Saturday, June 28, 2008

Growing Farmers

My wife recently immigrated to Rappahannock County from Chile where every inch of arable land is planted with onions, wine or table grapes, oranges, lemons, apples, corn, beets, tomatoes, and more. One of her first questions when she moved out to the rolling Virginia countryside is why were there no crops planted here. Coming from a land that would be desert without irrigation she marveled at the rolling pastures of cows and horses but she wondered where all the farmers were.

I told her that in Northern Virginia farming is for the most part a past-time for those who can afford it. Many of the large tracts of land here are not farms at all even though they have all the requisite amenities. Further south and east in Orange and Essex Counties there are large vegetable, corn, and soybean farms but here in Rappahannock County and in Fauquier and Loudoun Counties not much is grown. True there is the occasional small organic farms, specialty ranchers who raise sheep or goats, and of course vineyards. And there are lots of cattle. But not many people here actually depend on their land to make a living. Rather those who own land here are retired or work in the city while their well-fed and pampered horses are fed timothy and alfalfa hay trucked in from the Midwest. All of that rolling pasture that at first glance looks like forage is mainly given over to tall fescue grass which is really just a weed.

Still Rappahannock County is home to some people who would like to change this while at the same time keeping the county free from development. Lots of the large properties here are protected from development by zoning and conservation easements---for now. But current landowners worry about the future. Will their heirs be able to pay the taxes on land that most the most part is not profitable to farm? Will they have to sell out to yet another dot-com millionaire or absentee land owner?

Mount Vernon Farm

Cliff Miller is one of these land owners thinking about the future. His 800 acre farm fairly surrounds the town of Sperryville where on this sunny Spring day other landowners and farmers had gathered for a workshop called “Growing Farms” organized by the Virginia Organic Producers & Consumers Association.

Mr. Miller is a 5th generation farmer whose family has farmed the same plot of land since 1827. This 67 year old farmer with graying hair and glasses had come to the Link community center to talk to eager farm interns and land owners about his plan to bring more working farmers to Rappahannock County. Sitting with him on the panel were Don Loock of the Piedmont Environmental Council, Trista Scheyerlein of the Farm to Table Program, and Shawna DeWitt and Atilla Agoston of Mountain View Farm.

I first met Cliff Miller when he came into the Corner Grocery Store last summer selling blackberries from his Mount Vernon farm. My kids and I bought a box which we ate even before we left the parking lot. I found it somewhat amusing that this man who owned so much land and whose family had been here for so long would fiddle with selling blackberries one $4 box at a time. But as he explained at the workshop just because you own lot of acres does not mean you have a lot of cash.

Cliff Miller says he would not think of selling his farm. He says his farm, “Had been a productive and profitable farm for generations. Since the 1970s it was not longer making money.” He has enough money to keep it for himself but worries about how to pass the farm along to his heirs and their heirs without finding a way to make it marketable. So he has looked for ways to make the farm pay or at least break even.

He has done this several ways. One idea was to tap into every possible private-public partnership program. So he put 180 acres into a watershed protection program called CREP (“Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program”) which pays farmers to plant trees and build fences to keep cattle out of creeks and streams. He also restored 3 wetlands and planted 19,000 hardwood trees. Were it not for money from Ducks Unlimited, the state of Virginia, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation he would not have even contemplated paying the cost of ripping down all the ancient interior fencing of the farm, putting in 10 miles of new fencing for grassland based ranching, and digging three new wells. “I had an emotional commitment to do it.”

His second idea was to latch onto the demand for locally produced grass fed beef, pork, and lamb which he sells by way of subscription and in the farm store on his Mount Vernon Farm. “Grass fed” means the animals that are raised on pastures instead of the industrial feedlots of the Midwest where they are fed corn and kept in close confinement. (Cattle do not naturally eat corn says Michael Pollan in his book “The Omnivores Delimma.” Further to do so messes up the 4-chambered stomach of these ruminant which is designed to digest grass only.)

Cliff’s third idea and the reason for him being at this workshop today was to find entrepreneurial young people who can farm the land themselves. He wants to “encourage young farmers to produce healthy products while respecting the animals.” He is 8 years into his plan and so far has one tenant who rents 30 acres. Raising his eyes looking to make a pointed suggestion to other landowners in the audience Cliff says, “If you have 800 acres 30 acres is not a lot.

Rachel Bynum and Eric Plaksin rent bottom land from Cliff Miller for $50 per acre for their Waterpenny Farm. They have a 40 year lease and have built a house and profitable business on the property.

For the rest of his farm he is currently searching for someone who wants to be a grass livestock farmer. Someone who wants to “use animals to make a living and improve the land.”

Wrapping up Cliff says, “We must encourage farmers to farm land that they cannot afford to buy.”

Mountain View Farm

The farm interns and organic farmers in the audience that day at the Link community center do not look much like the farmers I knew growing up in the William Faulkner South. Most do not come from farming families and have grown up in the cities. Still they are eager and hopeful that the strong demand for locally produced organic food will let them live in the country and perhaps make a living too.

Shawna DeWitt and Atilla Agoston are two farm interns turned farmers sitting on the dais He is from Blackburg, Virginia. She is from Denver. Atilla is young, wears glasses, and sports a 5’oclock shadow which is fitting for a farmer. His handsome freckled wife is wearing a hair band and looks like one of the young girls in Fiddler on the Roof. Both are articulate and passionate about what they do. They have brought their baby with them and pass the child back and forth to each other as they speak to the audience

Atilla says, “We’re not from farming families. We started out as interns”. They looked at one of the many websites that connect interns to farms and found work out in Washington state where they lived in a shack in the woods and contemplated how they might get their own land after having worked for someone else. “The next step was: how do we get our own farm?” Friends suggested leasing land. “We were hesitant to get into debt. Atilla reflected back and said what he wanted, “Was a deer fence, irrigation, a tractor would be nice”.

They found 3 acres of land to rent from the Blue Ridge Center a 900 acre nature preserve in Loudon County. Showing a photo of their rented Kubota tractor he provokes chuckles from the audience when he said because of the tractor they decided, “We’ll move there”.

Atilla says, “When we moved here it was like starting from scratch. There was a tractor, and green house, a marginal deer fence, and a few tools. Here was our chance to do our own thing with minimal risk”.

Shawna wearing crocks talks of their agricultural ideal they have found, “We have acres and this land without a mortgage without debt.” Wrapping up she highlights the point of today’s workshop: “There seems like there is a divide between people who have land and people who want to farm.”

Don Loock

With his flyaway red hair, glasses, beard, and soft-spoken demeanor Don Loock looks like an environmentalist which of course he is. He is the land conservation officer of the Piedmont Environmental Council for Rappahannock and Clarke Counties. He and his wife Kristina are also aspiring smaller farmers finishing off grass fed lamb at their Amissville home.

Speaking to the audience he outlines challenge for new farmers. “The price of land is incredibly high. Processed foods have huge market share. A lot of new farmers are coming from different backgrounds. So the knowledge has not been handed down for generations.”

Then he weighs into the positive side of the equation “Positive trends are educated consumers and untapped markets. There’s huge demand out there for local products.”

Don says part of the problem is the farmers need access to technical assistance, markets, land, and capital. They need infrastructure like refrigeration.

One idea under way is the Central Virginia Community Food Center Initiative to market to school and hospitals. This helps because “Virginia grocery stores not used to dealing with small producers.”

Don says the reason he is here this day is because of his role at the Piedmont Environmental Council to arrange conservation easements. “Conservation easements have helped land owners get equity out of their land. People can afford to keep the land and farm it.”


Trista Scheuerlein who has swapped a pullover and headband for a skirt and pumps dashes in from the Nature Camp at the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection. Her presentation is called “Growing Pride in Rappahannock County Schools through Hands of Experience in Sustainable Agriculture.”

She says she, “Started by own farm in 2003 after being a intern at Waterpenny.” Her mother told her she, “Would never pick a bean if she could buy it in a can.” When she left Waterpenny she wanted to start her own farm. She says, “At least 5 people offered me land.” She found a relation with Joyce Abell whose husband had recently died. “I came onto the property as a caretaker” and there she started her farm.

After farming for a few years the school district approached her about starting a horticulture class for the students. Her enthusiasm was and is contagious. She says “I have my dream job.” At the high school she and her students have planted onions, lettuce, herbs, and strawberries on raised beds. They grow food to give to the elderly poor and the students earn a science credit. Trista says, “When a kid interacts with what they are leaning they are going to learn it better.” Of her students she says, “Not all of them will become farmers but maybe they will have gardens.”

For the next year they have founding funding for a heated greenhouse which will push their growing season into the winter.

The Farm-to-Table program is entirely privately funded. Their patrons include the Rappahannock Garden Club. Trista is thrilled that one of her first students is now studying horticulture at Piedmont Community College through a scholarship funded by the garden club.

Aleta Gadino of Gadino Cellars is a member of garden club. She says, “We support all of the educational aspect of farm to table primarily to promote growing and appreciating the environmental education and the love of growing. We want to inspire young people to keep the earth green. I think for Trista the goal of the program is to show people that you can make a living in growing things in agriculture and I think to keep people in the county is important as well. I think the young people might feel the might have to go somewhere else to find jobs. Hopefully some will stay to pursue that lifestyle to keep Rappahannock rural and green.”

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What do the Environmentalists Want?

I am a devotee of most of the principles of organic farming especially what the organic farmers have to say about soil fertilizer. It is better to apply rock minerals, fish oil, kelp, and incorporate legumes in the soil rather than apply nitrogen made using natural gas. On the one hand this is better for the environment. On the other hand it is better for the soil. And in the long run—a very long run—it costs less than buying fertilizer every year.

But this word “environment” has lost all meaning. Activists have embraced this whimsical notion--conjuring up images of flora, fauna, and pastoral visages--and used it to bully those who dare oppose their point of view. They claim the moral high ground by virtue of their moniker. To say "I am an environmentalist" means "you are not".

America is a confederation of thousands of fiefdoms. It is a cornucopia of city governments, county councils, state assembles, neighborhood associations, tax districts, sewer and water districts, and the federal government each with their own vested and usually opposing interests. We are not, say, France where power emanates from Paris and radiates out to the provincials as fiat. There is no Hugo Chavez dictator here. In the USA every councilor, congressman, senator, mayor, lobbyist, and grass roots activist has a say in every decision over where to build a bridge, pave a road, place a homeless shelter, dig a mine, or erect a tower.

To push through an idea among so many clamoring voices is tough enough. But it is made even more difficult by the environmental activists whose goal is to, frankly, gum up the works. By virtue of their lobbying we have environmental impact statements, lawsuits, counter lawsuits, email campaigns, telephone banks, the clean air act, the Kyoto accord, the clean water act, special usage restrictions---all kinds of complications to make what should be simple, well, complex.

Further the environmentalists are for the most part the well-heeled—what George Bernard Shaw would call “MIRC”, “Members of the Idle Rich Class.” These are people with the time, money, and wherewithal to attend local hearings, write checks to the Sierra Club, fund the World Wildlife Fund, devote time to legal campaigns, and drive to Richmond to lobby the legislature. That they represent the interests of the upper-class opens themselves up to criticism by labeling them with the word that they hate the most: elitist.

Rush Limbaugh says on his radio show that the true goal of the environmental activists is to destroy capitalism and replace it with socialism. But socialism is passé. It went out of vogue when George Orwell and Stalin dashed the aspirations of the intellectuals of the fifty years ago.

Capitalism is not what the environmentalists wish to destroy because those of them who made it into the ranks of the well-to-do did so through the free exchange of commerce. So that suggestion cannot be true. So what do the environmentalists want? You would have to conclude that the goal of the environmental movement is the death of the combustion engine and the elimination of fossil fuel. But if that is the case then why is this lobby opposed to nuclear power and mining uranium in Virginia? Such contradictions in logic is part of what makes their means often clash with their aims. People are sheep--following the whims of their leaders--no one is really thinking.

The environmental debate which is currently raging is whether or not to drill for oil in places which heretofore have been off limits. When I first started writing for magazines and newspapers more than 20 years ago I wrote an essay which I pitched to the American Petroleum Institute about companies gearing up to drill for natural gas off the coast of North Carolina. In 1991 there had been plans to build a pipeline on the Outer Banks. That idea fizzled in part due to pressure from you know who.

Virginia is said to have oil off its coast line as does Florida, California, and of course Alaska. Fisherman would say that oil drilling rigs are good for fishing for they make structures to which barnacles can attached which then attracts somewhat larger marine creates which attracts even larger marine creatures until you have blue marlin, wahoo, and mackerel. My father owned a tugboat company for 30 years. He spent much time sinking ships at sea exactly for this purpose.

But predictably the environmentalists have lined up again this idea. As if they have studied rhetoric from Cicero, they pick the most compelling argument and they go to war with this dogmatic phrase. In the heated battles of political discourse no one is allowed to say what they really think. No moderate politician, for example, is going to say something to offend his constituents and by definition if one is “moderate” their constituents are of course both sides of the argument. And moderates tend to win because they appeal to the greater numbers of voters.

The other bit of subterfuge is the argument over whether to build a power line through Rappahannock and Fauquier Counties. The environmentalist sitting in his air conditioned office writing emails and sending faxes obviously needs electricity. But they cannot admit that because it would undermine their opposition to what is obvious to most which is that as the country grows so does the demand for power. So the strategists at the Piedmont Environmental Council have latched upon the idea that Dominion Power wants to build this power line simply to enhance its bottom line. This despite the fact that utilities are regulated monopolies whose profit is regulated by the state. In good times and in bad the power company always makes its regulated return.

Because it is a monopoly the power company does not care what it costs to fend off the Piedmont Environmental Council. And because the environmentalists are Members of the Idle Rich Class they do not care what it costs to take depositions, make motions, conduct public hearings, send a zillion letters, emails, and faxes. Those who inevitably pay are the working poor and the middle class whose power bills rises in correlation with the costs of environmental activism. The only time the environmental lobby would be bothered by $8 per gallon gasoline or a power grid that is strained to capacity is when the lights go out and the pumps run dry. Then they are sitting in the dark, unable to drive to their soiree because commerce has ground to a halt. Is this the goal to which they aspire? Perhaps Rush Limbaugh is correct.

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