Rappahannock’s family farmers, present and future, rely on hard work and a hefty set of tools to keep growing
Rappahannock County is home to 397 farms, each with different agricultural products, farming techniques and backgrounds, but they’re all trying to do one thing — keep their farms sustainable and profitable.
Those efforts to keep the farms successful fall on the shoulders of a diverse group of future farmers. Some increasingly rely on symbiotic relationships, between landowners and young families who move to Rappahannock to lease farm’s acreage. Others have family members to whom the land, equipment and know-how will be passed on, in hopes of keeping the farm both in the black and in the family.
Whether the farm operations are centuries or a few years old, all share a common hope to preserve the land that feeds them — and the rest of the community. It’s a common concern among Rappahannock’s residents — in the Foothills Forum’s recent Living in Rappahannock Survey, “maintaining family farms” was the fourth-rated overall concern. Of those surveyed, 1,346 answered how concerned they were about maintaining family farms and about 50 percent rated it to be very important to them.
Beneath the fertilized fields, meanwhile, answers are being unearthed to questions of financial stability and who will be the farmers of the future.
In the view of the Social Security Administration, the earliest one can retire in the U.S. is at age 62. In Rappahannock County, that’s about the average age of the individual in charge of the majority of the farmland: 61, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census.
‘Planning for the future’ in Amissville
Manfred Call, the owner of Muskrat Haven Farm in Amissville, recalled that he had a heart attack just as he reached that statistical age group. He was 63.
“If I drop dead, it can happen to anybody at anytime . . . you don’t know when the bell’s going to ring,” Call said, remembering the fate of his farm at the time of his health scare.
Heart problems now kept at bay by medication and activity, Call is now 78 — and able to oversee his hay baling business, his cattle, sweet corn, berries and soy beans, among other products that the Amissville farm produces on 130 acres. With a diverse range of products being produced, Call has a plan set in place for what the business will be for his kids and grandchildren.
“I’ve got those four kids to take care of,” Call said. “Every day I look at assets and how to split ’em up, to put them in the right place so their lives don’t get interfered with taking on another project.”
Call added that he doesn’t know what he would do without Hunter Call, his youngest son, who will take over Muskrat Haven Farm with his own son once the time comes.
“You always try to plan for the future, you never know what two steps will take you,” he said. “I might not wake up one morning, and that’s fine, I’m comfortable with where I am and what I’ve done.”
Planning for the future also includes being prepared for accidents that can happen any day on the farm to Call’s expensive equipment.
“I had one tractor destroyed,” Call said. “Someone ran right into it, tore the tractor all to hell.”
A similar incident happened two years ago, Call added, when someone using their cell phone while driving ran into the back his trailer on the highway.
To protect himself against incidents like those, Call insures every farming vehicle he owns.
“We count on [the equipment] for income, a lot of income,” Call said. “You’ve got to have equipment that works when you want it to work.”
Each year, Call said, he buys between $15,000 and $20,000 worth of equipment for the farm, either replacing the old or buying additional equipment, to keep the farm running.
Farmers throughout Rappahannock County take that measure to try to turn a profit. In 2012, though, the average farm in the county reported losing about $6,000 while trying to make a living, according to the agriculture department’s 2012 census.
Before Call bought his farm in 1986, he invested in the stock market, and still relies on that to bail himself out whenever his farm faces financial problems.
“If you don’t think ahead, you’re going to get behind,” Call said.
A new lease on farm life
Cliff Miller III of Sperryville has been thinking ahead for a long time about the future of his family farm, Mount Vernon Farm, but his family’s acreage, family-operated for more than 100 years, likely won’t see his children atop tractors.
“My children loved this place, but aren’t particularly interested in farming,” said Miller, whose son, Cliff Miller IV, has built an extensive retail and restaurant complex — and a nine-hole golf course — at the family’s Sperryville Schoolhouse property.
Instead, the elder Miller decided to lease land to younger farmers, who may not have grown up in Rappahannock County but hope to make a living producing food.
“In Rappahannock County, you can’t hardly come here and buy land at the market rate and expect to make money farming it,” Miller said.
Miller had two operations sign leases to start their own agriculture-based businesses. One of them, Waterpenny Farm, has 25 years left of their 40-year lease, which gives them access to 30 acres of Miller’s land.
“The next generation is starting to take over and that’s exciting to me to see that happen,” Miller said.
For Miller, that next generation is also represented by Mike and Molly Peterson, who operate their business, Heritage Hollow Farms, on about 250 leased acres of Miller’s land, at $30 per acre per year.
In 2008, the farming duo moved to Rappahannock County, where Mike worked as a chef and a butcher and Molly worked as a professional photographer. On his way to work every day, Mike said he would pass by Cliff Miller’s farm.
“Here was this farm [working] every day and he was getting kind of . . . ‘burnout’ is not the right word, but close,” Molly said.
After quitting his job as a butcher at the Inn at Little Washington, Mike took an internship as a farm manager with Miller, which led to a year of negotiations, planning out the five-year lease for him and Molly to open their business in 2013.
As Mike and Molly started raising grass-fed cattle, pasture-raised pigs and lambs, Molly said, Rappahannock community members often told them how glad they were to have a young couple around.
“The problem is, it’s not cost-effective for young people to live here,” Molly said. “If young people want to live here, they have to get creative, or they have to commute.”
Molly added that at one point, she and Mike were making a take-home pay of less than $1,000 a month. But, she said, since this type of food is important to them, they figured it out.
They have a mix of private and government loans, she said, including one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which allowed them to buy some of their own breeding stock.
Mike and Molly aren’t the only ones taking advantage of USDA loans. In the past three years, seven home loans have been granted in Rappahannock County from the USDA ranging from about $130,000 to about $280,000, according to records from the Farm Service Agency.
“We love it here and that’s why we try to make it happen,” Molly said.
More young farmers are coming out to the county, Molly said, and if they hadn’t come here, there might not be as many farms in county.
Rappahannock County is home to 397 farms that range in size from one acre to 1,000 acres, according to the USDA’s 2012 census. The majority of farms in 2012 made less than $1,000 in sales and only one made $500,000 or more, according to the same census.
“Generations of families have kept it going and going and that’s so important and vital to the culture here.” Molly said. “Then we have the newer farming generation and are trying to make a go of it, usually on rented land.”
Some landowners in the county are coming around to the idea of renting land and benefiting from their land improving, Mike said, which gives them more land to raise cattle on.
“We need to be able to have the land we have here working and profitable to keep the next generation of farmers in the county,” he said.
The conservation crop
To keep farms profitable, many farmers turn for advice to David Massie, conservation specialist at the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District, which includes Rappahannock in its five-county area.
“It’s definitely a struggle for the younger generation if it’s not handed to you and you’re not in line to take over the operation,” said Massie, who also serves on the board of the Foothills Forum.
About 75 percent of Rappahannock’s farmers have reached out to Massie for help, he said. The advice he gives ranges from affordable fencing, water resources and how to utilize existing infrastructure.
“There’s a business-mentality end of a family farm that has to stay profitable,” he said. “So if they can make it more profitable, there’s a better chance that it’s going to survive down the line.”
As Massie helps local farmers make their businesses more profitable, they’ve developed deep relationships leading to other forms of advice.
“Some of the people I’m closer to . . . we talk about what’s the plan for the future,” Massie said.
Those conversations have lead to facilitating more land-lease agreements for other farmers, he said, similar to the agreement the Petersons worked out with Miller.
Sometimes those conversations lead to what farmers might need to build in order to sign into a conservation easement program, a tool to preserve farmland, and costs surrounding it.
“A lot of our work would come out of [the easement’s] requirements to build a buffer on the stream if it was in a pasture situation,” Massie said.
A conservation easement is put into place when a landowner signs away the rights for development on the land in order to conserve the land as it is, untouched, forever, no matter who owns the land in the future.
When landowners do that, they can deduct up to 50 percent of their adjusted gross income, according to Carolyn Sedgwick, Rappahannock & Clarke County land conservation officer at the Piedmont Environmental Council.
“That’s essentially allowing a family farm to stay in place because you are getting a financial incentive to invest in the farm and the future,” Sedgwick said.
In Rappahannock County, she said, 30,000 acres are in conservation easement programs, the majority meant to preserve farmland. According to the national conservation easement database, there are 191 easements in Rappahannock County.
Easements are one of several tools in a conservation toolkit for preserving family farms, Sedgwick said. She added that they’re probably the method of preserving land that most community members are familiar with.
“It’s a big draw for the public,” Sedgwick said. “Just having these mountainsides or streams [and] farms preserved, and knowing that pressure to develop them is not ever going to arise.”
Whether it’s people born and raised in Rappahannock County or people flocking to area, they all have the opportunity to figure out a way to preserve farms and the way of life in the county, she said.
“These communities are not stagnant, they are constantly evolving,” Sedgwick said. “Some of this push is trying to figure out, where is the next generation of — not people, farmers, but of local food — where is that going to be coming from?”
Reporter Julia Fair’s internship is underwritten by Foothills Forum.