Eric Hilgartner is a minor celebrity among some of the minors of Loudoun County, Va. He’s one of nine farmers from the county featured on a new set of trading cards distributed in Loudoun elementary schools.
Imagine baseball cards, but instead of Juan Soto, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, there’s Bonnie Kittrell of the Double 8 Alpaca Ranch, Erik Schlener of the Root and Marrow Farm, Sophia Maravell of Potomac Vegetable Farms and a half-dozen other agriculturists posed with the tools of their trade.
In Eric’s case, that’s a red Holstein cow named Rea.
This is the fourth year the cards were handed out, timed to coincide with the start of baseball season.
“We have such a great group of talented farmers, we want to make sure we give them the support and notoriety they deserve,” said Buddy Rizer, executive director of Loudoun Economic Development, the agency that made the cards.
They don’t just hand out the cards. They also send the farmers into schools to talk about their jobs. A couple of weeks ago, Eric visited Arcola Elementary in Aldie, Va.
“I got a ton of questions when we were talking about farming being a potential career path,” said Eric, who is a dairy farmer at the Ag District. “A lot of them were asking if I had time to play Fortnite.”
Eric hadn’t heard of Fortnite — an interactive video game that’s all the rage with youngsters — but he was pretty sure that if he had, he wouldn’t have time to play it.
“The things that I get pleasure out of are outside,” Eric told the students. “And building something with my two hands.”
Eric didn’t grow up on a farm. His father was in the Marine Corps, so the family moved around. Things had slowed down by middle school and when Eric was 14 he took a job feeding and milking cows at Orchard Crest Farm, a dairy in Hillsboro, Va., run by Eddie and Marty Potts. Later he earned a degree in animal science at Virginia Tech.
The farm Eric works on has about 35 beef cows and 25 dairy cows, 16 or 17 of which are being milked at the moment.
The milk is used by Locksley Farmstead Cheese Co.
Buddy said 135,000 acres of Loudoun County — about 40 percent — is farmland, producing $37 million in farm products annually.
What does Eric do on the job?
“This morning I woke up at 4:30, wandered down to the dairy barn, got the cows up out of the pasture, then milked them,” he said. “Having some independence is a big part of the job.”
As for the rewards, the greatest is “when you give someone a piece of food completely made from something you produced, and they smile and say it’s the best they’ve ever had.”
Said Eric: “There are boatloads of non-monetary compensations, I guess.”
It’s a sad irony that Behnke Nurseries made the announcement it was closing during spring, the season of rebirth.
Last week, the Beltsville, Md., garden center — a big part of a lot of people’s lives (and gardens) since it opened 89 years ago — said it would close its doors in June. It will be missed.
“The tributes we’ve gotten from the community and all our customers have been absolutely wonderful,” said Alfred Millard, Behnke’s president. “It’s been humbling.”
The nursery was founded in 1930 by Albert and Rose Behnke, immigrants who came to the United States from Germany.
“He was a tough German,” Alfred said of Albert. Alfred started working at Behnke when he was 13, riding his bike on dirt roads from Adelphi, Md.
His first job was loading wheelbarrows with soil and muscling them around the nursery.
“They had to be rounded on top,” Alfred said. “You couldn’t have a flat one on top.”
It was backbreaking work, but then that’s the magic of gardening: The hard labor you put in at the front end produces something beautiful, if fleeting, at the back end.
Albert found beauty in the rose. He grew more than 600 varieties in his personal garden. He admired the rose, he told The Washington Post’s Charles Fenyvesi in 1984, because it is “the most difficult, the most demanding plant.”
Albert died in 1992 and Rose in 1997. Alfred said the company had its ups and downs over the years but has been profitable lately. But the four Behnke children are in their 80s now, and “they said they’ve had enough,” Alfred said.
Every time you load a wheelbarrow to the top or pick an aphid off a rosebush, think of Behnke’s.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.