By Randy Arrington
STANLEY — Nearly 100 county residents with an interest in Page’s No.1 industry gathered at the Stanley Fire Hall last week to discuss what could be done to both strengthen and grow agriculture locally. The two-hour discussion hit on things that made local farmers successful, challenges they face, and resources available to help strengthen local operations.
“You can see the heart we have built around agriculture,” Taylor Alger told those in attendance. “It’s in our bones; it’s in our blood; and it’s in our soil.”
Alger, along with project coordinator Amanda Presgraves, spearheaded the March 10 event and an agricultural survey to better determine strengths and weaknesses related to Page County’s agricultural industry and what local government, or farmers themselves, could do to overcome certain obstacles and address the variety of issues they face.
“We need to motivate the younger generation. I don’t know what the average age of a farmer in Page County is, but it’s not young,” said Darrell Hulver, manager of Page Cooperative Farm Bureau and one of the six panelists who commented on prepared questions delivered by the moderator.
“We need schools and the board of supervisors advocating agriculture and how important it is here,” Hulver continued. “There’s pride in being a farmer. I think we need to promote that…We need to promote agriculture as a career like any other career. There’s a lot of skills learned on the farm you can’t teach — like common sense.”
“Also to be a farmer, you have to be a mechanic, an electrician, a plumber, a welder, a veterinarian…” added Jimmy Gochenour, president of the Page County Farmer’s Association. “You just don’t see a lot of young ones having interest in it anymore. It should start in kindergarten. Just have them plant one seed.”
Page County’s office of Economic Development and Tourism sponsored the March 10 panel discussion through a grant prepared by the department’s former coordinator Liz Lewis and Sara Levinson. The Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) funding, which will pay for half of the project’s $24,000 cost, was provided through the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In addition to the $12,000 provided by the state, the county’s economic development department will cover $6,000 in expenses, while the remaining $6,000 was provided through in-kind services.
In the last several months, a core team has worked to interview several local farmers, market and small business owners, organization directors, and community members to learn about the resources that are currently available in Page County and discover what solutions can be implemented to best preserve the local culture rooted in agriculture.
Getting products to local markets was an issue that was discussed in length, as one member of the audience talked about the need to “get restaurant owners together and decide what we can provide…because [small growers] can’t compete with bigger producers…we need to create a real farm-to-table program.”
“And that’s really the purpose of this [program],” said Page County’s current director of economic development.
Some in attendance talked about the potential of partnering with local schools to provide more local foods than the few vendors currently contracting with the local school division. However, while local producers have products to sell, coordination among growers could help prevent an overload of one particular item.
“We try to sell local produce, and the most we sell is tomatoes,” Hulver said of Page Co-Op. “The issue is everyone having tomatoes at the same time.”
“It would be good to have some coordination to diversify what’s available,” said Sean Ryan, who owns and operates Homegrown Luray near the Singing Tower across from Luray Caverns.
Ryan is hosting an event next month in order to have a further “conversation and gathering to strengthen our local food and farming community.” The Page County Home Grown Bonfire is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 7 at Ryan’s home, located at 10 Carillon Drive in Luray (near the Singing Tower). A flyer asks those who attend to bring their own “campfire beverage”.
Lois Shaffer, director of Page One, said with the growing cost of groceries she’s sees the need within the community rising at the local food bank. One member of the audience discussed potential grants that could fund contracted growing to help food banks. A non-profit formed in Warrenton (Fauquier County) was cited as an example, which provides an educational farm that produces food for low-income families.
“Labor problems are one of the biggest issues we’re facing,” said panelist Jared Burner of Burner’s Beef. “We’re past seasonal…we need help all the time.”
He noted the long hours and hard work that drive some workers away from local farms, and the overall need for consistency in the labor force.
Beef and poultry were cited as the two biggest agricultural products produced locally, and the discussion touched on the issue of how to better market special products, like Page County beef, which is starting to gain its own reputation.
Another key issue was the potential loss of farmland and the need to focus on preservation of that land. According to a 2021 USDA study, Virginia has lost around 800 farms and more than 100,000 acres of farmland since the 2017 Ag Census.
“If you lose farmland, it hurts agriculture and agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the county,” Burner said. “But losing farmland also hurts tourism, and that’s the No. 2 industry.”
With the rising costs of fertilizer, fuel and other supplies, overall inflation and supply chain issues are a major obstacle that farmers and many industries are also facing. That in turn is increasing the need to develop new markets and partnerships within the community.
“If we want farming to be sustainable, we need to make it profitable,” Fox said.
As the program and its research continues, a key goal is helping to “meet producers needs and consumer needs,” according to Fox.
The “Future of Farming in Page County” event highlighted the fact that four of the top five agricultural producing counties in Virginia sit within the ag-rich Shenandoah Valley, with Page County being the No. 4 producer in the commonwealth.
As the crowd broke into groups to discuss issues and ideas in the final hour of the event, several commented on a shirt worn by Burner that simply stated the theme of the evening’s discussion into the local food system: “If you ate today, thank a farmer.”