Local farmers: now more than ever

By Posted on Apr 26 2020 | By

County agriculture showcasing value to community

There are about 1,100 farms in Fauquier County with more than 200,000 acres of farmland. The value of local land stewards to a growing number of back-to-the farm shoppers has been highlighted by COVID-19.

When grocery stores shelves begin to look bare, consumers cast about for alternative sources. In Fauquier County, that’s often just a few miles away.

Jimmy and Ronnie Messick are co-owners of Messick’s Farm Market in Bealeton. They are third-generation farmers and own 1,000 acres of farmland over three separate properties in southern Fauquier County.

In addition to the seven-day-a-week farm market, the brothers have 330 milk cows, 250 of which are daily milkers. In addition, 800 acres are devoted to grain growing: corn, soybean, and wheat. Jimmy Messick manages the farm and market; Ronnie Messick oversees the cattle operation.

The market carries local artisanal goods like handmade pasta, pastured meats, and even skincare products. For those who come hungry, there is a made-to-order deli counter for sandwiches and prepared salads and an ice cream stand.

“Our business is up 300 percent in the last few weeks,” says Jimmy Messick. “When the coronavirus hit, we were able to maintain most of our local suppliers of eggs, milk, bread, and other products. We had items the grocery stores didn’t. That resulted in a big jump in sales. But I wish my success was for a different reason.”

Today, the grocery stores are beginning to do a better job of stocking shelves, but the Messicks continue to benefit from the change in buying habits that were established during the early days of the pandemic.

Jimmy Messick said, “Our curbside sales are now more than half of what we are selling daily.” Like some restaurants, wineries and other businesses, their farm market has switched to an entirely new way to sell groceries. Customers call orders in, make payment and stop by later and pick up the order, either inside or outside the store.

During busy times, like lunch hour when the deli is active, the market staff asks that only one member per family enter the store. “We try to maintain the ‘ten customers at time thing.’ We wear gloves and are regularly sanitizing carts and surface areas throughout the store,” said Messick.

He reflected on what the “new normal” will be like when the governor’s stay-at-home is lifted. “We have lots and lots and lots of new people who are coming in who we’ve never seen before. It’s done more to expand our customer base than anything before this.”

Locust Hill Farm is a 2,200-acre family farm operated by Del. Mike Webert (R-18th) and owned by his grandmother. It’s located in the northern part of the county. The farm tills about 1,000 acres of grain and raises 120 beef cattle.

The farm sells beef both online and increasingly, through home deliveries. “Beef orders have taken off. When local folks see no beef in the grocery stores, they call me and order home delivery,” said Webert.

One downside to his business is the cancellation of some stockyard sales that previously attracted large groups of sellers and buyers. Additionally, his wife is a graphics designer that produced catalogs for livestock sales, generating significant springtime income.

His overall income is down slightly, but will come back when the economy reenergizes, he believes. Weber thinks that fruit and vegetable growers, and cattlemen like himself, will see a permanent change in buying habits.

“I think this is an opportunity for local agriculture to showcase what we do. It’s no longer just a niche agritourism business. People are not going to call the farmer for just weekend sales. They are coming out to purchase food for regular consumption,” Webert said.

Currently, it’s a mixed blessing, but overall Webert sees it as a positive development, both for him and other farmers.

Dennis Pearson is a fellow cattleman who owns Soldier’s Hill Angus Farm located near Fauquier Springs. He runs a 500-acre beef farm with a 160 head of cattle. He echoed Webert’s perception that there are pluses and minuses, but in general, the current stressed economy has been a good thing for cattlemen.

He said, “I have a freezer meat trade on my farm, and those sales have increased. On the other hand, the stockyards have been shut down for a couple of weeks and that has had a short-term negative impact on my sales.

“The Virginia Beef Expo was canceled, and I had cows in that sale. But I’m absolutely seeing an increase in consumer buying. I think people realize they have to have more storage at home. I also think there’s probably been an increase in the sale of freezers too. This year it has been very easy for me to sell all the products that I produce.”

Kenny Smith works the milking side of the cattle business with 17 employees milking 891 cows, the largest herd in the region. Rather than direct sales to consumers, he sells his milk to a large cooperative that services 950 dairy farms in a five-state area.

He notes that the co-op only has so much throughput, and that has been constrained because its packaging lines for half-pint containers destined to schools have been shut down. Those lines cannot be used to fill gallon jugs.

Plants are running 24 hours a day and are 30 percent over-capacity.
Smith said, “The current situation has not harmed Cool Lawn Farm. Our employees are healthy and stay at home when not working. One bright spot is families are reuniting again and enjoying each other’s company.”

He admitted, “One thing I do miss is Friday night date nights with my wife and friends. We miss the interaction.”
Mel and Kevin Powers own Powers Farm & Brewery in Midland. The 21-acre farm has nine acres devoted to growing some 40 different fruits and vegetables.

The products are sold through its community-supported agriculture program whereby customers buy shares and receive various fresh produce throughout the growing season based on specific agreements.

It’s anticipated this business will do well once the growing season begins. “More people are signing up, and I think I’m going to reach my goal soon. I’m always excited when people get excited about vegetables,” Mel Powers said, laughing.

The brewery was opened in 2017 and the venue has shut down due to the law forbidding any on-site consumption. Sales of beer are now made through glass and can growlers; 32-ounce containers that customers pickup outside the brewery after making a prepaid purchase online.

Unfortunately, growler cans are in short supply. “They are like toilet paper, said Mel Powers. “But, we expect a new shipment arriving shortly.” The Powers also have partnered with Whiffletree Farm to distribute their beer using the farm’s distribution system.

The overall business has been somewhat down, but Kevin Powers has not run the numbers yet. “The really important thing is we’ve had to shift from an on-premise to a to-go business.

“The hyper-local support we’ve gotten has been awesome. The people who live within five to 10 miles are helping us keep the lights on. It’s been great,” said Kevin Powers.

Published April 2020 in the Fauquier Times.

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