Dewitt Hardee retires after 36 years of bringing people together

by | Jan 7, 2022

One look at Dewitt Hardee’s resume is enough to make your head spin.

Hardee, who retired Dec. 31, has been a fixture at NCDA&CS for the entirety of his 36-year tenure. While many may know him by his most recent and longest-tenured position as Farmland Preservation Director, Hardee’s career saw him become one of the most respected voices in the department at large.

Agriculture is in Hardee’s blood. Born and raised on a farm in Johnston County, Hardee grew up growing tobacco and raising livestock for sale at the Benson farmer’s market. The farm is where Hardee learned to set goals and work hard to achieve them, where he learned to work together with others to tackle big problems, and where he learned to be a leader.

It’s also where he learned to face adversity. When Hardee was 16, his father was badly injured in a car accident leaving him unable to do his usual work on the farm. Hardee took over the farm in his stead, racing home from school each day to get to work in the tobacco fields.

“I was deep into it, my hands were dirty,” he said. “Farming was my life, it was my blood. That’s how I was raised up, and it’s those resources that got me through college.”

Farming was everything; in addition to running his own family farm, Hardee was an active member of his local FFA chapter, winning state awards and competing at the regional and national levels. Through FFA, Hardee made connections that set up the rest of his professional life.

One particularly important person Hardee met was then-commissioner of agriculture Jim Graham, who spoke at an FFA banquet Hardee was attending while in high school. Graham took a liking to Hardee and would check in with him over the years that followed, as Hardee made his way through earning his undergraduate and masters degrees at N.C. State University.

Shortly after graduating, Hardee began his first job with NCDA&CS in the Marketing department, primarily coordinating the Flavors of Carolina trade shows. Between 1985 and 2001, Hardee worked his way up in the Marketing division to eventually become its director, before then taking up the job of Director of Ag Policy and Analysis. In that position he acted as a federal and state liaison, advocating for agricultural policy and making sure that the department’s initiatives lined up with law.

During that time, Hardee help coordinate what he would later remember as the most significant project of his entire career – the 2004 tobacco buyouts.

“I was probably one of the better people in the department to be looking at that, because I was on the farm at the same time renting tobacco poundage myself. I also knew the landowners that I rented from, and then on the marketing side I also knew the big processors in the industry. So I kind of knew all of the different players in that industry,” he said. “My job was to bring those people together and get us to agree and get it on paper.”

The next major milestone would come in August of 2006, when Hardee took the reins of the newly created Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. This position, which he would hold until his retirement, saw him oversee the granting of farmland conservation easements across North Carolina, payments which allow farmers to keep their land as open, working land instead of selling it for development. It was a program Hardee helped build from the ground up, beginning with just $40,000 in appropriations and growing to the $24 million in active grants it holds today.

Landowners John and Ingrid McAden, front, with Hardee, left, and Jonathan Lanier, middle, of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and Robert Schaefer, right, of the Working Lands Trust.

Just like with the tobacco buyouts and much more in Hardee’s career, much of the ADFPTF’s success has come from Hardee and his team bringing people together. In 2020, NCDA&CS joined USDA and the U.S. Air Force in signing historic three-way common template conservation easements on five properties, the first ever easements to use funding from these three sources at the state and federal levels. This marked a new, more streamlined approach to easements, in which all three entities agreed on a single list of requirements instead of each holding their own restrictions.

The easement was a highlight in a career full of proud moments for Hardee.

“Those are the kinds of relationships we’re trying to build. Bringing in those national funds and pools of funding into North Carolina,” he said. “It’s all about partnership and being together. If you can take those resources from all over the place and start to layer them one on top of another, you can do some pretty impressive things.”

Hardee also oversaw the process of getting disaster relief funds out to farmers after the devastation caused by Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael. Working with 160 employees, Hardee managed the dispersal of $240 million in relief funds across more than 7,200 claims, a vast response project which took the total concentration of the Farmland Preservation team to see through. Hardee and his team got it done within a year.

“The way we saw it, we had to work with what we had to get the money out as quickly as possible,” he said. “If somebody is drowning, you don’t worry about a towel. You get them something to float on.”

After 36 years of service, Hardee decided that now was a good time to step aside. With a daughter in college and plans for new construction on the farm, he’ll have plenty to do in his spare time. Hardee also serves on the Johnston County Soil and Water Conservation Board, and he said he expects to do consulting work from time to time when asked.

For the people coming behind him, he offered a word of advice.

“This is about being a public servant. That is my key drive for anyone who has ever worked with me or around me. If you work in this department or in any other department, state or federal, you are a public servant. It is your responsibility to do your best to help the public,” he said. “It’s not an 8 to 5 job. That’s what I always expected out of my staff, that you work for the public.”