When more than 1,000 people flock to Old Town Warrenton on Saturday evening to fill up on Fauquier-grown roast beef, sweet corn and green beans, C.L. "Boots" Ritchie hopes they'll walk away with more than full bellies.
Ritchie, who has farmed in Bealeton all his life, dreamed up the dinner, which will promote the county's new Home Grown labeling program for locally produced food. But he also hopes the dinner's $5 price tag, which includes admission to the Bluemont Pan Masters Steel Orchestra concert, will remind diners what a small portion of their income they spend on food--and encourage them to appreciate their farming neighbors more.
"The ag industry's been taken for granted because we've done our job so efficiently," said Ritchie, 72.
U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers reveal that just under 11 percent of Americans' income goes toward food. In Mexico, it's more than one-third. In India, more than one-half. But American farmers don't see all of the 11 percent.
Earnings from conventionally grown beef go to farmers who raise feeder cattle, feedlot owners, processors and grocery stores or restaurants. "Everybody's got to make money in there off a 99-cent pound of hamburger," said Suzanne Heflin, Fauquier's agriculture development officer.
Heflin will oversee the label program, which is part of an effort to encourage local farmers to market directly to local consumers. Local food producers will use the label to identify their products as Fauquier grown to distinguish them from those trucked in from Florida or California. If the program persuades more local residents to buy more of their neighbors' produce, Ritchie said, it will help make the county's farmland more viable and less susceptible to development pressures.
"We've got a great opportunity here because . . . we're sitting next to four million people who want better food--better quality food and more natural food," he said. "We've got to make ag profitable in this county if we're going to preserve it." Fauquier ranks 10th among Virginia counties in the value of its agricultural products, compared with Loudoun, which ranks 21st.
Farmers will pay the county a flat fee--$20 to $50 annually, although the amount has not been determined, to participate, and their products will have to meet standards that will be set by the county's Agricultural Advisory Committee. Although the labeling program will apply to such produce as tomatoes or cantaloupes, participating cattle farmers will be listed in a special directory, and Heflin said she envisions county cattle or horse breeders coming together for a Fauquier Grown sale.
On Saturday, diners will be able to sample black and green teas, and fruit and pina colada tisanes--tealess herbal beverages--from a grower who already is committed to the program.
Sabry Alsharkawi, his wife, Salwa, a computer systems engineer, and daughters Iman, 14, Hanaan, 12, and Amaal, 9, operate Sharkawi Farm, a complex of two greenhouses, a packing house and rows of fruit trees near their Broad Run home.
For Alsharkawi, who emigrated from Egypt to Fauquier in 1985 and transplanted his dream of growing and selling chemical-free herbs, the labeling program comes at the right time: He is converting from thin, sealable plastic bags to hexagonal jars, which hold teas, tisanes, herbs, spices and seasonings. He'll affix the Home Grown labels to the top of the jars he takes to farmers markets in the region.
Alsharkawi's experiences at those markets have convinced him that the program will help growers.
"If I live in Virginia, I prefer to spend my money in Virginia," he said. " 'Is this Virginia grown? Is this locally grown?' 'Yes.' They buy it."
Alsharkawi represents what Ritchie calls the new trend in farming--people who buy small tracts to develop "concentrated" farms, with such products as berries, vegetables, natural beef or wine. He also is the type of farmer who will derive the most rewards from the labeling program, at least at first.
Marketing farm products is not newfangled. In 1929, President Hoover backed the Agricultural Marketing Act to encourage farmers to form co-ops and foster direct contact with consumers. But supply problems and the Great Depression stymied the program and prompted the Roosevelt administration to back acreage-reduction laws, which food policy experts say forced some farmers to capitalize on the technology of hybrids, fertilizers and pesticides to get the same yield.
Government control and costly technology swung into a symbiosis that requires today's conventional farmers to be very big, very specialized and very efficient to succeed. The promotions open to them are generic--"Got Milk?"--and have been around about 30 years. Farmers pay what's called a check-off, a required portion of revenue they earn at the time of sale. But even the largest producers may need to brush up on their marketing skills come 2002 when subsidies are supposed to taper off.
Ritchie, who grew an acre of pesticide-free sweet corn for the anticipated 1,200 diners, generally raises only a few rows for friends and family. At $2 for a dozen ears, he wouldn't mind raising more of it, except that it's too labor intensive. He's more efficient at raising feed corn, soybeans and wheat, which are combined with the harvests from other farms and sold to wholesalers. That gives him little opportunity to tell consumers why the soy he raises in Bealeton may be better than that grown elsewhere.
According to Loudoun Agriculture Development Officer Lou Nichols, many farmers don't know how to market crops directly to consumers. He said he hopes to fill that gap with an Internet-oriented support network--"one big cooperative"--that would link producers with other producers who could share costs, and producers with consumers, who might reveal what they're interested in purchasing.
And if it works in Loudoun County, Nichols said, "we will probably expand regionally to Fauquier."
Ritchie, who was 5 when he began pitching hay on the farm his parents bought in 1916, said he always considers how to do things better. He likes the air-conditioned cab of the combine he drives over the 2,000 acres he farms with his son. (He quips that he could wear a suit and tie just like an office worker and not get dirty.)
He dubs "beautiful" the weed-free "genetically improved" soybeans that he needs to spray with pesticide only once during the growing season. But his search for a better way will take him across the Atlantic next month to Highgrove in England, Prince Charles's 1,300-acre farm where chemicals and genetically altered plants are never used.
"I'd love to do it," he said, "if I can afford it."
Tickets to the home-grown dinner and food show may be bought in advance or at the dinner. For information through Friday, call Suzanne Heflin at 540-341-7950, Ext. 23. On Saturday, call the Warrenton-Fauquier Visitor Center at 540-347-4414. Food show vendors and displays will be set up at 4:30 p.m. at Courthouse Square. Dinner will be served from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Fauquier Bank Plaza. The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on the Warren Green Lawn.