Farmers all over the world look back on 2022 as a heartbreaking harvest season. It was either too wet or too dry in Pakistan, Africa, Europe, and Japan. The summer heatwave and related drought affected an enormous chunk of U.S. farmland from California to the east banks of the Mississippi, an area we rely on to produce nearly three-fourths of our beef cattle and vegetables. Many orchardists ripped up their trees, and even more ranchers reported selling off their stock. In a cruel cycle, shortages made hay too expensive for ranchers to buy, even as their own grass turned brittle, brown and––in some cases––too toxic to feed horses and cattle.
For the most part, Virginia’s farmers escaped the worst, depending on the crops they were raising. Statewide, field crop yields were good, most equaling or surpassing 2021 yields.
Albemarle County had a pretty good year, weather-wise, said Cara Swanson, the unit coordinator for the county’s agricultural extension office. “You know farmers, though,” she said. “We like to complain about the weather, no matter what.” Swanson said the county’s pockets of drought were shorter than usual and more to the County’s southern end. Unlike their counterparts to the west, hay farmers had some complaints about too much water: spring rains delayed the first cutting; and later rains made it difficult to time the second cutting properly.
Rather than promoting a third cutting with timely additions of fertilizer, even in a year with ample rain, Swanson said her office encourages Virginia farmers to graze their cattle on pasture as long as possible. “We have such mild winters, and no long periods of snow cover, so we like to see our farmers using a more extended grazing schedule.” Swanson, a horsewoman whose specialty is livestock, pointed out that Albemarle farmers are not major contributors to the state’s income from animal agriculture, except in the case of horses, where Albemarle is home to the third largest equine population, after Fauquier and Loudoun Counties. At the last (2017) count, Albemarle County was home to only 20,500 cattle (including calves) and 1,954 sheep. Chicken raised as broilers, in as much as they can be counted accurately during a short life span, numbered 544; sheep, 1,954; and goats, 673.
The most recent census, which counted only those horses and ponies from commercial breeding farms, identified 1,980. The last survey that included all horses was in 2006 and showed about 8,400 in Albemarle County. Swanson, and all the agricultural extension agents we spoke with, noted the need for updated statistics for a better picture of county agriculture. The 2022 census is underway, and they urged everyone with an agricultural operation to participate.
There’s a reason why there’s minimal population growth of cattle, hogs and poultry, in the midst of plenty of grass and good conditions for growing other fodder, Swanson said. “We don’t have larger chicken and stock operations here simply because farmers would have to drive an hour or two in any direction to find a place to process them in a way that would allow them to sell their products commercially.” She believes local resources for processing chicken, beef and pork would be of tremendous benefit to county agriculture, and could be built in a way to preserve our scenic surroundings. “It doesn’t have to be on the scale of the enormous plants you see in the Valley.”
A glance at the most recent statistics from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, released January 12, confirms that Albemarle doesn’t even register in the state’s highest ranking agricultural crops, which are broilers and beef. Nor does the county have large plantings of wheat, barley, soybeans, corn or other commodity crops, because these generally require large stretches of flat land, hard to come by except at the southern edge of the county. “We do have quite a few farmers raising small patches of winter wheat as a cover crop,” Swanson said. Grain farming, like stock farming, requires more local options for processing than are presently available, but support is growing for more of a mid-Atlantic grain community.
Bakers, Millers and Growers form Alliance
A lot of forces have come together to help those interested in local grains find each other. Heather Coiner first came from the perspective of a baker. She baked bread in Toronto before settling in Nelson County and starting, with Ben Stowe, Little Hat Creek Farm, a vegetable farming and baking operation that has grown every year. While in Canada, she had to travel a bit to find locally grown and milled grain, but, ultimately, she was able to offer her customers bread from wheat and rye grown in neighboring fields. That all changed when she moved to Virginia. “Here I was right on the edge of what once was the South’s bread basket,” she said; “and I was traveling past fields of grain, but I couldn’t find any local grain to buy for our bread.” She and fellow baker Michael Grantz of Great Day Gardens set out to find the missing pieces of what they sometimes call “the grain chain.” As a result of their work and the work of many others, the Common Grain Alliance was formed in 2018.
Although Coiner is an accomplished baker, she’ll always have the heart of a farmer as well. She has a Ph.D. in plant physiological ecology from the University of Toronto and has written extensively on ways small farmers can work grain into their crop rotation. She especially likes the model of incorporating food grain into a cattle operation. “When farmers grow only food grain and sell it, they’re leaving about 20 percent of residual nutrients in the fields for next year’s crop. When a farmer sells beef, the cattle have left behind more than half of what a typical grain crop will need for next year’s harvest.”
By allowing millers, bakers, farmers and those with equipment to find each other, the alliance has made great steps in the past few years to establish a food grain presence. For instance, Wade’s Mill in Raphine has been able to encourage nearby farmers to grow grain for food so they don’t have to import all their wheat from the West. “What we really need now are more eaters,” Coiner said, meaning that for this piece of local food independence to succeed, people need to recognize and ask for local grains in their bread and pastries.
Lynn Coffey of the Gazette has written about the Common Grain Alliance, Woodson’s Mill, and Deep Roots Milling in the September and October 2022 editions of the Gazette, and you can find more about the alliance at commongrainalliance.org, including Coiner’s scenario for growing grain on a small scale.
Changing Climate Continues to Challenge
Without the contributions of Albemarle County, the large field crops have done pretty well in Virginia, with slight fluctuations rather than catastrophic losses. Corn, cotton and hay yields surpassed last year, while tobacco, corn and soybean farmers registered slight losses. In most cases, state yields were connected to the number of acres planted or taken out of production. “‘Farmers watch conditions, see what’s doing well, and switch around their fields when they can,” said Pam Wiley of the Virginia Farm Bureau. “But they can’t react really quickly, depending on what equipment they have for planting and harvesting, and the help they can find.”
Terrain has a lot to do with what farmers tend to plant locally, Carrie Swanson said. So does the soil. The heavy clay soil requires those attempting to raise crops like lavender and some other popular herbs to amend the soil almost to the point of having rows of giant raised beds. “We like to encourage our farmers to raise crops that are suited to the terrain, the soil structure and our weather.”
Sarah Sharpe, the extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, said the non-field crops—fruits, nuts and vegetables—always have challenges, and growers are accustomed to them. Albemarle and Nelson Counties do make a huge contribution to the state’s production of fruit, berries and nuts, especially apples. Apples, cherries and blueberries are less affected by capricious frost dates, since they bloom later, and Chiles Orchard reported a generous harvest. Growers are apt to worry more about their peaches and strawberries, and both of those crops were affected by the April freeze. Nelson County agent Grace Monger agreed that all fruit crops in the area have some seasonal difficulties, mostly posed by the weather. “Virginia can be challenging,” she said. “Mild winters cause the fruit to bloom early, then a late frost kills the flowers.” She said some plum crops were completely wiped out by the late hard frost. No season is ideal; she said: when it’s warmer longer, insects proliferate; long periods of drought are costly, and long periods of rain mean growers can’t keep up with the weeds.
Market farmers who raise a variety of vegetables operate with a small margin of profit, but learn which varieties do well in our climate and can plant those most likely to thrive. Like Swanson, Sharpe mentioned the rain-related delays in the spring during critical times to control weeds and noted October was quite dry. Small growers have an advantage, at least locally, she said. “We are lucky in this area that local citizens are passionate and want to purchase from local farms.”
She noted that cut flowers are becoming very popular as more and more of the public wants to purchase them locally. “There are flowers that are always popular, like sunflowers, dahlias, and peonies, and then others that may ebb and flow with consumer demand.” Another niche market is served by the area’s hemp growers, although she said the supply of hemp recently is exceeding local ability to process it. “I suspect that the more established growers who already have a contract with processors are doing fine,” she added.
It All Turned Out Okay
Grape growers have the same challenges as orchardists, with the additional worry of rain leading up to harvest time. “We thought we were staring down the barrel, with all the water we had going into the fall,” said Kirk Wiles, chairman of the Virginia Wine Board. “Then, there was a complete turnaround, and we had a nice dry spell. We had that weekend with the hurricane, but the wind came up and dried the soil nicely.” He noted that Virginia wine growers learn patience: “They learn to let things wait.” Wiles owns a winery in Northern Virginia and one in California, meaning he has two different sets of problems to consider. “Here, you can plant grapes without concern with water rights. Out there, it’s another legal step for vineyard owners.”
Wiles will soon expand his bi-coastal Paradise Springs label to Crozet. He’ll use grapes from the acreage he owns adjacent to King Family Vineyards to produce wine from the plantings of Cabernet, Petite Verdot, Cab Franc, Merlot and Nebbiolo, and he will make some newer plantings under the guidance of wine expert Lucien Morton. Speaking for Virginia growers he’s heard from, predictions are for a better-than-average vintage, he said. “It all turned out to be okay.”
State statistician Herman Ellison, who provided much of this data, said it’s important for farmers to join the 2022 census, which gives a much more detailed snapshot of local agriculture, which in turn informs decisions about policy, farm and conservation programs, infrastructure, rural development, research, education, and beginning farmer programs. There are only a few days left to respond to the census, which happens every five years. Find the portal: portal.agcounts.usda.gov/portal/s/.