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Regional & National

59 farms in UVA country earn 'Century Farm' tag

May 4th, 2007 9:09 pm by BRIAN McNEILL



CHARLOTTESVILLE - For more than 100 years, Windy Bluff Farm was a tranquil 250-acre cattle, horse and hay farm in Greene County near the South River and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


"It was my great-great-grandfather's farm," said Tommy Shelton, the farm's owner. "It goes way on back."


Yet when Shelton's father passed away in 2001, tracts of the farm were sold off. The bulk of the land became another family's goat farm, another cattle farm and South River Vineyards.


All that remains today of the historic Windy Bluff Farm is a 5-acre sliver of farmland.


"The way this real estate is getting more and more valuable, it's kind of foolish to hold on to it," Shelton said.


Windy Bluff is one of 59 farms in the Charlottesville region that has been in continuous operation by the same family for more than 100 years.


These agricultural landmarks have been designated as "Century Farms" by the Virginia Department of Agriculture.


But many of the historic Century Farms are in jeopardy thanks to the difficulties of turning a profit in farming and pressures of the lucrative real estate market of recent years.


"It's a constant struggle, especially on small farmers," said Marion Horsley, spokeswoman at the agriculture department. "The Century Farm program is one way we can say thank you to our farmers for holding on despite their struggles."


Since the Century Farm program was started in 1997, 881 farms across Virginia have earned the designation, which includes a metal sign to hang outside the farm and a certificate signed by the governor and commissioner of agriculture.


"Agriculture was the first enterprise undertaken by the settlers at Jamestown. Our farms cover 400 years of Virginia history," Horsley said. "We're trying to honor the efforts of those farmers who have for so long provided a service to our commonwealth."


Though the agriculture department does not track how many acres have been lost amongst Virginia's historic farmers, farmland in general has dwindled across the state.


In Albemarle County alone, the acres of cropland have declined from 87,872 in 1992 to 69,065 in 2002, a drop of 21 percent, according to federal agricultural census statistics.


The market value of crops grown in Albemarle fell from $21.8 million in 1992 to $19.2 million in 2002, a decline of 12 percent, according to census data.Poplar Branch Farm in southern Albemarle County is another Century Farm, having been in operation for 151 years.Owned for generations by the Dawson family, the sheep farm in Schuyler was originally 300 acres, but is now roughly 80 acres."Like a lot of farms in our area, it's been divided up over time," said Thomas Olivier, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Wren Dawson Olivier. "Farmers all over the place are selling land for big, big payouts."Meanwhile, Olivier said, it can be tough for small Virginia farmers to stay profitable in a global agricultural marketplace."The whole agriculture sector is facing a lot of challenges," he said. "There's tremendous pressure to get out of farming."When his wife retires from her job at the University of Virginia Medical Center, Olivier said they plan to increase their farm's sales of sheep directly to central Virginia customers, as opposed to livestock auctions.Currently, the farm sells five to 10 lambs per year, including to an Afghan immigrant who requires halal slaughter practices. By expanding their customer base and by tailoring their livestock to their customers specific requests, Olivier expects to increase his farm's profitability."We think we can increase our profit margin by catering to people's tastes," he said. "We intend to do more of that sort of thing in the coming years."Farming requires a high level of investment (for equipment, land and taxes) and typically produces a low level of profit."The pressure on us to sell off or subsidize our farms is tremendous," said Corky Shackelford, owner of the 365-acre Dovedale Farm in Albemarle. "We'd like to keep farming, but it's not as easy as people think."Dovedale, a cattle farm, has been in Shackelford's family since 1817. He is the fourth generation to operate the Century Farm."They're all buried here," he said. "There's a space for me right over there."Many people in central Virginia want to keep the agricultural sector healthy because it preserves rural open spaces, Shackelford said.Not all Century Farms in the Charlottesville region are facing financial pressure. At 245-acre Jacob's Run Farm in Earlysville, farmer Ada Kindrick said things are going swimmingly."I enjoy getting up and fooling with it," she said. "I had a baby sheep born this morning. Little things like that keep me going."Kindrick's family has operated the farm since 1739. She is the eighth generation to operate the farm. Her son, who retired from the military, is building a house on 10 of its acres. Her daughter lives there as well."My father was born here and grew up here, as did I," she said. "It's been passed down from generation to generation."As Earlysville developed over the years, Jacob's Run Farm was reduced in size from its original 1,000 acres. Today, a state conservation program protects the remaining farmland.Kindrick does not worry about her farm's profitability. "We don't make anything on the farm, really," she said. "And that's OK."Kindrick sells unusual animals such as llamas, miniature donkeys, pygmy goats and miniature horses to zoos and to families as pets.Among her best-selling animals right now are miniature silky fainting goats, which frequently play dead. "A lot of times, if they get scared, they'll just fall down and lay there," she said. "It's just their nature."People from as far away as Utah and Maine have purchased her novel goats for prices ranging from $500 to $1,000, she said.

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