"Are you useless? Yeah, you're useless. Aren't you?"
Beverly Morton Billand was rubbing Ben's exposed tummy last weekend as he scratched his back on her straw-covered, pesticide-free field at Patowmack Farm. Ben is half-Husky, half-black Labrador and 100 percent, well, useless.
But the fact that Ben is unable to keep deer out of Billand's organically grown crops did not prevent Patowmack Farm--about as far north of Leesburg as you can get in Loudoun County without falling into the Potomac River--from being named Small Agribusiness of the Year by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.
"I was very honored to receive the award after working so hard for all these years," Billand said. "I've finally won some recognition." In recognizing her farm, she added, the chamber recognizes that her business, and others like it, "are viable and . . . important to the economy," despite its recent emphasis on high-tech companies.
Patowmack Farm was nominated by Louis Nichols, agricultural development officer for the county's Department of Economic Development, because "every year they seem to improve," he said.
"Billand is out there making pestos and jams that have a higher value than the raw produce itself," Nichols said, "and she's developed a way to sell the product at the farm where you get to see the gorgeous view and meet the farmer and see how it's done."
Billand's bucolic brick house off Lovettsville Road overlooks the sky-blue Point of Rocks Bridge and the river below. Just inside the front door sits her new candy-apple green iMac computer from which she prints her invoices and inventories.
Behind the house squats an 8-by-12-foot greenhouse where all of Billand's plants begin their journey. Beginning in late February, she crams in all the plants that will fit, then starts filling up the house ("I have 'em all over the place"), and her goal "is to get a big one--96 by 48 feet." Facing it is the barn, built by her own hands, where that journey ends. Here she sells the jams, sauces and dried flowers that she makes from her harvest herself, in addition to the honey and teas and other products she brings in from elsewhere.
Billand said her major crops are tomatoes, peppers and elephant garlic, whose heads taste milder than regular garlic and are much larger. In the spring, she said, "we start out with spinach and lettuces and go through the season growing many varieties of vegetables and end with pumpkins and winter squash."
Billand grows strawberries, blackberries and raspberries that may become part of a pick-your-own operation. She also raises chickens; the eggs she doesn't use for cooking are sold through a co-op in Frederick. From soil management to weed and pest control, her farm meets the rigid certification standards established by the Commonwealth of Virginia's Organic Food Act.
Billand started farming during the late 1970s, growing vegetables on a one-acre plot in Vienna. Even then, it was all organic.
"I was too scared to have pesticides and herbicides near me--probably it's just paranoia," she said. "But if a product is harmful to animals or fish, I figure why do I want to use this on anything?"
In 1986, she quit her day job as a nurse, and she and her husband moved to Patowmack to farm full time. "I just decided I wanted to do it and was fortunate enough to buy a place," she said. "It took me a number of years to finally do it, but I did it."
Spread over 40 acres, the farm is small by traditional standards. It is also small in that Billand is the only full-time employee on the farm. Her husband, Charles, is taken up with his job as a city planner for a D.C. firm. One of her five daughters--Taryn, 34, who lives in Gaithersburg--helps out, and she recruits volunteers and part-time workers wherever she can find them. And although the farm is small, its income is increasing 25 percent every year.
That takes work, even in winter. Billand spent much of last weekend spreading her field with straw, which will slowly kill the grass so she won't have to use herbicides. She also began building cold frames--intermediate storage for the plants after they leave the greenhouse but before they go in the ground. As she worked, she sang to her herbs ("Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme," her voice trailing into an ironic giggle).
"You're never finished," she said, not even in winter. "It's never all done."
During the growing season, Billand adds cooking and entertaining to her list of chores, hosting home-cooked dinners for paying customers on the patio and accommodating elementary school children on field trips.
Billand said she hopes the award will boost her marketing efforts, which now include brochures and flyers and a newsletter for about 700 customers on her mailing list.
Randy Collins, the chamber president, said previous winners have worked the award into their ads to generate more business.
Robbie East won the award in 1997 for Fields of Flowers--a farm north of Purcellville that grows only flowers. Customers cut their own and pay by the basketful.
Although East said she can't attribute her continued success solely to the chamber award, such recognition "does get your name out there," she said. "Business has gone up every year. I was very flattered and surprised because we were a fairly young business; we were only in our fifth year."
East knows Billand and was pleased to hear of her award.
"She's deserving of it," she said. "She works very hard at it."
Billand, who said she would not give her age for fear of feeling it, pushed her hands deep into her jeans pockets. She looked around the field and shook her pony-tailed head at all the work to be done before the growing season, her favorite time on the farm.
"I love the new beginnings in spring," she said, "and how it just comes alive."
CAPTION: Patowmack Farm owner Beverly Morton Billand, left, stands in the barn with her husband, Chuck, and daughter Taryn.
CAPTION: Gift baskets filled with organic goodies, top left, are sold at Patowmack Farm, which was started in 1986 north of Leesburg by Beverly Morton Billand, with chicken in hand.
CAPTION: On Patowmack Farm (at 40 acres, small by traditional standards), organically grown crops of fruits and vegetables are the specialty.