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Alamance farmers snag national award



The lettuce is gone, and its quarter-acre plot now covered with grass is about the only thing on Alex and Betsy Hitt's Peregrine Farms that looks even remotely unproductive.

In the plot next door are a mix of zinnias--red, orange, purple--with colors so bright they make your eyes hurt. Just beyond that display are a couple of sheds, some fencing and about 30 turkeys, their clucks and gobbles growing in volume as you get close.

"When the zinnias are done, we'll move the turkeys over here," Alex Hitt says. The turkeys, all named Mr. Tasty except for a smaller one named Shrimpy, will give the zinnia plot a good going over for bugs and at the same time fertilize the bed. "We're letting them spread the poop instead of us," Hitt says.

A few thousand ideas like that, developed over 25 years of farming, have allowed the Hitts a livelihood and turned the three and a half acres they work into one of the most diverse and productive parcels in the Piedmont.

Though their neighbors at first thought they were crazy, their success is widely known and copied in these parts. Now their truly small farm has been recognized among the giants in sustainable agriculture. The Hitts managed to find time last week to fly to Wisconsin to be honored as one of four farms nationwide to win the annual Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture by the Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program, a federal clearinghouse for grants, research and education about best practices in sustainable agriculture.

The Hitts' work stood out, SARE's tribute said, not just because they are able to produce so much on so little land, but also because they are so ready to share their ideas with others.

"We do a lot of tours," Hitt says, reeling off a list of visitors who have recently dropped by: students, new farmers and scientists, among others.

The social aspect of sustainability is often overlooked, he says. It's been part of the Hitts' plan since 1981 when the couple--just out of college at Utah State--started looking for land near the Triangle market. They studied not just the climate and the soils, but what people were eating.

"We found out there was a whole lot of Italian food going down in Chapel Hill," says Hitt, who worked a few winters in the Weaver Street Market produce department as part of his research. Staying close to their consumers has been a key to their success ever since. So has staying ahead of the trends. Arriving at a time when there were almost no co-op groceries and even fewer white-tablecloth restaurants in the Triangle, the Hitts have worked closely with institutions like Weaver Street Market and Magnolia Grill restaurant practically since their inception.

Though they are probably more well known as regulars at the Carrboro Farmers' Market, close ties with area chefs have helped Peregrine Farms stay ahead of the curve. Since it takes about three years to get crop spacing, soils and watering right, knowing what chefs are starting to experiment with and what trends are migrating their way is essential.

"One of the real reasons we still sell to a few restaurants is that they're our early bellwether for what the latest and greatest things are going to be," Hitt says.

When you hear the size of their acreage in production--it's been as much as five and the goal is to whittle it down to three--you might think that's made the job easy.

But farming is never easy, especially this time of year, when the relentless heat and, if you're lucky, fecundity wears on a person.

These days, while a small crew handles the vegetables, Betsy Hitt is a one-woman flower operation, spending her morning in the fields cutting and her afternoons in the shade of the loading dock stripping stalks and assembling bouquets for delivery.

"This is that time of year when we all but break down for lack of organization," she says while whacking off stems, banding and packing away a bouquet in one fluid motion. With the farm going full tilt and markets on Wednesday and Saturday, the week is packed with harvesting and maintenance. If they're lucky, there's space for a little Sunday downtime.

Helping Betsy Hitt through this hottest part of the season are thoughts of this winter's research: a trip to Italy with a group of local farmers and restaurateurs for an annual slow-food conference and a look at farms outside Turin. She also plans a tour of cut-flower farms in Kenya.

Travel and keeping their season down to six months are part of the Hitts' plan to keep themselves sustainable.

"People always want to know about the bottom line," Alex Hitt says. They're not getting rich, he says, but the bills are paid and they're socking a little away for retirement. And the smaller the farm's gotten, the more profitable it's been.

"People don't think we're all that crazy any more."

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