When Francis Peacock's great-grandfather, Noble Peacock, first started farming out near Waterford in Loudoun County, nearly all his neighbors were farmers.
But now there are new people in the neighborhood--doctors and lawyers, professionals who can afford to commute back into Washington or own a second home in Loudoun. And many of them are living on small chunks of land that were once the meadows of the farms of Peacock's neighbors.
Ten years ago, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors decided to exempt parcels 10 acres or larger from the county subdivision ordinance, a move designed to aid financially strapped farmers by making it easier for them to sell pieces of their land.
But farmers and county planners now agree that, instead of working to bolster agriculture in Loudoun County, the policy has had the opposite effect: Nearly one-third of the county's land has been subdivided into lots 30 acres or smaller, funneling thousands of acres of arable land into other uses.
Today there are more than 2,000 vacant 10-acre rural lots in Loudoun County waiting to be developed, and the trend appears to be gaining momentum: Six hundred of those lots were subdivided just last year.
For the families that want a mini-estate in Loudoun's lush countryside, the 10-acre lots are cheap enough at about $30,000 to tempt many to move their kids and pets away from the hubbub of suburban Washington. But for the farmers whose next-door neighbors decide to split up their land, the mini-estates have inflated land values and made it difficult for them to find enough land to rent, a system of farming-by-lease that allows farmers greater economies of scale.
"They call them mini-farms, that's what makes me mad," said Francis Peacock. "A couple of horses and a dog, that's no farm."
Peacock has been working on his 143-acre livestock farm since his father made him lug buckets of water to the farmhands 60 years ago. But now he's afraid he may have to sell instead of passing the farm onto his 31-year-old son, David.
"Personally, I don't know if I can make it," said Peacock. "If it weren't for my son, I would have sold out years ago."
Together the Peacocks care for 58 beef calves, 50 sheep, 63 lambs, 14 brood sows, 200 piglets and a few chickens. Ever since their neighbor, Philip Hilbert Cox, got sick last year, they also have looked after his crops and 120 animals, working on a share basis. The Peacocks also farm rented land across the road.
But they are one of the last surviving farms in their immediate neighborhood, and Francis Peacock says that, if Cox had to sell his land, he isn't sure he could make enough money to stay afloat.
"We have no intention of selling it, but neither my sister nor I are rich women, and I don't want to be a farmer," said Techla Cox, one of Cox's two grown daughters. "I would very much like to sell it as a farm, but whether an ordinary farmer could afford it is doubtful. It would have to be bought by someone as a toy."
Another neighbor, Elmer H. deButts, sold over half his 320-acre farm a few years ago, splitting the land into 24 lots of 10 acres.
"We just couldn't make any money," said deButts. "Not in dairy farming." DeButts now raises a few thoroughbred horses and says he may sell some more small lots soon.
"My daddy used to say deButts' farm was the best piece of farmland a crow ever flew over," said Peacock. "They just waste land when they cut it up like that."
For many of Loudoun's working farmers, it isn't just the loss of good farmland that makes them angry.
Caught in a clash of life styles, some farmers feel their rights are threatened by neighbors who don't understand what it takes to run a working farm.
"Sometimes when people move out into the country, they think it is going to be a halcyon existence," said Loudoun Supervisor John Milton (D-Catoctin). "But then they find the farmer next door runs his grain dryer all night, or if the wind blows in the wrong direction barnyard smells come wafting through their living room, it can be a problem."
Cox said her father had to give up sheep farming a few years ago after a neighbor's dog got into the barn and mutilated 30 sheep. "When people move to the county, they tend to think 10 acres is infinity, and most don't keep their dogs tied up," she said. "My father sold most of his sheep after that incident, and got cattle instead. They're bigger and stronger."
Cox said that another problem with nonfarm neighbors is that they ride their horses across the meadows, often leaving gates open. Other farmers have had problems with children riding minibikes in their hayfields.
Under state law, farmers can band together into an agricultural district, which among other benefits protects them from annoyance citations. More than one-third of Loudoun County land is now in such state-designated districts, the highest percentage of any county in Virginia.
And there soon may be relief from the recent flood of land conversions. The county Board of Supervisors is considering a change in the subdivision ordinance that would make any subdivision of land, including lots 10 acres or larger, pass through the rigors of the county's subdivision ordinance. County planner Milton Herd said that, if the change is adopted by the board, it could dampen the rate of conversions and keep more land open for farming.
But it may be too late for the Peacocks. Francis Peacock has a bad back, which means that son David has to do most of the heavy work. They can not afford to hire help and, there aren't any other farmers nearby to trade help with them, as they did in his father's day.
"I won't sell an acre unless I sell the whole farm," said Peacock, but in the next breath he admitted that he might consider selling a meadow or two, if it becomes necessary.
David Peacock said there is no way he could afford to buy his own farm in Loudoun County, and he hopes to take over his father's farm. "My wife said she would learn to drive a tractor if that's what it came down to," said David Peacock. "It's going to be a while before my own son is old enough to help me out."