Area farmers discuss operations, goals, challenges

December 14, 2011

By HOLLY KOZELSKY - Bulletin Accent Editor

A year after it was established, a coalition of local farmers has developed a slogan and a logo. During a meeting of the coalition Tuesday, four area farmers talked about their operations and their hopes for the future.

The Fields to Friends group agreed Tuesday to adapt the slogan “Local Food, Local Health, Local Wealth.” The group met at the Spencer-Penn Centre.

Fields to Friends will be represented by a circular logo featuring two connected fields and a blue sky. In the center, which represents the horizon, is a yellow semicircle with the outline of a chicken. The completed logo should ready for use soon, said Spencer-Penn Centre Director Carrie Denny.

The meeting was facilitated by Jessica Sturm of Horsepasture, who said she and her husband hope to develop a garden and sell at farmers markets by next year.

The four farmers who spoke were Wayne Kirkpatrick, Richard Ashby, Bryant Pearce and Frankie Ballance.

Kirkpatrick, of Patrick County, is a lifelong farmer. He and his partner, Lewis “Buddy” Peyton, lease pastureland to, and tend the heifers of, a dairy farm in Burnt Chimney.

The two were friends growing up and were roommates at Virginia Tech, Kirkpatrick said. In the beginning of their time as dairy farmers, they leased land on which to raise their own cows. They milked cows for 30 years until they dispersed their herd in 2005.

A friend told him, “‘You’re not going to know how tired you are until the cows are gone,” Kirkpatrick recalled. Only after he and Peyton were freed of the “intensity of 24/7 in dairy” did they wonder how they managed the exhausting work.

They did some produce farming but realized they “needed to do something else, so we worked our way into boarding heifers,” he said. The men care for 283 of the company’s dairy heifers. The animals arrive weighing about 400 pounds, and Kirkpatrick and Peyton “raise them up to 750 to 800 pounds, breed them and send them home,” Kirkpatrick said.

They have 70 acres in corn silage and 40 acres in hay that provide much of the 7,200 pounds of food the cows eat a day, he said.

The cows are artificially inseminated, a method that makes “top genetics available in a very compact unit,” Kirkpatrick said. Plus, “it’s one less animal to feed by not having the bull.”

Ashby and his wife, Janet, run Windy Ridge Farm and Bakery off Barrows Mill Road. The couple are from England and originally came to the United States as part of Richard’s career in banking.

His father and grandfather were farm laborers, he said, and “that’s where I made my pocket money” before going into banking.

However, “for some really strange reason I never reconciled,” Ashby said he maintained a dream of going into farming. Because of much lower land prices in America than in England, here “that dream became a reality.”

He gave an example: In 1979, one acre of land cost $7,000 in England. “Now, in this area,” an acre could be bought for $2,000, he said. The reason the land is so much more expensive in England is that country’s higher population density, he added.

The Ashbys own 20 acres, of which they farm one, he said. Their output this year was three times what it was last year.

Ashby said it is important to develop a relationship with consumers. “I’ve found that people gravitate to the people they know,” he said. Developing a customer base has been a challenge for the Ashbys as newcomers, he added.

He said it seems more efficient to specialize in a vegetable, but “to have more variety at the stall gets me more customers.”

In the future, the Ashbys hope to increase their production to “hundreds of thousands of pounds in a year,” Richard Ashby said. Their next step will be to look at irrigation systems.

Eventually, they hope to get 16 acres in fields for produce, working 12 acres and letting four acres rest each year.

Pearce farms 230 acres in Cascade. He “cleaned up the forest” a few years ago, he said. He is aiming toward setting up “a sustainable forest program to leave for my children and grandchildren.”

Pearce planted 50 acres of his property in loblolly pines. He also has planted Allegheny cherries, walnut and pecan trees. He’s had “mixed success” with the black Allegheny cherry, which he said is prone to disease problems.

Pearce has “spent several hundreds of dollars trying to find success with chestnut trees,” to no avail so far, he said. The several varieties he has planted only grow a few feet high before dying. “This area used to have wonderful, beautiful chestnut trees,” he said.

Pearce’s son and daughter-in-law, Vern and Sue, raise chickens, hogs and sheep. They have foraging varieties. His daughter and son-in-law, Sharon and Chris Mitchell, also farm with him.

Pearce said he is concerned with what he views as “problems in the distribution system ... and the farming system” in the United States as well as “tainted foods” that have found their way into the marketplace.

Those are some of the reasons families should buy locally produced food, he said. He identified one of the important steps toward that as consumers getting to know local farmers.

Ballance, of Martinsville, is working with grant programs that aid farmers. His current project is building a nursery on his side porch.

Ballance was raised on a farm until his family moved to the city when he was 12, he said. He worked in construction and painted houses until he was 41 years old, when he bought a farm. “Give me a piece of land, and I’m a happy man,” he said.

Ballance said his father taught him how important it is to treat animals well and with affection. He demonstrated the way he makes mooing sounds to call his cows, which the others in the meeting applauded.

Helping people overcome difficulties also is important to Ballance. “I realized my worst day is a good day” compared with what some people face, he said. He aims to create a therapeutic farm where people in need of help can benefit from working the land.

Ballance also talked about goals of developing a farming co-op and a cannery for the use of local farmers. “I want everybody to reap from it,” he said.

The group next will meet from 4-6 p.m. Jan. 10 at the Stuart site of Patrick Henry Community College. The public is invited.


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