Sperryville farmers Mike and Molly Peterson went live on Facebook last Friday from the back porch of the Middleton Inn in Washington, which was crowded with video and lighting crew members, marketing folks and a famous self-made American entrepreneur — to accept a $50,000 “Agility” grant from AT&T.
The Petersons, who these days run some 500 head of pasture-raised livestock at several leased farms around Rappahannock County collectively known as Heritage Hollow Farms, won the award after a few weeks of online voting for 10 nationwide finalists in AT&T’s annual competition.
“We are speechless — again,” said Molly, cameras rolling, asked by “The Pursuit of Happyness” author and entrepreneur Chris Gardner how the couple was feeling about the no-strings-attached grant, part of an AT&T program meant to encourage entrepreneurship and “agility” in business (presumably with help from AT&T’s wireless network, which AT&T decided a few years back not to extend into Rappahannock just yet).
“We’ve been so supported by our community,” Peterson told Gardner. “It’s a huge honor. I mean, our community, near and far — they voted. It means a lot.”
Molly said earlier that she and Mike were speechless the first time around, and struggled not to burst into tears, when they’d arrived back at their home a few days earlier and were greeted by a video and marketing crew sent to bring the news of their grand prize. The second hardest thing at that point, Molly said, was not being able to tell anyone for several days — although Gardner did help them make a call to Molly’s mother in Illinois, and a few other close family members.
In the short video they had to make to enter the competition, the Petersons said they’d use the extra funds to hire some regular farm help, and likely some new equipment. Last Friday, Mike Peterson confirmed that plan, adding: “And we’ll save something to keep in the bank for a rainy day.” His glance at Molly spoke of the shared knowledge that rainy days, and not-so-rainy days, mean a lot more to farmers than the mostly retail, professional and marketing entrepreneurs they’d competed with in the AT&T contest.
As Molly wrote for their Agility application:
“One of the things that has made us more agile when it comes to being an agriculturally based small business is we weren’t gifted family land, we didn’t have long financially secure careers elsewhere first, cash flow has deep peaks and valleys, and we’ve had to be really smart about our financial decisions because there isn’t some everlasting bank account sitting behind us as a cushion.
“That’s not to say we haven’t made mistakes — we have like any young business — but we certainly learn from them quickly and we put a lot of calculation into nearly every decision we make that impacts the business and our family life. It’s no secret that family farms are shrinking away for myriad of reasons, and even though our type of farming is the minority, we still believe in the value of raising food in a way that consumers can still be connected to the process and the sense of true value that goes into feeding their families.”
The couple, Mike said, will be featured on the AT&T website in a short video profile that the AT&T crew shot during its stay in Rappahannock. He said it should be online at bizcircle.att.com/agility in about three weeks.