Farmers Seeking Lessons in Evolution

Chris Hatch looks out at his family's 400-acre farm, which his father ran as a dairy operation.
Chris Hatch looks out at his family's 400-acre farm, which his father ran as a dairy operation. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

Dave Messenheimer stood in front of an old barn at the Hatch family farm south of Leesburg last week and imagined something different.

In the loft, now stuffed with hay, he envisioned "a little tasting room where people can come for wine and cheese and meats. It's a great space with exposed oak planks," he said.

What sounded like big-city-architect talk was coming from a man in overalls and work gloves with a damp washcloth under his hat to keep himself cool while driving cattle from field to field.

Messenheimer was speaking the language of the future of farming in Loudoun County. Last year, during a visit from North Carolina, he helped his brother-in-law Chris Hatch rake hay for a few weeks on the 400-acre beef cattle farm. He decided to stay on to help Hatch devise a new marketing strategy.

In 55 years, the farm, which was started by Hatch's father, has already evolved once -- from a dairy to a beef cattle farm in the early 1980s, when milk prices dropped because of overproduction and the family took advantage of a federal buyout program, Hatch said.

Now the farm has become outdated again. With three-acre homesites selling for more than $200,000 in western Loudoun County, earnings from the beef cattle farm can barely keep up with property taxes. The farm brought in $40,000 last year -- before taxes and insurance and labor costs. Hatch drove a school bus to help make ends meet.

The Hatch family, like many other longtime farmers in the area, must figure out how to adopt new-fangled ideas or risk being forced to make tougher decisions.

"It's getting harder and harder to justify farms that have so much land and produce relatively little," said Warren Howell, the county's agricultural marketing manager.

The old model of farming in Loudoun, when land was cheap, was to grow such crops as soy or corn or raise cattle on vast farms at nationally set prices. The new model is smaller farms with higher-value crops geared toward local customers, who are willing and able to pay a premium to fill their refrigerators with organic or locally grown food.

In this changing environment, many older farmers have been struggling or selling out, Howell said. New or adapting farmers, though, have been finding some success.

Agricultural sales in the county rose to nearly $39 million in 2002, up from $28 million in 1997, an increase of 39 percent. At the same time, the average farm size decreased 25 percent, from 146 acres to 109 acres, according to the most recent census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Chris Hatch said he hopes to learn from the new farmers, not only to make his farm more profitable but perhaps also to inspire his two daughters, 18 and 20, to stick with farming.

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