It all started with a newspaper article, a little acreage, a desire to have a “job with a purpose,” and a few good seeds. After spending years working in sales and management for office equipment companies, Fred Miller ’81
took a leap of faith and started Wake County’s first USDA Certified Organic Produce Farm. What started out as just a few acres from the larger J.C. Rowland family farm, Hilltop Farms today boasts 34 acres in picturesque Willow Springs, North Carolina, two friendly goats, chickens, horses, and a trusty Black Lab named Boomer who welcomes visitors with his briskly wagging tail. Through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Fred and his wife Virginia are “providing a connection for the people to the land and to their food.”
When Miller graduated from ECU in 1981, farming was the furthest thing from his mind. A passionate drummer, he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, with a fellow Buford T Band member with dreams of making a career in rock and roll. When it became evident that fame and fortune might not become a reality, he began applying for positions in the finance industry, since his degree was in accounting. “The day my dad called to offer me a job in a new restaurant he was planning to open is the same day I got an offer for a finance position from an interview I’d been on two months earlier. I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different if I’d stayed in Wilmington and took that job,” said Miller. But the pull of home found him back in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the family had settled after his dad retired from a long career in the Navy, to help run King Arthur’s Restaurant and Bar.
After a time in the family business, Miller wanted to get out on his own and took a job selling office equipment. “Copier companies were always hiring back then. Photocopiers were still relatively new, so everybody was expanding and business was good,” said Miller. Working primarily with Cannon USA, Miller held a number of positions from sales to management and was able to base himself in North Carolina; first in Greensboro, then to Virginia’s homestead in Willow Springs. (The land that encompasses Hilltop Farms has been in Virginia’s family since 1742 and was a land grant from King George II.) “After 15 years in the business, I was already developing my exit strategy. We lived here [on J.C. Rowland Farm land] at the time and part of it wasn’t being used. Virginia always had horses, so we spent weekends mending fences and tending pastures. I thought, ‘I really like this.’ I was happy on the tractor. Around 1999, I read an article in the News & Observer
about CSAs and how it was a sweeping trend that was started some 5,000 years ago in the Orient. It is popular in Europe and spread to New England and is now spreading south and of course to California. Basically, people pay the farmer in advance to grow food for them. A light bulb went off and I thought, ‘OK, that’s what I want to do.’”
Miller didn’t quit his day job right away, but started spending his weekends planting seedlings and taking the first steps to get his organic produce growing. “We only had one membership the first year and that was split between two people. I had all this produce, so I started selling at the Farmers’ Market. The next year we had seven members and the next it had grown to sixteen members. On January 2, 2002 Miller officially became “Farmer Fred.”
Now in it’s tenth season, Hilltop Farms anticipates one hundred sixty CSA members for 2011. This year, a working share membership in the CSA is $430 and these members are expected to complete twelve hours of field time; a non-working share is $495. During the season, Miller uses drop sites across Wake County to offer convenient pick-up for members. Produce can also be picked up directly from the farm. Each week offers a cornucopia of just-picked, ripe fruits and vegetables—from arguably the best strawberries in Wake County to broccoli, cucumbers, watermelons, zucchini, and almost everything in between. Members choose which produce they want each week. But farming organically isn’t easy. “We face many of the same challenges as larger farms. Disease is a bigger problem in organic and we also require more labor: tillage, cultivation, hand-pulling weeds,” said Miller. During the season, Miller and his handful of employees work 12-14 hour days, six days a week. The off-season provides a bit of respite, but seedlings in the farm’s two greenhouses require constant supervision, and fields must be prepared for the next planting.
These challenges don’t stop Hilltop Farms from thriving. “I have more sales potential than what I can produce,” commented Miller. The organic industry has seen a significant rise in demand in the last ten years and is currently growing by twenty percent each year—staggering numbers in comparison to other agriculture. Miller’s business acumen and marketing savvy certainly help the profit margin, too. In addition to the CSA, Miller is a founding partner of Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO), which consists of fifteen organic farms around North Carolina and did two million dollars in sales in 2010. ECO sells to Whole Foods Markets, local restaurants, and buying clubs. Hilltop Farms also sells at two area farmers’ markets and to a handful of local retailers and restaurants. “I can’t put all my eggs in the CSA basket, so I diversify to make up for competition and the economy.”
Hilltop Farms has also had its share of publicity over the years, which help with the revenue stream. It’s been featured in a PBS documentary about farming, several articles have been written about the farm in regional publications, and local television stations find Miller’s friendly personality a great fit for agriculture related news stories. In December 2010, Miller and Hilltop Farms received the Pioneer Award from Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District for “leadership and innovation in developing Wake County’s first USDA Certified Organic Farm.” Hilltop Farms continues to take measures to ensure sustainability, like using a solar powered well for irrigation and a high tunnel greenhouse for year-round vegetable production. These measures ensure Hilltop Farms is at the forefront of organic production, providing food its members and buyers can feel good about.
“Average farm to fork is 1,500 miles for most of the foods you eat,” said Miller, “with our farm it’s only 15 miles. I always say it’s a God-given instinct to be able to grow your own food and to want to grow your own food. We’ve gone away from being an agrarian society. A hundred years ago one in two families was in agriculture, now it’s one in two hundred. But with the CSA, our members can pick beans or strawberries, pull weeds or spread mulch, and they really enjoy getting back to that simpler way of life. And of course organic is ‘green’ by definition. There’s an ecological value to organic farming. It’s not just that people want to eat healthy, people want to take better care of the planet and that’s our goal as well; we’re not in it just because it’s a marketing niche. It saves on fossil fuels for delivery of food and since it’s grown organically you’re not putting chemicals in the soil that’s going to run off into the drinking water. It revolves around being environmentally friendly and that’s really what drives the organic industry. This kind of farming is a life philosophy.”
Miller is proud to be doing his part to be a good steward of the land. He loves his work, the people he meets through the CSA membership, and knowing that in his own small way, he is contributing to the health and well being of hundreds of families.