Wines and fibers and mares . . . oh my!
No, it wasn't Oz or Kansas, but Loudoun County, where yesterday city slickers by the minivan load made their way down brown roads to discover that, yes, milk comes from cows and sweaters are made from the wool of sheep.
Nineteen Loudoun farms and vineyards are opening their barn doors this weekend for the seventh annual Farm Color Tour in hopes of making their urban neighbors more aware of agriculture and perhaps more supportive of preserving Loudoun's rural heritage.
Luke Thorsell, 2, visited Edenwald, a 60-acre farm west of Leesburg where Peter and Patricia Kalitka raise angora goats and llamas. Luke, who lives in Herndon, saw goats for the first time and petted a llama, a "funny-looking" animal that the boy first thought was a birthday party prop.
"I like the clown," said the toddler, convinced it was a person inside a llama costume. "I would like him to kiss my nose."
That's the way it went at many of the farms, where children seemed to outnumber the parents and even the animals. The tour, which continues today, includes visits to an apple orchard, a pumpkin patch, five wineries, two flower fields, an equestrian facility and a buffalo ranch--19 sites in all, the largest contingent since the tour began in 1992. About 5,000 visitors are expected this weekend.
Sponsored by the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development and the Loudoun Tourism Council, the tour is free and self-guided.
Throughout the region, farm tours are increasing in popularity as agriculture continues to fall prey to development. A handful of counties ringing Washington hold similar events.
Fifty years ago, Loudoun was the top dairy producer in Virginia, with about 300 dairy farms. Only three remain, and today Loudoun is recognized for something else: It's the third fastest-growing county in the United States, adding about 3,000 residences a year.
Despite the home-building wave, a new wave of farmers, many of them retirees or moonlighting high-tech executives, are retaining the vestiges of farming with the hope of preserving the rural landscape.
The diverse nature of the farms on this year's tour reflects the changing face of agriculture in Loudoun, where grain and cattle spreads are yielding ground, literally, to llamas and Christmas trees: A recent U.S. Agriculture Department survey reported a 5 percent decline in farm acreage between 1993 and 1997 but a 9 percent jump in the number of farms.
"It's harder to make a living as a traditional farmer, so people are diversifying into other things," said Lou Nichols, Loudoun's agricultural development officer. "This tour highlights the diversity."
The Kalitkas are a good example, having retired to 60 acres in Loudoun five years ago, hoping to escape the traffic and noise of Reston. They soon discovered they could not support the farm on their own, so they began raising goats, llamas and rabbits, whose fleece and fur they sell to weavers.
"It's a haven for us, but we're seeing it disappear," said Pat Kalitka as she toyed with her spinning wheel yesterday. "We're trying to hold on to it as much as we can."
At the other end of the farm, 9-year-old Palmer Foley decided he had had enough of Artie, a male goat that nipped at his nose when the boy tried to pet him. "I don't think I want to be a goat farmer," Palmer said. "The llamas look noble, but the goats were sure rude. He stuck his tongue out at me."
CAPTION: Peter Kalitka, right, who owns the Edenwald farm west of Leesburg in Loudoun County, takes 11-year-old Codie Hughes, who lives in Hamilton, on a tour.
CAPTION: Katie Boyce, a seventh-grader in Leesburg, goes nose-to-nose with a llama.