Within is a country that may have the preprogative over the most pleasant places known; for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation . . . Here are mountains, hills, plains, valleys, rivers, brooks, all running most pleasantly into a fair bay, compassed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land. John Smith, TheGenerall Historie of Virginia
'You look at the average age of the farmers in Virginia. It's somewhere around 55. Kinda makes you wonder who's gonna be doing the farming in the future." The speaker is Joe Johnson, a sturdy Virginia farmer. He is 54 and, in that sense, could be thought of as average.
But there is nothing usual about his farm, here in Virginia's Piedmont. It has been in the family for 209 years, and recently the city of Manassas extended its limits to include the Johnson farm.
On the 268 acres of Clover Hill Farm, Joe and his brother Bill raise a dairy herd numbering 75. Labor is a problem. The Johnsons can't compete with the ample wages generated by the construction of suburbia around them. To fill the breach, their sons, ages 11 to 16, help out after school.
On an adjacent 84 acres lives Bill and Joe's widowed aunt, Alice. Together, their land forms a green island, its shores lapped by concrete. The Johnsons fix a stern eye on the rising tide. People living in the same place over time forge a loyalty to it -- because that place, with its rhythms, is faithful to them.
Rutt Johnson came here from New Jersey in 1770. He purchased land from Patrick Hamrick, a tobacco planter. A ready market for the commodity existed in England. During the colonial period tobacco made up about a third of the total goods exported from North America.
But its legacy was bittersweet. It relied on slave labor. If not rotated with other crops -- and it usually wasn't -- tobacco would wring the life from the soil within two generations.
Rutt Johnson was a farmer, not a planter. In a sense, he came to rescue the soil, because he varied its use. He grew corn, hay, grain, fruit trees and flax. He raised cattle, sheep and hogs. At his death in 1825 the bulk of his 1,000 acres passed to his son Joseph.
A daguerreotype of Joseph sits on the mantlepiece in Alice Johnson's house. The uniform is gray, the face solemn, and aura unmistakable. But this picture predates the Confederacy; the uniform is that of the Virginia Militia. The inscription reads: "On a mission to Kentucky he brought back an arborvitae tree and planted it in the yard at Clover Hill." Joseph Johnson died, at 49, in 1852, and so he would be spared the agony of choosing sides.
When the Civil War came, its fury intersected here. To the east lay the plantations, reliant on slavery. Moving west into the mountains, sympathies changed, holdings of land and chattels lessened. This was home to the yeoman farmer -- often slavesless, often siding with the North. Manassas, a rail junction connecting Alexandria with the Shenandoah Valley, "the breadbasket of the Confederacy," became the site of the first major battle of the Civil War.
Emily, Joseph Johnson's widow, moved her children and her 16 slaves to a plantation down on the James River to escape the fighting. She stored her furniture with northern sympathizers. Yankee troops burned the house. When the Johnsons returned after the war they lived in former slave quarters while they rebuilt.
The barn rises against the sky. Lightning rods centered by a cow-shaped weathervane crown its steep metal roof. The barn occupies a high piece of ground, and if you climbed up on that roof you could see for a distance around. The land is rolling, not given to topographic extremes. It flows down into hollow and returns to knoll, then repeats a few times to the horizon, its progress a sine wave.
This is piedmont, which lies between the rise and fall of mountains to the west and the pan-flat coastal plain to the east. Metamorphosed crystalline rocks underpin much of it. Each is about as resistant as the others to erosion -- hence the even character of the land. The soils, likewise, are moderate. They are nowhere near as deep and as rich as the topsoils of the fertile Midwest. But they are not barren. This is adequate farming country, good but not spectacular. It will yield.
Two boys run through the field, deep with the angled light of afternoon. As skinny as colts, they head for the barn. Ricky Johnson, 14, is Bill's son. Jimmy, Joe's son, is three years younger, but as assured as the other. There is mischief in his dark eyes and sly, ready smile.
They enter a room next to the barn, the screen door clapping shut behind them. The scrubbed cement floor and thick walls heighten their banter. Jimmy struggles with a filter on a milking machine. Ricky, with three years more practice, chides, "Boy, are you slow."
Ricky wields a pipe about six feet long with which he links a small glass tank on the wall and a much larger stainless steel one that fills the center of the room. He assures the fittings with a few deft turns from an oversized wrench. "Now all you gotta do is turn it on." He flicks a switch and a low hum fills the air.
Follow that noise out the screen door. It throbs through a pair of horizontal glass pipes which cut through the cinder block wall and travel around the perimeter of the barn's interior. Plug a hose into that line. Plug a cow into that hose. Pneumatically, you've got milk.
Forty-eight cows crowd into the barn. Hooves thudding on cement mix with youthful cries of encouragement. Each cow makes a beeline for her stall. There is not the instinctive rush for the first pile of feed. The cows are fed varying amounts as they produce varying quantities of milk. There is no sense in pushing a lot of food through a cow that doesn't give a lot of milk.
Occasionally a cow gets mixed up. This happens today. "Wrong stall, Effie. Get out of there, that's not your food." Effie earns a sneaker planted firmly on her forehead. She backs out, as adroitly as a tractor-trailer in an alley. Cow eyes wonder for a moment, then recognize. "Good girl, Effie." Soon the air is filled with the sound of cattle munching feed and the hum of the glass pipes.
After the death of Joseph Johnson in 1852, and the coming of age of his children, the task of managing the farm fell principally to his youngest son, Joseph Benjamin. He took particular interest in the orchard, grafting trees endlessly, always searching for better varieties of fruit. In 1900 his apples won three prizes at the Paris Exposition.
1900 was also the year that J. B. Johnson purchased his first Jersey cows. He named them after wildflowers. Washington had grown sufficiently to present a promising market for milk. The train took it daily into the city. It would do so until the late 1930s when service expired in the face of highways and trucks.
At his death the farm passed to his five children. There were two daughters who did not marry. They became teachers. One earned a Ph.D. in languages and became fluent in eight of them. A son went to Tennessee and was killed in a freak accident when some logs rolled off a truck on top of him. That left two sons: Wheatley, who took over the milk herd, and Benjamin, who had little interest in farming.
Benjamin wanted to teach; the earth sciences consumed him. He went looking for work as a teacher, into the teeth of the Depression. He returned to the farm and planted an orchard on his share, 83 acres.
Early afternoon, early spring. The sun is high, and Benjamin's widow, Alice, stands in the orchard. In the distance oaks rise like pillars behind her white frame house, here since the end of the Civil War.
"See these buds starting to swell?" Alice holds the branch of an apricot tree. "Soon the bees will come to work them over." She goes on to explain that apricot trees bloom too early for this climate, that they usually can't escape a frost here. "We've had one crop in the last five years." She moves on and spots a hole in the trunk of a peach tree, made by a "peach borer." "I'm afraid this tree won't be with us much longer." She is like a nurse moving down a hospital ward.
This orchard has not been a commercial operation of any note since 1952. That was the year the Japanese beetles arrived in Prince William County. "We came out one day and every piece of fruit was a black ball of beetles. We salvaged some of the crop but not very much. After that we gave up and started pulling some of the trees out."
Alice taught earth sciences to help pick up the slack. Rocks, brought her by students, fill some shelves in the house. Many are from around here -- piedmont. Metamorphic and crystalline, they are both tough and beautiful. Alice Johnson recalls of her years teaching: 'I tried to teach from a down-to-earth approach, using things you could see and feel. Then somebody came along with the idea that you shouldn't teach appreciation because you couldn't measure it with a test."
An empty dump truck rumbles down a road. There is a mockingbird somewhere in this orchard, and from across the field comes the rapping of a hammer on plywood.
Head down the road in that direction, and soon you pass a fleet of signs: "5% down, 9 7/8 Interest Rate; 3-4-5 Bedroom Single Family Homes; Priced From the Low 50s." Travel on a little further and you come to a place where the land is scarred raw by erosion. "We try to tell these developers that it takes a farmer to build up 100 years of topsoil. They don't seem to understand," Alice says.
This property, 84 acres, recently sold for $6,000 an acre. Two hundred and forty-five houses are going up on it. An adjacent 100-acre tract was recently sold and 280 houses are appearing there. The fiscal shock ripples over onto Alice Johnson's land.
What spares her at the moment is a provision in the tax laws. Farmland is assessed much lower than property, superheated by speculation, around it. But the land must remain in agriculture, and it must remain productive, or else it faces retroactive taxes (it is taxed anew as developmental property for all those years it was taxed as farmland). The farm must continue to pay for itself.
Now in the orchard Alice thinks out loud. It would be expensive to bulldoze the trees and turn the orchard into pasture she can rent. Muskrats have bored holes in a dam holding back water from flooding a low pasture. "That has to be fixed." That costs money. And so Alice says this: "When you've had a place this long you do what you can to hold on to it. If the big farm goes this will go."
For the moment the big farm will not go. To look at Bill, the son of Wheatley Johnson, is to believe that it may never go -- despite the fact that in 1946 there were 125 dairy farms in Prince William County and today there are 14.
Bill Johnson is a lean, understated man. He moves silently around the barn now, here at the ebb of the day. Bend down with the freshly soaked rag and give the udder a good scrub. Stand up and plug one end of the hose into the glass line. Bend down and plug the other into the cow. Stand up and drape a cord across the animal's rump. Bend down, pull the cord up, and complete the loop under the hose so that its weight doesn't drag on the udder. Move down, repeat with another cow. There are 75 cows to milk, twice a day, every day. No wonder there are only 14 dairy farms in Prince William County.
Bill Johnson is 51. He lacks a kneecap as a result of a high-school football injury; arthritis prays on his back. "I know there are times when he's hurting," says his brother, Joe. "But he doesn't say much."
Bill's proper title is "herdsman," but that is deceptively quaint. His head is often apt to be filled with computer-inspired thoughts. Every month tests are run on the herd, indicating the producing capacity of each cow and the percentage of butterfat in her milk. The computer then suggests what and how much to feed the cow to increase her yield. Bill has to guess when that yeild has hit its apogee, how sharp the declining curve will be, and thus when to "cull" the cow.
He also has to breed the herd, and hope that his educated guesses will result in a constantly better gene pool. Breeding is done by artificial insemination. When Bill was young there were bulls on the farm, but to keep them around now would be a luxury. The Johnsons used to make their own sausage, smoke their own hams, mix and grind their own feed. All that is past tense too.
This farm is a corporation, and Joe and Bill Johnson could be thought of as its executive officers. Who are the stockholders? There are two here in the barn now tossing feed pellets at each other, wrestling in the hay. Each boy receives a cow free from the fram on his 10th birthday. From then on some luck is involved. The cow is bred each year. If she produces a bull he is sold at auction -- small cash dividend. If she produces a heifer the equity grows -- two cows to breed now.
If the shareholder is lucky he can watch the steady and geometric growth of his assets. By the time he comes of age it is hoped that he will have a sizable enough herd to begin a dairy farm, Then it becomes a question of finding some land on which to plunk down the company.
This is the only herd of Jersey in the county. Holstein cows comprise the other 13 dairy herds. A good herd of the latter will average about 16,000 pounds of milk per cow, per year. Jerseys will produce a little over 10,000. (One gallon equals 8.6 pounds.) Jerseys make up some of the difference because their milk is higher in butterfat, and milk is priced on that basis as well as volume,
Asked why his is the only Jersey herd in the county Bill Johnson replies: "Matter of preference." Pressed a little, he admits the question has its economic side, "The market is a little biased toward volume" -- he'd like to see butterfat count for more. But the virtue of Jerseys, says Bill Johnson, the economic man, is that they are more efficient. "They seem to have fewer problems calving." A Holstein can weigh twice as much as a Jersey: it needs twice as much feed. "Jerseys are more docile," says Joe. That's half as much cow to shove around. Pound for pound, in the eyes of Joe and Bill Johnson, Jerseys hold their own against the bigger, more productive breed. Their virtues are less apparent.
Late now, shadows fill the barn. Jimmy and Ricky Johnson break up bales of hay and scatter them to the cows. Their fathers make the rounds. Joe Johnson is huskier than his brother, Bill, and a little more talkative -- which isn't saying much. He admits that his legs bother him a little now; all that squatting and standing back up.
"The only money in farming is in land appreciation." He utters this more as witticism than assertion, but it carries some truth. Farmers and developers tend to the same tracts of land. What is upland, flat and drains well will yield a good crop and will also pass a soil percolation test. Lower land absorbs water more slowly; perhaps too slowly to allow issuance of a permit for a septic tank. Go west in Prince William County and you find a lot of land now owned by developers.
For the moment, thanks to the land-use provision in the tax laws, this farm will not disappear. Next year, though, land in the county, which is presently assessed at 33 percent of fair-market value, will be assessed at 100 percent. The tax rate, now at $5.25 for each $100, will doubtless come down. Whether or not it will come down enough to offset the threefold rise in assessed value is another question.
At the moment Joe and Bill must contend with the "general nuisance" resulting from this county's metamorphosis into a Washington bedroom. Its population has multiplied by eight in 30 years. Manassas is now a city, and this farm is within its limits.
The Johnsons spend time picking up litter in their fields and mending fences that seem to offend their neighbors. Occasionally they find garbage bags, neatly tied, out among thecorn. Joe recently reaped a bicycle wheel with his harvester. He had to stop and resharpen its knives. The load had to be dumped; you can't feed cattle silage spiced with metal.
Joe wouldn't encourage his sons to be farmers unless they were serious about it. He would then urge them to move "further out," where they would have some room. Which of his three sons is interested? He thinks Joe Jr., 13, might be, "but it's still too early to tell."
Joe also has two daughters. One is married and lives in town. The other lives with her mother in Falls Church. "Their mother doesn't think there's much of a future in farming. I guess that's one reason why she left."
Joe Johnson isn't leaving to go anywhere at the moment. When he speaks of this place he echoes the fierce and quiet pride of his aunt. Alice says: "Johnsons don't sell land." Joe says: "God's making more people all the time. He's not making any more land." Then he adds: "When you see what people do to it, it kinda makes you wonder."
So where exactly in the face of all this is the reward? Joe, squatting at the udder of yet another cow, up since 5:30 this and every morning, looks around the darkening barn. He takes a long look, and for him the moment is pure: two men, each with a son, each going about his work. "Not too many jobs I can think of where you can work close with your kids. You look at these boys working with the livestock, and you realize they develop a sense of responsibility that'd be hard to teach anyplace else."
The barn door is closed. If opened, darkness would obscure the distant townhouses it frames. Off in another direction, also lost in the night, is the family cemetery where Rutt Johnson and his descendants lie buried. The old stones, chipped and mossy, list in the earth.
Bill Johnson makes one last round. He moves between stalls with a manure scraper, rearranging the straw under each cow so that she will have an even bed for the night. "Cows are like people. They have to be comfortable in their environment."
Are his cows comfortable?
The smile, as usual, is wry. "Maybe a little too comfortable." He compares them to "professional ballplayers" -- "some good years, some bad." If a cow has too many bad seasons she is shipped out to a league from which there is no return. Many failed dairy cows turn into fast-food hamburger.
Does he regret selling cows?
"I regret selling most every cow. This is what's known as a business." As Bill moves along, he touches each cow lightly on the rump to get her to stand aside so he can reach the straw. He speaks in a low voice, often calling the cow by name.
"We used to keep all the cows, but now you have to maintain more of a cash flow. The herd size is about where we want it. It's smaller than the average in the state of Virginia, which is about 90."
Does he see a trend toward larger dairy farms?
"Yup, game of dollars. But that's not what's affecting this farm right now. What's affecting this farm is the development of the land around it." Bill arrives at the final cow and rustles the straw under her, so that now the barn is quiet and filled with cows ready to sleep.
"Farms within the limits of municipalities don't last very long. The future of this farm is not in our hands. That's not the way we'd like it to be, but that's the way it is."