‘Rappahannock County has so much potential . . . but there are still too many obstacles in the way’
Mike and Molly Peterson, who in a few short years made Heritage Hollow Farms a household name from Sperryville to points beyond, have done more than most local farmers to focus attention on the future of agriculture and next-generation farming in Rappahannock County.
Which makes official word last week that the Petersons are moving away from Rappahannock all the more difficult to digest.
Pick a subject — lease farming, the future of agriculture, 100 percent grass fed beef and lamb, food production, food-related businesses — and they’ve been the poster family, pitchforks in hand.
It was only two years ago that Farm Aid — its single mission (as told by board board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews) to keep family farmers on the land — sent a reporter to interview the Sperryville couple about their inroads in modern farming, when skyrocketing land values make non-farm use more attractive to landowners.
That same year, AT&T recognized the young couple’s hard work and devotion to farming, awarding them its $50,000 grand prize in a national contest to help small businesses pursue their dreams.
Without question, the Petersons have given their all to every aspect of farming. While Mike tended to the family’s animals in 2016, Molly was chairing the eighth annual Rappahannock County Farm Tour, inviting visitors to experience everything from picking apples to pasture walks, fiber demonstrations to vegetable production tours, beekeeping demos to cider pressing and mead tasting.
“I was giddy with the beauty and bounty of this county,” she later wrote to this newspaper. “We have so much to be proud of and so much talent to share: I’m really honored to be a part of our local food culture and I thank you for encouraging my heart to help tell the story.”
“This is not a job,” Mike explained once to a reporter, even if his daily routine consisted of rising before dawn to manage hundreds of head of livestock grazing on what once amounted to 900 non-contiguous acres — five farm properties in all. “It’s our life. We are part of a community. What’s important to me now is the growth of our community — that’s made up of our farm, our store, our customers.”
On paper, lease farming appears a no-brainer, a win-win for landowner and budding farmer alike.
“Leasing can be a great option for beginning farmers looking to gain access to farmland, since it is less financially risky than purchasing land,” observes the Piedmont Environmental Council. “By leasing their land to a farmer, landowners are helping to keep farmland in production, which helps ensure our community’s food security in the long run, while promoting good stewardship of the land.”
Rappahannock County Extension Agent Kenner Love says “a lease can be as simple as a handshake — an oral agreement — or as onerous as a multiple page legal document.”
“Leasing,” Love adds, “is the only feasible way for non-landowners to farm in Northern Piedmont because of the enormous capital investment needed to acquire land . . . and the minimal or lack of economic return for agricultural products grown on the land.”
Therein lies the problem.
As the Petersons would discover in due time, leasing enough pastureland to support livestock — and subsequently their family — is far more difficult than securing enough acreage to grow spinach. At one point the Petersons had eight landlords.
The PEC’s Paula Combs has pointed out that increasing the local food supply and expanding opportunities for next-generation farmers like the Petersons “depends on improving access to affordable farmland.
“Many Piedmont landowners are interested in expanding the agriculture use of their land, and many farmers are eager to partner with landowners through farmland leases,” she said. “However, both landowners and farmland seekers say that it often proves very difficult to make these matches in Virginia.”
Even when suitable farms are discovered, in Rappahannock or other rural areas, short-term leases often aren’t renewed, either in whole or in part — as in the case of the Petersons — which can suddenly leave farmers who’ve invested a lot more than sweat equity into the land scrambling for a place to go.
In the majority of farm leases, specific terms are in writing: daily farm management, operating costs, water and fencing, types of farming allowed, access to farm buildings and equipment, discounts to the farmer and/or landowner, and so on. Leases on smaller properties typically aren’t as detailed.
In an interview this past week, Mike Peterson says it was a combination of losing sizeable sections of pasture, and his subsequent inability to locate a contiguous property for his entire farming operation, that weighed into the couple’s difficult decision to pull up stakes.
One question posed to the farmer given everything he and his wife have experienced is whether lease farming, particularly pertaining to livestock production, is even practical in a county like Rappahannock, given its small size, expensive land, and proximity to a large metropolitan area.
“With livestock I would say no,” Mike answers, pointing out that Erik Plaksin and Rachel Bynum of the leased Waterpenny Farm “are the one success story of a true sustainable [vegetable] farm. They’re making their full time living from farming. I don’t know of anyone else doing that in the county . . . at that scale.”
As for finding adequate grazing land elsewhere in Virginia?
“We did the evaluations when we started the business — we looked at Madison, Culpeper, the surrounding counties, and certainly the land was cheaper, and we probably could have had a better go of it [elsewhere], but we wanted to stay here, try to make it work here,” Mike says.
“When we started the business we had five properties and several hundred animals, and it was working . . . but I was spending the whole day driving from farm to farm. And we were making money, but the quality of life wasn’t there. So we pulled back and changed production scale a little bit and the balance never came back.”
The welcome addition of the couple’s son, Alden, in the fall of 2016 made farming numerous farms, while at the same time running the family’s Sperryville farm store, all the more difficult.
“As we tried to make improvements for what we needed as a family the business would drop off,” Mike explains. “I spent over a year trying to look for land to make it here, because I still had thoughts that we could change the business model enough to be able to make a living, but . . .”
Mike spent 14 months looking for that rare piece of Rappahannock property that might have allowed the couple to stay in the county. There was one slightly promising find, but it required tens of thousands of dollars in improvements — from secure fencing to water access — which the couple, not the landowner, would have been responsible for.
“Which is OK, but I need seven or eight years to get a return on it,” Mike educates.
In a farewell letter to the family’s many friends and business associates, Mike wrote that when he and Molly came to Rappahannock a decade ago they “were young, energetic, funded, and eager. Eager to exhibit that we had the moxie . . . Eager to prove that two young people with no land ownership could make a go of this in a county with prohibitively high land prices . . .”
The couple certainly gave it their best shot.
“Rappahannock County has so much potential to be an ecologically focused hub to produce food for a huge amount of people, but there are still too many obstacles in the way,” Mike said in closing. “Our hope is those who are working on those projects on the ground level here continue to gain the support they need to cultivate an economically viable agricultural community.”
The Petersons will be moving to Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where Mike has accepted a position at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. With a recent land acquisition the educational center is expanding its livestock grazing programs, and Mike fit the position perfectly. Nevertheless, it’s extremely hard for the couple to let go of Rappahannock.
Just two months ago, Molly was sitting on a steering committee that drew 100-plus local farmers and others with agricultural interests to the Washington Firehouse. For several hours they explored opportunities to improve the prospects for farming in a county that, as Mike Sands of Bean Hollow Grassfed put it, was in a precarious position of transition and uncertainty.
Five years ago, in the last agriculture census, Rappahannock County supported 397 so-called “farms,” down from 416 in 2007. County land in farms was measured at 62,818 acres, down from 65,084 acres in 2007. During the same period farm profits fell. While Rappahannock awaits its updated ag figures, one can bet their bottom cow that the number of farms continues to drop. One only need look at the new houses popping up on the hilltops.