Reality: ‘Fundamentally our land is too expensive here to farm on’
Fear: ‘If we change anything Walmart comes next’
An inevitable conversation has begun in Rappahannock County.
Persistently avoided in certain quarters, a sizeable crowd of Rappahannock residents took a small but arguably important step Sunday afternoon to not only brainstorm on how to create jobs and boost the local economy — preserving the county’s unparalleled viewsheds in the process — but also open up about the resistance by many in the community to change.
“We either choose to guide that change or we choose to get run over by it,” warned Rev. Jennings “Jenks” Hobson, among the residents appearing at Mountainside Physical Therapy to expand on this summer’s multipart Foothills Forum/Rappahannock News series on the Rappahannock economy — past, present, and future.
Hobson said he’s long been aware of an unfounded fear among county residents that “if we change anything Walmart comes next week.”
The belief is “that if you don’t change anything you can stay the way you are. That’s simply not true,” said the retired pastor of 42 years at Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington.
“There’s been a lot of change over time,” Hobson reminded the audience. “Somehow we’ve got to address that fear.”
Among participants at the forum were Rappahannock County Administrator Garrey W. Curry, Kenner Love of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, farmer Mike Sands of AgChat, and Businesses of Rappahannock President Theresa Wood.
No county supervisors were in attendance, although some perhaps opted to attend a separate evening forum on the economy scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 13, 5:30-7:30 p.m, at Headmasters Pub in Sperryville. If the follow-up session is anything like Sunday’s, the supervisors will have much to chew on.
“I’m sitting here scratching my head listening to this and I have so many points to make my head is exploding,” said John Delmar of Rappahannock Cellars, who has been a farmer for 30 years.
“Fundamentally our land is too expensive here to farm on,” Delmar said for starters. “If I was just growing grapes I’d have been broke 19 and a half years ago. You can’t do it. You can’t do it on land that’s this expensive. The only way to make that living is do ‘value-add’ — to build the winery, make my grapes into wine, and go that next step.”
But “just running a cow-calf operation out there probably isn’t going to pay for the land” — short of finding a niche, he said, such as producing grass-fed beef and then zeroing in on a local market or demographic.
“It’s still pretty tough in my opinion doing [just] traditional agriculture — raising animals, raising crops,” said the farmer. “What’s the old adage, you farm until the money’s gone.”
Still, with value-add benefits and enhancements to the farming sector, Delmar is optimistic about the future of agriculture in the county, granted much-needed dialogue takes place from the fields and pastures to Courthouse Row and to the state capital and beyond.
“There’s a period of time in Rappahannock where we’re going to be able, if we do it smartly, we can support agriculture here — if we allow agriculture to do what it needs to survive,” he stated.
Including, he said, a desire by some farmers to devise additional uses for their expansive properties, including as venues for events if that’s what it takes to not only survive but preserve the cherished farmland.
“Someone made the very good point to me,” said Randy Rieland, chief reporter of the Foothills economic series, “that some of the people who are most resistant to providing more opportunities to farmers, whether it’s events on their land or whatever it might be, are the people who have moved here recently who said ‘I don’t want noise next door.’ So in essence they’re taking away opportunities from farmers to sustain their lives here.
“There are real needs that the farmers have, and that people have to be open to understanding those needs. And what that means, if you say, ‘I want to maintain all this pasture land, all these farms,’ well there has to be some sacrifices with that or there has to be some tolerance for what that might entail.”
Rappahannock handyman Ron Makela agreed that selective tweaking is needed before there’s nobody left in the county.
“Part of the root of the problem is 40 years ago we instituted the 25-acre minimum on property in an effort to save the land,” said Makela, who also serves on the county’s zoning adjustment board. “And I think in that period of time that has been very successful. But there’s a price that we’re paying. That is, we have lost the people.
“Because the people we need can’t live here anymore,” he said. “And until we take a look at that seriously and say, ‘Yeah, we need to adjust this,’ we need to make some plan so that people can come back here and live.”
Makela’s comments drew enthusiastic applause and an amen from the crowd.
Betsy Dietel, who has served as a board member to the Path Foundation and the Child Care and Learning Center, suggested creating “a vehicle” that other communities are using called a Community Development Corporation, or CDC. In addition, there could be a Community Development Financial Institution that is tapped into.
“It’s a group like this from all different walks of life that come together and outline exactly what [issues and concerns] we’ve outlined here,” she said, including a need for affordable housing and senior care.
“But we need a vehicle, we need some way to start to organize all the ideas that are in this room and to start to prioritize them,” Dietel said. “There are probably people who are not here that need to be in this conversation that we need to reach out to.”
“It strikes me,” said audience member Bill Dietel, Betsy’s father who founded Foothills Forum, “that the very people who are going to have to play an important role in helping you with the problems you’re talking about, those people who are in positions of political power, they don’t show up for this meeting. And I hope the newspaper will point that out in its coverage of this meeting.”
“I’m not a farmer, I’m not a business person,” said resident Patrick Stark, who commutes out of the county for work. “The thing I have not heard here at all today is affordability. You all want to talk about marketing, and getting your product out there to the market, and that’s great . . .
“But for me, if I can’t afford to buy it I’m not going to buy it here,” he said. “Ten dollars for a brat[wurst]? Come on, give me a break. That’s too expensive for the person who’s living out here. You talk about living? Most of you aren’t living, you’re enjoying life out here. You’re having a bit of a ‘la-la land’ type thing. The real person who is living here is the one trying not so much to make a living but living on a fixed income . . . we don’t have that extra bit of money that is coming in from something else.”
That said, he credited the forum for getting a needed conversation underway, echoing Rev. Hobson about resistance and fear in the community when it comes to change. Stark can relate.
“I live out here because I like the dark skies, I like the open land, and I like the access to the park, and I like being left alone,” he said. “I like my privacy. I don’t need somebody coming in and telling me everything that we already knew — that there was no Internet, that businesses are bad, the youth can’t afford to live out here. Tell us the solutions.
“That needs to be made a little more transparent to the people who live here so they don’t have those fears, that they’re [not] worried about your coming in here to change things around. That’s what the people I know are really worried about. Because they don’t know what’s going on. That’s why they’re not here [today]. That’s why there aren’t pickup trucks out there” in the parking lot.
Referring to what many in the county, including during the forum, label as a “been here” and “come here”
“Everyone always hears about the ‘been heres and come heres.’ It’s oversimplified, the tensions within the community,” said Rieland, who interviewed 65 people for the economic series, many with deep roots in Rappahannock.
“The been heres-come heres, the fear of outsiders, is not explicit to Rappahannock,” added reporter Sara Schonhardt, who spent the summer here as a Foothills Forum fellow writing on jobs and the economy. She explained in one story how numerous residents of the county successfully stitch together several jobs into a livelihood in order to stay in a special place where few jobs exist and the dollar is worth 80 cents.
“Other counties deal with this and they find ways around it,” Schonhardt said of the often palpable resentment between the locals and non-locals. “I think being open, having these conversations, is instrumental in getting beyond that labeling.”