Virginia’s Century Farms celebrate the state’s deep agrarian heritage.
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Dorset ewe with lamb at Storm Hill Farm.
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The original farmhouse at Dalbys Farms.
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The headstone of Washington Hunt.
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A field of young soybeans.
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Cornfield at Dalbys Farms.
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An old food storage shed.
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Chuck Tankard of Dalbys Farms and his daughter Ursula Deitch.
I arrive at storm hill farm to the ominous whir of a revving chainsaw. Beside a renovated barn, Randy Covington has already sacrificed one fencepost. He’s readying to fell another. A contractor Covington has hired to rehab his chicken house can’t navigate the farm’s tricky terrain and multiple fences with a construction trailer, so the fenceposts have to go to make way for a wider opening. Covington shrugs. “I needed a bigger gate there anyway.”
The fencepost dilemma might be a first for this 220-acre working farm outside Verona in the Shenandoah Valley, but finding workaround solutions to all that the farm throws at Randy and his wife Mary certainly isn’t. The Covingtons have been farming this land since the mid-1970s when they inherited half of Storm Hill’s acreage and bought the other half from a family member’s estate. Storm Hill dates back to at least 1868 when Mary’s great-grandfather built a stately brick manor house here overlooking the fertile floodplain of the Middle River. (A storm that destroyed new windows in transit just a few hundred yards shy of the then-new home gives the farm its name.) Though they’re proud of that unbroken lineage, the Covingtons point out that’s a century-and-a-half for all manner of vexing problems to percolate. “We could’ve built a whole new home in the 1970s for what we just paid for that chicken house,” Mary says, her hens clucking emphasis in the background.
For all the headaches that come with farm work, however, the Covingtons, who are both in their mid-60s, recognize that they have something special, that they’re on this pretty patch of rural land against long odds. And they’re not the only ones who acknowledge the deep commitment it takes to uphold Virginia’s agrarian heritage; for 15 years now, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has been granting operations like Storm Hill a title that goes far beyond what the name implies: Century Farm.
This honorary designation confirms that the same family has worked or lived on this farm for at least 100 years, and that it grosses at least $2,500 a year or is being tended over time for forestry products. But a Century Farm is more than those objective measures; the credential speaks volumes about farmers’ long-term commitment to land their forefathers worked, as well as the sacrifices they’ve accepted knowing it would be a lot easier to settle into a Cape Cod at the end of a cul-de-sac where HOA fees cover lawn maintenance.
Though the Commonwealth confers no financial or material benefits to its 1,200 Century Farms, for the families, Century Farm status is a statement of pride in a way of life often overshadowed by industrial agriculture and food grown half the world away.
I meet Chuck Tankard, 66, and his 32-year-old daughter, Ursula Deitch—Northampton County’s agricultural extension agent—at Dalbys Farms in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In a distinctive Eastern Shore drawl cultivated by a lifetime living here, Tankard prefaces our meeting saying, “This is a working farm, so things are a little rough around the edges. We’re not ready for Garden Week, but I’m happy to show you what we’ve got.”
Tankard leads me past two old farmhouses, one of which he and his wife have lived in since a 1992 renovation, to the edge of a field of long rows of recently planted soybeans. There we find a family cemetery. One of the headstones belongs to Washington Hunt, Tankard’s great-great-grandfather, who originally owned all the land around us. “The story goes that Washington Hunt had 12 kids, and you either got land at a good price or a college education,” says Tankard. Hunt’s children divided the land among their own broods and so on through the generations until what was left was quilted ownership of a once-large estate. Tankard took over farming his branch of the family’s share of the land full time when he returned from the Vietnam War in 1973.
Descendants of farm families like the Tankards usually don’t own enough acreage to make farming full-time a viable option, so they have to start small, work hard and buy more land. In fact, both the Tankards and the Covingtons have added to their farms’ size: Tankard started out with 88 acres and built that up to 300 over the years; the 118 acres Storm Hill comprised when the Covingtons took over has now increased to 220.
Like more than half of Virginia’s farmers, the Covingtons made agriculture their second occupation—they both worked in public schools in Greene County and Waynesboro for more than 30 years—in part because of farming’s fickle returns. Even with 220 acres, they still have not had enough land to compete with the big growers, making two full-time careers—education and farming—necessary. “On a small farm,” says Randy, “you have to find a niche. And, unfortunately, niche markets come and go in fads.” The Covingtons concede that Storm Hill is still, as ever, an exercise in trial and error. They’re raising sheep for an increasingly diverse population that enjoys lamb as a traditional dish, and they’re renting land to a farmer experimenting with crops to make biodiesel.
For Tankard, as for many other lifelong farmers (he’s fifth generation, at least), keeping his operation alive has meant acquiring expensive equipment, and buying and leasing ever more acreage to grow soybeans, wheat, corn and snap beans. At the height of his operations, Tankard farmed 800 acres. (He has reduced that number in recent years as he has grown older and found it increasingly difficult to find labor.) Tankard has changed production techniques in response to environmental concerns, using computerized fertilizer management systems and no-till planting, for example, to reduce harmful runoff and to make sure the land remains fertile for whoever farms it next.
Passing the torch is not as easy as writing a line in the last will and testament. Farmers retire, and often that earth they’ve worked for so long comprises a significant chunk of their nest egg, putting them in the uncomfortable position of having to decide on easy golden years or keeping the farm in the family.
It’s a decision that is faced often and has particular urgency in Virginia. At last measure, 30 percent of the Commonwealth’s farmers were older than 65—the average age is about 58. Adult children often have neither the skills nor the desire to take what amounts to a huge gamble. Randy Covington says he can’t blame them: “I sometimes think, ‘I could work for the rest of my life, or I could fish.’” The Covingtons aren’t sure that any of their three adult children would want to come back to run Storm Hill Farm.
Faye Cooper, executive director of the Valley Conservation Council, says that children who take over Century Farms from relatives may be shouldering a heavy burden, but they can feel pride in carrying on Virginia’s agrarian legacy and tending green space vulnerable to suburbanization. Last April, the VCC hosted a meet-up of Century Farm owners in Broadway in Rockingham County and plans to hold another gathering in the southern Shenandoah Valley this fall. Their aim? To preserve natural and agricultural landscapes in the Shenandoah Valley, and to educate farmers about options for minimizing development on their land, including establishing conservation easements. (The Covingtons’ farm has been placed in easement.) Farmers get financial incentives from local authorities for restricting development on their acreage, but conservation easements do something more—they affirm the inherent value of farmland and natural open spaces.
On the Eastern Shore, Deitch says that she and her sister and their husbands might be open to taking the reins at Dalbys Farms, but there are so many factors—including her father’s far-off retirement and the course of their current careers—that organizing a possible transfer now isn’t practical. “I’d love for it to happen but, as of now, that’s a long-term goal,” she says.
Deitch nevertheless remains proud that Dalbys Farms has the simple Century Farm plaque that acknowledges the importance of her home and heritage. Signs like that hang all over Virginia at places like Dalbys where the paint could use some touching up and fences look more weathered than farmers would like …. exactly the kinds of farms that have been feeding and clothing the world for generations.
For more information about Virginia’s Century Farms, go to VDACS.Virginia.gov/century