As a rising number of Loudoun residents are launching second careers in agriculture — many making the leap from office to farm or vineyard — the county has introduced a program that aims to help beginning farmers succeed.
The initiative, developed through a partnership among Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun Office and the Loudoun Department of Economic Development, was launched about a week ago and has already prompted interest from several would-be farmers, program coordinator Jim Hilleary said.
“Across the nation, there’s this recognition that there is a new type of farmer emerging, and that is generally a second-career farmer,” he said. “Virginia Tech realized that, and they drafted a curriculum for beginning farmers. And what we’ve done here locally is to take part of that statewide curriculum, localize it and apply it to the residents here in Loudoun County.”
Program participants start by filling out a lengthy online worksheet titled “The Northern Piedmont Intro to Whole Farm Planning.” The idea, Hilleary said, is to make them think about topics they may or may not have considered, including their personal needs and preferences, budgets, timelines, natural resource conservation practices and zoning requirements.
“They’re reflective . . . so that people really think through their short-term and long-term goals,” Hilleary said of the questions. “It’s a good honesty check, and we encourage couples to do it together.”
Rather than delve into the technical elements of farming, the worksheet urges aspiring farmers to think more broadly about what they hope to accomplish and to thoroughly consider what a new agricultural venture will demand of spouses, children and other family members.
“That’s where I’d say that this is distinct from other introduction-to-farming programs,” Hilleary said. “It doesn’t teach you how to be a swine producer; it doesn’t teach you how to raise cattle. . . . Rather, it helps you develop a mind-set for the challenges that are to come. And if people say ‘This is not for us,’ then that’s a success, because we just saved them a lot of time and money.”
The online process only confirms a desire to pursue farming, he said. The next step is for participants to work with Hilleary and other county officials to develop a business strategy. At that point, aspiring farmers can also opt to sign up for a mentorship program that gives them access to established Loudoun farmers who have graduated from a certified mentor program.
“The idea is to develop a cadre of experts who are willing to serve as coaches and mentors for these beginning farmers [who] are just getting started,” Hilleary said. “It’s also another kind of reality check, because they can see this work firsthand, because they’re expected to help with their mentor’s operation. So if they want to learn about vineyards, they’ll learn by growing grapes. If they want to learn about livestock, they learn about livestock by handling livestock together with the mentor.”
Doug Fabbioli, a winemaker and the owner of Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg, said he signed up to be one of the program’s mentors because he thinks that having a more formal educational framework will offer a substantial boost to the county’s rural economy and strengthen its farming industry.
“Step one is always that reality check of what it’s really going to take, as far as the amount of time, the focus, how much you need to learn about what you don’t know,” Fabbioli said of beginning farmers. “A lot of times, we get people who have been successful in other careers, but when you get into agriculture, all bets are off. You’re at Mother Nature’s whim in a lot of ways, and you have to react really quickly.”
To be successful, he said, a farmer has to be smart, humble and willing to learn.
“So that’s where I keep hoping that people are willing to observe, to see what works and get to know their land, the equipment and themselves,” he said.
Second-career farmers account for the majority of new agricultural business owners in the county, Hilleary said, although there are others, as well, including recent college grads who want to build careers in food production and current farmers who are looking to diversify their agricultural business.
For many, especially second-career farmers, interest in agriculture reflects an increased cultural focus on food production, Hilleary said. “They want to learn more about what they consume, and their path to that education means becoming involved in production,” he said. “I think that’s why many of them have such high hopes of being an organic producer, which is really hard.”
Farming is a tough business, but county economic development officials hope that providing a stronger educational framework will help “grow the pipeline” of future successful businesses, Economic Development Director Buddy Rizer said. Loudoun’s small agricultural businesses contribute nearly $70 million to the county’s revenue each year, economic officials say.
Hilleary said he hopes to build on that number by helping new farmers develop a stronger foothold in the industry. Beyond that, Hilleary said, he hopes that the program can serve as a unifying force in Loudoun’s diverse farming culture. Veteran family farmers sometimes raise an eyebrow at the influx of idealistic newcomers, Hilleary said, while those newcomers might have misconceptions about established, conventional farmers.
“We want to help them understand that they are tied together by common goals, and they shouldn’t allow themselves to be in categories like old versus new or organic versus conventional,” he said. “We’d like to find commonality and mutual acceptance, so we don’t have old farmers and new farmers. We have Loudoun’s agricultural community.”