His corn was scorched by the summer drought. His house caught fire in the fall. But on Thanksgiving, after a morning of rain-soaked chores, John Rocca sat beside his wood stove and found reason to give thanks.
"I'm not gonna go broke this year," said the 38-year-old Virginia farmer who owns 167 acres in Loudon County, a barnyard full of farm machinery and a ledger kept with red ink. "I might next year though."
Though it is of little comfort to Rocca, he has much company in his misery.
Peanut growers in Tidewater, pig farmers in Suffolk and corn growers almost everywhere in Virginia have been devastated by a drought that left the state's farm economy in the worst condition since the Depression.
Virginia's 60,000 farmers will suffer a 70 percent cut in income this year. The ripple effect on related businesses is expected to cost the state $500 million. Seventy-nine of Virginia's 95 counties, including Loudoun and Prince William, have been declared disaster areas.
"These aren't difficult times, they are awful," said George Dodson, president of the Virginia Agribusiness Council which represents farmers, food processers and marketers. "We'll all suffer this fall."
Because the drought has hurt farmers throughout the country, consumers will not escape without losses of their own. Last week the Agriculture Department concluded its annual outlook conference with a bleak forecast: Food prices will rise 15 percent in the coming year.
"That's good for farmers who have something to sell. But we have some with nothing to sell," says a Virginia agriculture official.
Maryland farmers were also hurt by the drought, particularly corn and tobacco growers in Southern Maryland and along the Eastern Shore. But the damage in Virginia may be more severe since agriculture is such a vital part of the state's economy.
"T will take . . . five years of normal crops for farmers to get back on their feet," said Dodson. "There will be a lot of foreclosures."
Virginia farmers already owe a record $1.6 billion in loans and mortgages. Disaster aid and low-interest loans will help farmers on the edge of failure, but there are many, say agriculture officials, who are beyond saving. Mason Carbaugh, Virginia's agriculture commissioner, predicted recently that more farmers will be forced out of business this year than at any time since 1930.
"I got just about ruined," said Loudoun's Rocca who squeezed only 16 bushels of corn per acre from fields that last year yielded 100 bushels. "I'm on the brink of just barely making it."
Rocca is not a typical Northern Virginia farmer. He grew up in Chevy Chase, worked as a building contractor and returned just seven years ago to the county where his grandfather operated a dairy farm for 60 years. He bought an old farm house on 167 acres south of Leesburg and began asking experienced farmers for advice.
"How did I get the money? The same way a guy gets money to buy a Porsche. I crawled to banks and mortgaged everything I own," says Rocca, a muscular man with yellow-green eyes and no qualms about admitting his limitations.
"My knowledge of farming was just about zero. I had to learn it. And I made some serious mistakes." Despite mistakes, Rocca now leases 800 acres to grow corn, wheat and soybeans. He raises pigs, beef cattle and chickens. In his spare time he works on a 275-gallon alcohol fuel still in his barn that he hopes one day will provide most of his energy needs.
While Rocca is not typical by Loudoun standards, his farm situation is. Because of high production costs, fuel bills and spiraling land values, grain farmers in Northern Virginia need to farm at least 800 acres to justify the enormous cost of equipment.
"You just got to be more efficient or you're out of business," says Bill Welsh, whose family has been farming in Loudoun since 1760. "The number of true farmers has gone down while the acreage of those farms has gone up. Most of it is leased land. With prices being what they are, nobody can afford to buy as much as they need to farm."
Welsh is a dairy farmer and a member of the county's agriculture advisory committee. From his perspective and that of others in the county, this summer's drought was not as damaging to Loudoun farmers as Washington's urban sprawl which has been gobbling up prime farm land for the last two decades.
"Somewhere along the line it's got to stop," says Richard Fiske, another Loudoun dairy farmer who will be spending an extra $5,000 a month this winter to feed his cattle because the drought dried up the grains they would be eating. "Somebody's got to stop and say, 'Money isn't everything. We've got to eat.'"
Loudoun, more than any county in Virginia, has tried to preserve farmland by creating agricultural districts and land use taxes that favor farmers. But the attempt has provoked controversey from taxpayers in the eastern and more developed half of the county who complain that their tax dollars are subsidizing farmers.
"The land use program is the salvation of the Loudoun County farmer," says Welsh. "If it goes out, you're going to see a mass exodus of farmers from this county, pure and simple."
The temptation to sell is constant, say farmers, who average about $350 per acre from corn in a good year but can sell that same land for $5,000 to $10,000 an acre to a developer.
"I run developers away from here once a month," says Rocca, who claims to have made an $8,000 profit from his dawn-to-dark work last year. While he talks, his two-year-old daughter Jessica tugs at his sleeve for attention, his wife Barbara works on a pumpkin pie in the kitchen and the interest on his debts, "an astronomical amount of debts," continues to mount.
"I like to think I'm like most farmers. They take their losses, lick their wounds and go right back out there again." says Rocca, pausing long enough to look out a window toward a gray day. "But I'll tell you this, it's not gonna be a very good Christmas this year."