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Golden Harvest: Loudoun craft farming cultivating a farm-to-table economy

Trent Tebbe, a farmer at Morven Park, tastes his rye crop prior to harvesting. The rye will be used by local brewers, distillers and bakers. - Times-Mirror/Rick Wasser
In high end Loudoun County, farming can be a luxury, as deep pockets and a cultural movement toward local and organic food has changed the way farmers and the county want to look at doing business in the rural west.

By helping with marketing, providing farmers incentives and allowing for a more robust collaboration between suburban and rural sides the county wants to further drive an important economic engine.

In fact, the Department of Economic Development hopes to see the rural economy double in the next decade.

Amid the discussions of industry and growth in the eastern part of Loudoun County, there is billions of dollars in tourism, farming and horses in Loudoun's western half prime to expand.

Each of the main agriculture industries alone accounts for tens of millions of dollars in economic impact whether through horse racing events, sales of crops and produce or wineries.

By focusing on high value crops, fruits, vegetables, hops, grapes and other niche products, Loudoun farmers can enjoy higher return on investment.

Farming means another important economic benefit for the county that can't easily be put on a balance sheet: cost avoidance.

"The idea is if we are farming more of our land we won't develop more of our land," said Doug Fabbioli, the chairman of the Rural Economic Development Committee and owner of Fabbioli Vineyards.

By keeping development from creeping into the county's rural west, the county uses fewer resources supporting costly infrastructure projects like schools, fire and rescue facilities and roads.

Keeping tabs

One of the goals of Loudoun's Rural Development Strategy is to produce a yearly Loudoun agriculture census that will allow county officials to keep tabs on all kinds of applications, including trending data.

The USDA does a census every five years to quantify the crops, cattle and other aspects of the rural economy.

Loudoun hopes to shrink that time to once a year and provide a more tailored study to what Loudoun farmers might want to know.

Kellie Boles, Loudoun County Agricultural Development manager, gave a hypothetical for the future application of such an endeavor.

"Well there are 10 cideries moving in, we need to push people to grow more apples," said Boles.

The survey will be designed to answer even the most basic of questions that couldn't be answered before, providing one of the most important business principles to Loudoun's agriculture economy: certainty.

Shrinking land, large returns?

Decades ago dairy farming supplied fresh milk and cheese to the Washington D.C. area. Now Loudoun finds itself with its own large wealthy population ready to buy local produce at a rate never before demanded.

There has been an increase in the number of farmettes, plots of land that are smaller than the average farm.

To fill in the gaps, some part-time farmers or folks hoping to supplement income have been using these farmettes to grow crops or raise livestock.

The equation is this: Grab a bucolic stretch of western Loudoun, work your day job or a part-time gig and sell produce or grapes on the weekend.

Fabbioli believes that right now it's difficult to get younger folks to go into farming, but he's optimistic about its future. He's doing his part to foster a community of farmers by becoming a certified farming mentor, one of four in the county.

"If you got that culture and workforce to go with that culture anything is possible," said Fabbioli. "I want to grow more farmers.”

One alternative to farmettes, which still helps farmers, is renting the land they own.

Renting enables farmers to use the land without the vast capital outlay in buying land.
Some farmers actually barter for rent. Fabbioli has space he rents to grow grapes and sometimes pays with cases of wine.
His ability to produce high-quality wine raises the value for the person leasing the farm, and Fabbioli doesn't have to pay $15,000 an acre to build grape vines.
Trent Tebbe, the owner of Three Monkeys Farming LLC., uses land he rents at Morven Park to grow a 14-acre shock of rye, which he hopes at first to sell to breweries and distilleries, eventually moving to local bakers.
For his day job Tebbe works in software development. "Don't we all," he said, alluding to the strong connection Loudoun also has to the tech community.

He chose rye because it was grown here in colonial days.

Ancient grains or rye are not traded on the commodity markets. If it was it would harder to compete with the "big boys."

He's also not operating at that kind of scale. It's important for his small farming operation find a niche that isn't being filled.

He grows his food local, uses no GMOs and zero pesticides.

State help

In order to incentivize potential farmers the state has an Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, or AFID Fund.

In order to qualify for the AFID grants you must prove that your product will have a value added component. For example, 25 percent of the product must be from Virginia, and it has to align with county priorities.

Already the county is utilizing one AFID grant to study the feasibility of putting a wine education center in Purcellville, which could be a key step in growing interest in and viability for the winemaking industry.

Farmers who decide to go into farming, especially grape growers and wine producers are making a long-term decision when they buy a plot of land.

"We want landowners and farmers to make that investment in the land," said Boles, because ultimately "you are making an investment for a decade."

"The challenge is if you start selling local products they are only available certain times a year," said Fabbioli.

He suggests figuring out how to keep product on the shelves 12 months a year.

Fabbioli grows asparagus, and pairs it with wines at the tasting room.

"Wine is a great product to sell all year long," he said.

Eventually Economic Development would like to a year-round destination farmer's market in Loudoun, "one people might travel an hour to get to it," said Boles.


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