to the main-season crops. Now they are not planting any fall, cool-season
crops and shut down their market sales October 1.
“We can quit six weeks earlier,” Alex says. “In
the fall, it’s difficult to grow a good quality flower, and
the fall vegetable crops were undependable — sometimes a good
crop, sometimes not. It is both a business and a quality of life
By shutting down production early in the fall, the Hitts reduced
their labor costs and were able to better prepare for the following
year, especially the fall-planted flowers and the important winter
“We wanted to reduce the dependence on outside labor and raise
the crops we like best,” Alex says. “We’re actually
getting smaller. It’s not so much the crops that we like best,
even though that is part of it, but the crops that we grow well
and do the best for us on this farm, with our personal ways of growing
Economics and Profitability
Alex and Betsy keep financial and market records in a budget program,
where they can easily compare income from specific crops. They are
now meeting their economic goals, expecting each acre to give them
$20,000, and each high tunnel to bring in $1,000 per crop, with
about $30,000 in total expenses. Half the income comes from vegetables,
half from flowers.
“Each year has been the best year we’ve ever had,”
Alex says, “except for one year when we made about $200 less
than the year before.”
For four years, the Hitts carried an organic certification for their
vegetable crops, but recently, they decided to let it lapse. This
was partly because they no longer sell to the wholesale buyers who
wanted certification, but also to eliminate headaches.
“We were a split farm, with our vegetables certified and our
perennials uncertified, and our buffers weren’t large enough,”
Alex says. “It was also a record-keeping hassle, and getting
worse with the national program. Also, the materials list tends
to encourage you to think in terms of specific materials as solutions
to problems, rather than to think holistically.”
Over the years, they have gradually bought out their 17 original
investors and now own the farm free and clear.
Alex and Betsy follow organic practices except for occasional herbicides
in their perennials. Above all, the Hitts’ farming emphasizes
long rotations and use of green manure crops.
For the first few years, they were able to get horse manure from
a nearby farm, but when that source dried up, they began using green
manures in a long rotation system. Other than some mineral amendments
and a few loads of prepared compost trucked in a few years ago to
give a quick boost to new plots on areas of heavy upland soil, their
fertility plan has relied on 10-year rotations. Such cycles include
several green manure combinations: for summer, either soybeans and
millet or cowpeas and sudangrass, and for winter, oats and clover
or hairy vetch and rye. The cowpea/sudangrass and vetch/rye combinations
are harder to turn in and slower to break down, so they save them
for when they have a later crop with a longer window open for the
cover crop. If time between market crops permits, they will use
several cover crops in succession.
Their dedication to cover crops helps keep nutrients in the soil.
The only off-farm soil amendments they now use are lime and occasional
P and K applications — if warranted by soil tests. They also
apply soybean meal for supplemental N if they feel that the cover
crops will not give them enough.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
The Hitts, especially Alex, have reached dozens of other farmers
though involvement with the sustainable agriculture community at
the state and regional level. For years, Alex has served on the
Southern Region Administrative Council for the SARE program and
has worked with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, their
regional organic/sustainable farming membership organization. Alex
teaches for the local community college’s Sustainable Farming
They have always served on the board of the Carrboro Farmers Market,
but recently, Alex joined the board of directors of Weaver Street
Market, Carrboro’s cooperative grocery store and one of their
few remaining wholesale outlets. “We’re realizing that
Carrboro is our town and the market is our life,” he says.
Even more locally, they have earned the respect of their neighbors.
“Now they don’t think we’re crazy,” Alex
says. “We’re still farming after 20 years, and few of
“If possible, start small,” Alex says. “Learn
your land, where the wet spots and frost pockets are. Learn the
market. Plan for expansion, particularly when you design your rotations.
Learn to work with the time scale. In a sustainable system, the
time scale is huge — many years. You need to have made decisions
about your cover crops or rotation long before you actually plant
Alex and Betsy will continue to fine-tune their operation to build
and maintain income, reduce labor, and increase quality of life.
Alex wants to test using compost tea to control diseases such as
early blight on tomatoes and mildew and leaf spot on zinnias. They
use worm castings in their transplant mix, so Alex is considering
doing vermicomposting for that and for compost tea. They also are
considering more no-till. Alex wants to find a small, narrow, no-till
seed drill to give them more flexibility.
“We’re dependent on cover crops, and we need to make
sure we get them in perfectly,” he says.
--Photograph by Carolyn Booth