Some farmers see agritourism as financial salvation. Others see it as a buzzword.
Part 1 (June 28): Rappahannock is facing an economic transition. But it has a long history of dealing with changes brought by forces beyond the county line.
Part 2 (July 12): Farming in Rappahannock is going through a transition. What challenges does the community face in holding on to its agricultural core?
Part 3 (July 26): What role might the county’s business community play in its future? And, can boosting tourism make a difference in generating revenue and creating jobs?
The Rappahannock Hustle (Aug. 2): The challenges facing people under 40 in Rappahannock and why, despite the hurdles, some are choosing to come here or are returning, mimicking a trend seen in small towns across the United States.
Part 4 (Aug. 9): What are other rural communities doing to adjust to the same demographic and economic changes? Could any of those strategies work here?
When Bill Fletcher, whose family has been farming in Rappahannock for more than two and a half centuries, proposed turning his Thornton Hill Farm south of Sperryville into a busy events venue last year, the idea did not go over well. In truth, it had the effect of a primal scream at a star-gazing party.
Neighbors objected vociferously, arguing that Fletcher’s plan would result in traffic nightmares on Route 522, risk public safety due to sketchy cellphone service, and, in all likelihood, devalue the neighborhood’s quality of life.
It didn’t help that Fletcher had gone big, proposing to stage as many as 31 events a year, including eight that could draw as many as 8,000 people. According to the application, they might range from weddings and hunting outings to Renaissance fairs and bluegrass festivals.
Over the next year, Fletcher tried to make his case eight times — four before the Board of Supervisors, four before the Planning Commission — but to no avail. In May, the BOS, frustrated that the proposal remained open-ended and short on specifics, suggested Fletcher start over, preferably with a more incremental and detailed approach.
Don’t count on that to happen any time soon. “I was surprised at the animosity and unreasonableness of the reaction,” he said. “I don’t feel like subjecting myself and my family to the histrionics of some unreasonable people.”
Fletcher said he wasn’t wedded to all that was in his application, including the number of events. But he contends part of his motivation was to raise a bigger issue: What options do farmers here have to develop other sources of revenue?
“Something needs to be done,” he said. “If there’s not more flexibility for the farms, and the farms don’t have alternate ways of making money, there won’t be farms in Rappahannock.
“The real problem in my mind,” he added, “is that if we don’t start acting, the great experiment of Rappahannock is going to fail.”
Buzzword or strategy?
As dire as that may sound, Fletcher homes in on a key question about Rappahannock’s ability to maintain its unique feel. The vision conveyed in the county’s comprehensive plan of an agricultural showpiece is based on keeping the community’s larger farms intact. With many farmers struggling financially, that’s becoming more difficult.
Foothills Forum is an independent, community-supported nonprofit tackling the need for in-depth research and reporting on Rappahannock County issues.
The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other award-winning reporting projects. More at foothills-forum.org
“My grandfather was born on Red Oak Mountain,” said Kathy Flaherty Grove, who moved to Woodville with her husband, Larry, in 2004 after a career as an administrator with Arlington Public Schools. “I have a real desire to keep farms together. But I do think it’s unrealistic to think that the people who live on family farms are going to be able to keep that acreage together without some outside income.”
More often these days, those options come through agritourism, a term that covers a lot of ground — from farm weddings to “pick-your-own” operations to corn mazes. It’s even swelled to include wineries and farm breweries. Skeptics are dubious that many farmers approaching or already past retirement age will be eager to plunge into a new business — particularly one that might require them to spend time socializing with strangers. They also point out that it may not make much sense to take on new challenges to save a farm when there are no longer children or grandchildren around to take it over. Agritourism, they say, is more marketing buzzword than survival strategy.
But there are salvation stories. Take Susan Sink. Back in 1980, she and her husband, Henry, bought a dairy farm in Christiansburg, Va. The plan was to run it like the one on which Henry had grown up. But a string of “horrible” droughts wiped out their corn and hay crops, and they ended up spending way more than anticipated on feed. Three times, she said, they thought they might lose everything.
So, they started looking for other ways to make money. They created a “pick your own” strawberry patch, sold Christmas trees, and then, in 1991, switched to pumpkins. Today, Sinkland Farms hosts one of the biggest pumpkin festivals in Virginia. During its five weekends last fall, it drew more than 30,000 people, according to Susan Sink, who said other businesses in the area tell her October is usually their best month, thanks to the tourists coming to the festival.
Henry died in an accident in 2007, but Susan persevered, continuing to add new revenue streams. Last year, 30 weddings were held at Sinkland and, in November, it opened a brewery. At her accountant’s advice, she sold off the herd; now, more than 95 percent of the farm’s revenue comes from tourism.
Sink has had some distinct advantages, none more so than an enviable location a few miles from I-81, between Radford University and Virginia Tech. It’s also helped that she’s always had an “off the farm” job as an administrator at Radford.
It’s all taught her the value of staying open to fresh possibilities. “Agritourism enabled us to keep our land and our farm and our home,” she said. “When you think everything may go up on the auction block, you start being very entrepreneurial.”
Sometimes, a farm enterprise may be driven more by passion than fear of penury. That’s the case with the Powers Farm Brewery, which opened last summer in Casanova, not far from Route 28 in Fauquier County.
Kevin and Melody Powers, both in their 30s, had always wanted to build a brewery on their small farm — they’d been home brewing for years. Melody, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, raised herbs, tomatoes, squash, greens and hops, while Kevin kept working as an accountant in D.C. Their farm income came mainly from selling produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where consumers can sign up and buy food directly from a farm.
Their customer base grew steadily — they now provide seasonal produce to about 75 families — but they knew that if they ever were going to have a brewery, they needed to go all in. Kevin quit his accounting job at the end of 2015, and a year and a half later, they were serving custom brews in their own farm taproom.
Kevin Powers said he doesn’t really think of it as agritourism since most of the brewery’s customers are locals. He sees it more as a way to add another productive component to the farm.
“You can grow hops and sell them. But if you use them in your own beer, you add more value to the product, and that’s more sustainable,” he said.
“The brewery allows us to use this agricultural land, take care of the soil, grow nice crops,” Powers added. “Yes, we can sell tomatoes, but we can also take some of that tomato crop and make an interesting heirloom Belgian ale. For us, that’s like an opportunity for the farm to express itself and be known in a different way.”
Using the land
The trend of repurposing farmland does seem to be picking up steam in this region. As many as 75 weddings were held on working farms in Page County last year, estimates Gina Hilliard, president of that county’s Chamber of Commerce, and two more farm venues will soon be available. In Madison County, Bald Top Brewing Company opened a taproom last year in a renovated barn on the historic WoodBourne Estate farm, which dates back to 1810. The brewery currently grows five varieties of hops.
Just a few weeks ago, the sixth annual Doah Fest, a weekend of music and camping, was held on a private farm on the Shenandoah River in Luray. Earlier in July, the same farm was the site of Shensara, a yoga and meditation festival. And, this October, a new event called the Peak Leaf Music and Brewers Festival will be held on a farm near Middletown, Va., in Frederick County. It’s the creation of Tyler and Angel Wakeman, who, in 2016, moved from Charlotte, N.C., back to the farm that’s been in his family for more than 100 years.
The couple is running cattle on 50 of the 150 acres, and also raising chickens, hogs and produce. But they plan to explore other ways to use the land, starting with the music and beer festival. “Other businesses here seem to be all for it,” said Tyler. “We’re trying to bring money into the community.”
Angel said they also want to look at doing weddings and day camps for kids on the property. “It’s all about how fast you can jump on the train,” she said.
Agritourism evangelists like the Wakemans are a rarer breed here in Rappahannock. The older demographics are one reason. With age, risk-taking loses its appeal. Another is tied to something more basic in the county’s nature: Why raise awareness of a place many residents would rather keep hidden?
But there are those here banking on businesses built around the allure of rural life to those not living it. Take Algis Penkiunas. He’s head of Pendrick Capital Partners, a financial services company in Alexandria, but since 2010 he’s been buying property near Old Rag Mountain. He says he climbed it for his bachelor party back in the ’90s.
The largest piece of land Penkiunas holds is the old Kilby Farm — also known as Mont Medi — off F.T. Valley Road. More than 600 acres, it will be used to produce hay and grass-fed beef. But he also bought an adjoining 36-acre parcel that had once been covered with apple trees. And that’s where Penkiunas wants to take his shot at agritourism. He’s working with local farmer and businessman Allan Clark to create a “pick-your-own” operation featuring apples, peaches nectarines and blueberries. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees, which are easier to pick, should be in production by fall 2019.
Penkiunas sees this kind of orchard as an attraction that could provide visitors with another reason to spend time here. But he also feels that it aligns closely with what the community values.
“As urban sprawl comes, Rappahannock wants to maintain its agriculture footprint,” he said. “That’s great. But to preserve it, you’ve got to be able to produce agriculture and have market distribution for it. We hope we’re doing our part to help it be a bit more like it was in its glory days.”
Dave Shiff and Dennis Kelly, neighbors on Hinson Ford Road in Amissville, are going down another track. They’re in the process of rolling out Hinson Ford Cider & Mead this fall, the only business in Rappahannock producing both beverages.
They like their timing. While the winery business has exploded in Virginia and craft breweries are following suit, places that brew cider and mead — made by fermenting honey with water and various fruits, spices and hops — are just starting to take off. That means less direct competition. At the same time, consumers, particularly younger ones, are more open to trying different, more flavorful drinks.
But since Hinson Ford’s production will be relatively modest over the next few years, it will, at least in the short-term, depend a lot on how much traffic they get to their taproom. The owners admit they’re nervous about the local tourism market.
“Yes, we have some trepidation,” Kelly said. “One of the questions is how do we compose the mosaic of Rappahannock. There are so many different Rappahannock experiences. I think we need to use social media to promote other businesses in the county and make connections with them. It’s about creating a community of businesses that have the same interests.”
Shiff hopes the enterprise can serve as an example for others considering unconventional ventures. “If we’re successful,” he said, “at least that could be a step in the right direction. Other folks could look at us and say, ‘They’ve been successful. Maybe we can be, too.’”
Bringing people to Rappahannock
Audrey Regnery is thinking the same way about a very different kind of experience she’s planning here next March. Called “Romancing Rappahannock,” it will bring 10 best-selling romance novelists — including her daughter-in-law, Katy — along with a group of their fans for an “immersion” experience.
The authors will stay at the Greenfield Inn, which Audrey owns with her husband, Al. But she has been working with other B&Bs in the county to reserve rooms for the fans.
The weekend, in fact, has been designed to involve a lot of other Rappahannock businesses. There will be meals at local restaurants, a visit to the Pen Druid Brewery, a tour of the Copper Fox Distillery, book signings at wineries, and even a scavenger hunt involving businesses in Washington and Sperryville. Ideally, the authors and fans will share their Rappahannock experiences on their many social media pages.
“If it’s a success,” she said, “I want people to look at it and say, ‘This can be done. We can make these events. We can bring people to Rappahannock and show them what we have to offer.’”
The value of collaboration is something you’ll hear over and over from the people responsible for mapping a tourism strategy in what one described as a “pass-through” region.
“It’s about connecting experiences for people and the authenticity of those experiences,” said Stephanie Lillard, partnership marketing development specialist for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. “It’s about creating itineraries for people and marketing them.”
In other words, businesses are more likely to connect with tourists now if they’re promoted as part of a larger, multi-layered experience, rather than trying to go solo. Even better if they’re included in a package.
“Maybe you have three wineries work together. Or maybe a winery in Culpeper, another one in Rappahannock, and brewery in Orange County put a package together,” said Laura Torpy, tourism coordinator for Fauquier County. “Today, you need to be creative.”
That means working across county lines, which matter little to most tourists. A more collaborative approach also allows individual counties to expand their exposure beyond what they could given their meager tourism staffs. According to Lillard, 40 percent of Virginia’s counties have one-person tourism departments. (Rappahannock doesn’t even have that; the only person paid through the county’s tourism budget is Sandra Maskas, who works three days a week at the Visitors Center.)
Trails and loops
The focus on connecting and branding experiences has led to a proliferation of “trails” and “loops” – a way of linking together attractions for tourists through websites and social media. There’s the ‘Tween Rivers Trail, the Blue Ridge Whisky Wine Loop, the Rappahannock County Artisans Trail, the Shenandoah Spirits Trail, the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail, the Fields of Gold Farm Trail.
The ‘Tween Rivers Trail (TRT), for instance, is coordinated by the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission (RRRC), with the goal of promoting agritourism businesses in Rappahannock, Culpeper, Madison, Fauquier and Orange counties. To be included on the trail, businesses need to show they reflect the region’s agricultural or artisanal heritage. While there is no membership fee, businesses are encouraged to promote other trail members on their websites and marketing materials. More than half of the 80 current members are wineries or B&Bs.
It’s hard to gauge how effective the TRT has been in raising the region’s profile as a destination. As Felicia Hart, director of Community Development and Tourism for Front Royal, put it, “Tourism is one of those black holes” where it’s very hard to draw a straight line between investment and return. Jenny Biche, who helps oversee the TRT, said members will be formally surveyed at the end of the year in an attempt to measure results. But she said one benefit of the trail is that it enables small businesses, whose owners have neither much time nor social media expertise, to play on a bigger field.
A matter of vision
Still, the question remains how big a role tourism should play in how rural communities adapt to an uncertain future. Is agritourism the answer for places striving to hold on to their agricultural identities? Or is it just a catchy concept that doubters say seems to most benefit wineries and farm breweries?
“Most rural communities are looking for economic development opportunities that don’t denigrate the quality of life,” said Miles Friedman, Fauquier’s director of economic development. “Tourism is what I would call a noninvasive form of development. It’s true that some people shy away from it because it can crowd places we like to keep rural and quiet. But these businesses aren’t polluting for the most part. They’re not pushing people off the land.”
In Rappahannock, however, it’s a bit more complicated. Any hint of development, even the noninvasive kind, is viewed warily, something that could trigger a slide into exurban conformity. At the same time, it’s unclear how the county will hold on to its agricultural roots as it becomes more of a retirement community. Or whether the needs of an aging population will allow county officials to continue to rely almost exclusively on residential property taxes to provide services.
All are topics involved in the update of the county’s comprehensive plan. It’s currently being reviewed by the Planning Commission, which will hold a public hearing. Another hearing with the BOS will follow.
Some in the community see this as an opportunity to begin adapting the county’s vision statement to better address changing demographics and economic uncertainty. Monira Rifaat, owner of Manor Farm near Sperryville, thinks the plan needs to be “more realistic.”
“I question whether the comprehensive plan we have here is sustainable,” she said. Rifaat feels it’s time for the community to take a harder look at broadening its economic base, even to the point of no longer discouraging “clean industry” from moving here. “Maybe we can take another approach. Maybe we could find a way where sustainable agriculture and clean businesses can live together.”
BOS vice chair Chris Parrish, however, believes the vision laid out in the comprehensive plan still holds up well.
“It says what we want,” he said. “We want open space. We want scenery. We want quiet. We want dark skies. It’s already in there.”
Parrish also is more sanguine about Rappahannock’s future. “I don’t see any devastation on the horizon,” he said. “Whether you like rich people or not, they’re coming. And they’re going to boost our economy. They’re going to provide jobs. And they’re here because they like what they see.”
County administrator Garrey Curry offers the perspective of someone with years of experience in county government, but he is still relatively new to Rappahannock. He became the county’s top unelected official at the beginning of the year.
“The comprehensive plan needs to be a guiding document,” he said. “What do we want to be when we grow up? A lot of communities really struggle with that. And my impression is that this community really hasn’t. It kind of knows what it wants to be, and that’s what it is today, to the largest extent possible.”
Curry noted that local consensus has long been to limit commercial development, and that has caused the tax burden to fall heavily on property owners.
“As time goes by, will the community opinion shift on that? If it does, that should be reflected in the comprehensive plan now or in the future. That’s an area where the community will need to decide what it wants to be.
“What makes Rappahannock Rappahannock?” he added. “Go outside and look.”