Written by Robert Andrew Branan, JD, Secretary/Treasurer, NCSFMRA
Assistant Extension Professor
At the end of July, members of the North Carolina Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (NCSFMRA) embarked on their bi-annual “out of state” summer tour, this year to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Here is the brief report.
About the Tour
The NCSFMRA tour happens each summer, with alternating years in North Carolina and the next out-of-state. Last year (after a 2020 Covid hiatus) the summer tour focused on North Carolina’s High Country, centering out of West Jefferson, North Carolina.
This year’s tour followed an itinerary of agricultural operations and infrastructure that illustrated the adaptation of Shenandoah Valley agriculture to challenges such as loss of farmland to residential development, shifting poultry integration systems and farm succession, as well as the importance of local food production.
The itinerary and tour was led by Tom Stanley, farm business management agent with Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension. Having worked in the Valley for over 20 years, his itinerary and route narration offered tour participants a broad view of a shifting agricultural production landscape and its promising adaptations.
Integrated Local Beef
The first stop on the tour was Cattlemen’s Market, a local foods store in Lexington that demonstrates how vertical integration and emphasis on local food distribution can serve farm succession. The market, owned and operated by the Potter family, serves as a direct and value-added outlet for beef produced by their seventh-generation family farm.
Rosealea Potter was kind enough to narrate how – as she and her spouse Chas Potter returned to start a beef cattle and sheep operation – the Potter family was able to acquire and re-open a disused local abattoir – Donald’s Meat Processing – and place it under USDA inspection in 2009. Once in control of their own production, processing and then eventually distribution, the Potter family was able to establish their statewide brand Buffalo Creek Beef in homage to the waterway along where the Potter family first started farming in the late 1800s.
While the operation was able to market fresh beef directly from a storefront at the processing facility, they lacked the facilities for cooking and curing. Hence the family opened Cattlemen’s Market to expand the range of value-added opportunities for their own beef, while opening an outlet for products of other local producers in the Valley and beyond.
“With local foods, there is always a distribution issue,” Rosealea Potter said. “But we were fortunate to have branded our beef through a wholesale business with distribution throughout Virginia, which allowed us to identify other local products to bring back and distribute through Cattlemen’s Market.”
She added that the identification of products as “local” has resonated more than other attributes (e.g. organic) with their retail customers and allowed them to grow.
The next stop on the tour was Rock Bottom Dairy, a dairy and poultry farm operated by Robert and Stephanie Whipple. The dairy, located in northern Rockbridge County, is a vivid demonstration of a transition from human labor to robotic automation, and is striking in both efficiency and relative autonomy offered to both the operators and their cows.
The automation allows the cows themselves to choose when they want to be milked, saving the need to drive the herd from pasture to barn. The cows simply line up, step on a platform, and the robot does the rest: teats are first cleaned, then suction attaches, falling off when the milk stops coming, and suction is then cleaned for the next waiting cow.
Automation has allowed the Whipples to save on full-time labor expense, a major factor in being able to operate at a relatively small scale (120 head). The robotic milker – designed and manufactured in the Netherlands – is able to operate around the clock, and collects data on each cow in the herd as she matriculates through the milk stall.
The data – read from a collar with a pedometer – includes tracking increased steps, which indicates a cow is in heat. These cows are automatically gate-sorted by the robot for breeding, and the practice has resulted in increased rates of pregnancy.
One labor trade-off noted by Stephanie and Robert is the increased computer knowledge required of employees. And while the robots can alert the operator of problems around the clock, they still offer some measure of freedom.
“We might get an alert while we are out (at a restaurant) to dinner,” Stephanie Whipple said. “But at least we are out to dinner!”
One additional management feature of the Whipple’s farm is their primary reliance on custom planting and harvesting services, which eliminates expense and debt on equipment while allowing them to focus more on herd welfare.
Mennonite Produce Auction
Following a lunch stop at the Pike Valley Farm Market, the tour headed further north into an area of the Valley heavily populated with farms owned and operated by members of the Old Order Mennonite Church community.
This part of the Valley offered picturesque views of relatively small dairy farms (many still using vertical silos), but also vividly displayed farmland loss to residential development pressure from nearby Harrisonburg. Many of the operations have become more diversified, some dairies have transitioned to organic production with Organic Valley, and many host integrated poultry and turkey production (the latter with a grower-owned coop).
The tour’s third stop was the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction (SVPA), Virginia’s only produce auction developed out of the need in the Mennonite community to develop alternative income streams, largely in response to reduced access to land for field crops due to development pressure. Though the actual auction happens on Tuesdays (we visited on a Monday) the group got a thorough narrative of auction operations from Jeff Heatwole, the long-time manager of SVPA.
About 100 produce auctions like SVPA are located across the country, nearly all of them in Amish and Mennonite Communities. According to Tom Stanley with Virginia Cooperative Extension, the wholesale revenue model of such auctions is sustainable to communities of families dependent on fewer material inputs. Indeed, the initial Old Order Mennonite founders of the market took a trip – organized in part by Virginia Cooperative Extension – to Pennsylvania Amish country to observe produce auction operations there, and determined the model could work in the Rockingham County area of the Valley.
The SVPA held its first auction in 2005, and has grown to occupy a covered space of 20,000 square feet. The SVPA holds auctions on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. April through September, then on Tuesdays only until Thanksgiving. SVPA also holds an annual equipment auction, this year to be held on Nov. 2, 2022.
The auction supplies numerous wholesale customers including restaurants, distributors and retail produce outlets, including the multitude of road-side produce stands along Interstate 81 through the Valley. Early in the season, the auction floor is dominated by flowers and floral arrangements, as well as some product brought in from out of the region, such as cantaloupes and tomatoes.
As local fruits and vegetables come into season, they dominate the auction floor from June through Thanksgiving. The auction is designed for wholesale-only customers with minimum lot bidding to keep retail customers from clogging the fast-paced operation.
Jeff Heatwole described the auction as very fast-paced: “Most buyers will move along from palette to palette with their team loading purchases as they’re closed.” He noted that the speed of the auction has been clocked at 18 seconds between each transaction.
A Glimpse of History
Prior to returning to Lexington, the tour bus stopped by the Shenandoah Valley Agriculture Research Center. Opened in 1956, the research station conducts pasture-based livestock research on Walnut Grove Farm, the ancestral home farm of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the first commercial grain reaper whose manufacture would eventually grow to become the International Harvester Company.
McCormick’s descendants donated the 620 acre farm to Virginia Tech in 1954. The research farm facilities include a “bank barn” historically common to the sloping topography of the Valley.
The Cyrus McCormick historic homestead consists of a number of original buildings, including a grist mill and the blacksmith shop where McCormick crafted the first reaper. There is also a display of models of various reaper types built during the early years of mechanized reaping.
Historic Lexington, VA
The tour wrapped up with a nice dinner at the Southern Inn in downtown Lexington, Virginia. The group was also fortunate to stay at the Col Alto, a historic mansion and grounds converted to a hotel operated by Hampton Inn and adjacent to downtown Lexington, Virginia.
And though not on the tour itinerary, some tour participants took some time on their journeys back to North Carolina to visit the famous – and truly impressive – rock formation at Natural Bridge State Park just south of Lexington.
The North Carolina Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers is a nonprofit organization hosted by NC State’s Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ARE), and includes members from academia and the private sector involved in farm management and appraisal of rural properties. The NCSFMRA has an endowment providing a scholarship each year to a selected Agribusiness Management major.
In addition to the annual summer tour, the NCSFMRA also offers a winter seminar and luncheon with a line-up of speakers offering updates on agribusiness matters including labor, forestry, law and taxes, and updates on the farm and general economy.
For more information on NCSFMRA, contact Robert Andrew Branan at email@example.com.