Experts discuss ways to boost Albemarle County farming enterprises

By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Friday, September 25, 2009

One of the best ways to help improve the business of agriculture is to connect consumers with food producers. That was one of the  main points raised during a panel discussion on the business of agriculture held Thursday by the

Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce

and the Free Enterprise Forum.

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Agriculture is the number one industry in Virginia, with an estimated annual impact of $55 billion according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In 2007, 895 farms in Albemarle County brought in nearly $4.5 million in gross income according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, many farmers would like to restore the place that farming once played in Albemarle. In his opening comments, Chamber Chair Bryan Thomas told the crowd that in 1940, half the population of

Albemarle County

was involved in some form of agriculture. However, he said by 1970, that number had declined to less than 6%.

The panel consisted of Agriculture Commission Todd Haymore, author Frank Levering and Chad Zakaib of Jefferson Vineyards

One of the panelists was Todd Haymore, Virginia’s Commissioner of Agriculture. Haymore, who grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Pittsylvania County, said today’s farmers need to capitalize on every opportunity, and he said the role of state government is to help facilitate those opportunities.

“What I’ve tried to do with precious taxpayer dollars is to make sure we’re putting them to the best use possible trying to create jobs and as much opportunity as we can,” Haymore said. He added that programs such as “

Buy Fresh, Buy Local

” and his department’s own “Virginia Finest” help connect Virginia farmers with Virginia consumers.

According to Haymore, agricultural development and farmland preservation are crucial elements to the future of the family farm. He lauded Albemarle County’s Acquisition of Conservation Easements (ACE) program, which purchases development rights from landowners, but still allows them to use the land for agricultural purposes.

“If we can have all that come together, I see Virginia’s agricultural enterprises being number one for another 400 years,” Haymore said.

Another panelist was Chad Zakaib, the General Manager of Jefferson Vineyards.  He said his winery’s land is under a conservation easement, which preserves it for future agricultural use – at a cost.

“As an entrepreneur, I look at placing properties under easement with skepticism because there may come a time when I have to liquidate that asset,” Zakaib said. “I’m not particularly interested in having someone tell me what I am or am not able to do.”

Frank Levering, author of a book on the divide between rural and urban Virginia, owns an orchard in Carroll County. He said agricultural tourism can educate people about the challenges and hardships of farming, which could in turn help more people support them.

“For years people have just gone and bought their food at supermarkets having no inkling of where that food came from,” Levering said. “All of a sudden, people are now very interested in who the guy was who grew it.”

Zakaib said that the vast majority of Jefferson Vineyard’s money comes from retail sales sold on premises.

“The reality is that the direct to consumer market is so much more profitable than a business-to-business relationship with a wholesaler or distributor,” said Zakaib. “The flip side is that there are legitimate issues with local government with the idea of people driving around the country buying wine.”

Recently, Albemarle County Supervisor

Ann Mallek

(White Hall)

directed County zoning officials

to look at ways to give more flexibility to allow farmers to sell their produce on land they don’t own.

One of the people attending the event was Carl Tinder, President of the

Albemarle County Farm Bureau


“The future of farming in Albemarle County is very bright, but we need to make sure that agriculture has the ability to prosper,” Tinder said. He says the number one thing the County can do to help is to preserve land use taxation, a program which lowers the tax burden for land used for agriculture, open space and forestry.

Another attendee was Sarah Henley of the advocacy group Forever Albemarle. She said she would like state and local laws changed to extend land use taxation to farmers who own less than 5 acres of land. She also called for local schools to boost agricultural education.

Zakaib said he saw a bright future for farming if more people knew about the challenges and benefits of farming.

“Overtime, I think farming will become cool because everyone has to eat,” Zakaib said.