Farmers Adjusting to Changes

Farmers Adjusting to Changes

Chris Hatch considers himself a steward of his land and he characterizes himself as "cautiously optimistic" about the future of his 390-acre cattle farm amidst Loudoun County's ongoing development

"I was put on this earth to take care of this land," he said. "And I think that if I continue to work it, good things will happen. There are a lot of rural economic possibilities out there."

Hatch's Mill Road Farm on Dunlop Mill Road in Leesburg is just one of the 1,516 farms operating in Loudoun and attempting to adjust to the county's changing landscape. According to the 2002 census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1997 there has been a 13 percent increase in the number of Loudoun farms, but the total acreage is decreasing, down 16 percent to 164,753 acres.

"THERE HAS BEEN a huge change from larger farms to smaller farm-ettes," Corey Childs, director of the county's Extension Office, said. "Large farms with hundreds of acres are being broken up into smaller farms. Many of the people buying the smaller farms are new to farming. They're people who want to get out of what they are doing and try a new venture."

While Hatch's farmland has not been directly affected by the development, he said he has watched the farms around him change over the years. The 425-acre farm to his north that was once owned by famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev was sold off by the foundation that acquired it after the dancer's death.

"There were four original houses on the land and they built about 30 more or so," Hatch, who is also president of the Loudoun County Farm Bureau, said. "Owning a home is the American dream and that's a great thing. But once this land goes out of farming, it's gone. They're not going to bulldoze a house and start farming again. That's just not how it works."

According to the county government's 2004 growth summary, Loudoun population has grown from just under 170,000 people in 2000 to almost 230,000 people in 2004, with a projected 263,000 people living in the county in 2006.

However, as the population of the county increases, so does the cost of operating a farm and Hatch has had to figure out new ways to cover the costs of his expenses, including working as a bus driver for the local schools.

"You've got insurance, taxes and farm costs you have to pay out over the year," he said. He estimates that his taxes alone have raised $5,000 in the past decade. "I'm paying about $8,000 plus in taxes now."

Even with rising costs and an increased population, however, the county's agricultural community as a whole is doing well, according to Louis Nichols, agricultural development officer for the Office of Rural Economic Development.

"The cattle industry is strong right now because cattle prices are still strong," he said, "and the wine industry is growing. We see about one new vineyard a year."

THE BIGGEST CHANGE to the fabric of the farming community, Nichols said, is that many farmers are now selling their products directly to the consumer through local farmer's markets.

"There has been a significant increase in the number of vendors," Nichols said. "The fact is that the closer you are to Washington the more money vendors can make. They are able to make more money in higher populated areas, like Tacoma Park or Dupont Circle, but our local markets are now able to be competitive."

In an attempt to make the most money from his products, Hatch sold his meat at a local farmer's market last year, instead of relying solely on selling his cattle at auctions.

"Agriculture is typically a price-taker business, not a price-setter," he said. "At the farmer's markets, we're not selling wholesale. We're selling retail. People are willing to pay for a premium product. This way they get to know the farmer and where the meat comes from."

As the demographics of Loudoun change, so do the products farmers are selling. While items such as Hatch's beef will continue to be in demand, the county has seen a major decrease in traditional crops such as corn and soybean, Childs said.

"There has been a large increase in the number of people growing specialty fruits and vegetables to sell at local farmer's markets," he said. "We have seen a lot more products that are ethnically oriented. Producers are trying to find a niche for themselves, something they can offer that no one else can."

As for Hatch, this coming year he plans on selling his meat at two different farmer's markets, in hopes he will meet with even more success than last year.

"Our profit didn't go up too much [last year] because we held some cows back, but it definitely went up," he laughed. "Check with me again at the end of this year. Then we should see some even bigger improvements."