Category Archives: Specialty Crops

Meet J and J Treeland.

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If you think diversity on a Christmas tree farm is all about the number of evergreen options sitting in the field for customers in December, think again. J and J Treeland, a family-run operation in Prospect, Virginia, spreads it efforts over enterprises in retail, wholesale, wreath-making, greenery sales, and roping, creating a truly diverse income stream that has evolved to meet changing trends and new demands.

The “J and J” behind the name are John Young and his forester friend Jim Bowen, who started the farm in 1979 and ran it as business partners for twenty years until Jim took a new job with the Department of Forestry and John transitioned to full ownership. “He had the knowledge, I had the land, so we decided we’d pool our resources, and we started out nice and small,” recalls John. “And then greed got the best of us,” he laughs, “So instead of planting a thousand trees, well hell, if that’s good, how about planting three thousand trees, then why not try five thousand…so soon, we had trees in a lot of spots. We were shipping, and mainly we had white pines and Norway spruces and we used to buy Frasier firs out of the mountains, and then I started growing firs and Turkish firs.” Though the farm has downsized from its peak days growing thousands of trees and shipping in wholesale orders to supply retail markets, there was a time when John had trees growing on sites ranging from Sussex to Grundy. “That’s a long stretch,” he adds.

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Perhaps the most intriguing element of the farm is its connection to Virginia’s best-loved historical district. “We make all the wreaths for Colonial Williamsburg. Every wreath that you see hanging on those doors in the old part of town is made right here,” John says. Anyone who has visited Duke of Gloucester street in December knows that supplying this order is no small feat. For jobs like this, good help is a necessity. John owns a machine that speeds up the process of attaching greenery to each wreath base, but there is plenty of work to be done by hand, and for that, he employs holiday farm crews. Since many people have difficulty scheduling seasonal work around their year-long jobs, finding labor to go to the field, cut and sort greenery, and assemble wreaths can be challenging. “As long as you can work or you’re willing to work, I’ll give you a job,” John laughs.

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Top: Farm staff load and unload clippings at the wreath-making station.

Farm employees undergo some training to prepare for the holiday wreath rush, according to Sarah Kirkman, who runs certain retail and wholesale activities and happens to be John’s granddaughter. “October is when we start the wreaths, and the first three weeks of October are just practice—we have people come in, we show them how to clip, how to make wreaths, all that fun stuff. Our first order goes out November third, so that last week of October is making wreaths for real, and then November is mainly all just wreaths and roping,” she says. With wreaths comes a demand for roping, too. In past years, the family had to bring in roping from Southwest Virginia to meet their orders—they simply could not keep up with demand while making everything by hand. With the addition of a new machine, they can now crank out a great deal of roping to accompany the wreaths. The machine rotates the roping wire, adding material as it goes. “It’s fun. It’s fast. I saw a video, and I was like ‘Hey Papa, we need to buy this!’” Sarah laughs.

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Top: Sarah demonstrates the roping machine.

For the Colonial Williamsburg order, J and J Treeland employees assemble wreaths up to 42” in size. Each wreath gets dipped into a solution which prevents drying out, and the wreaths are stored under a special shade structure which keeps them cool prior to shipping. “At the end of the day, usually about forty minutes before we are done, we go and tie all the wreaths up and get them in there and get them covered in straw and water to keep the temperature down,” Sarah says. The wreaths are decorated by volunteers when they arrive in Colonial Williamsburg. The farm has also sold their wreaths and roping for years at the nearby Williamsburg Farmers Market.

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Aside from growing, cutting up, assembling, and shipping greenery, the farm is still in the Christmas tree supply business—John fills orders with a combination of farm-grown and shipped-in trees, especially Frasier firs brought in from the southwestern counties. Many of his customers are small stores or local businesses with pre-cut tree lots. “A lot of the big operators aren’t interested in sending twenty-five or fifty trees to somebody—they deal with big accounts. So I make wreaths and roping for a lot of places and a lot of them are smaller places, and they just need fifty trees,” John says.

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John surveys a load of trees.

Prospect is located in Prince Edward County, just outside of Farmville, and white pines are traditionally some of the easiest Christmas trees to grow in that region. “You can sell a few still. I have a market here if they’re growing in the field—we still sell right many white pines. White pines and Norway spruce we sell a lot of,” John says. Nonetheless, white pine popularity has waned over the years, and John has added about ten other trees to meet new preferences. “We do grow grand fir, concolor fir, Canaan fir, Turkish fur, and we have some Korean fir planted. We have Serbian spruce….we have some blues also,” he notes. “So there’s a lot of trees growing here, and of course most of them are western trees—your Canaan fir comes out of the Canaan Valley in West Virginia and of course Frasier firs are from Carolina, but your grand fir and your concolor fir come out of the western part of the United States. Turkish fir of course, that’s pretty self-explanatory. The Norways and the whites are eastern types of trees from this area.” The Canaan firs are a nice alternative to Frasiers, which do not grow well in Southside Virginia. “You can’t hardly tell the difference,” John says.

Much like wreath-making, tree management requires a high labor commitment, and chores intensify during critical management windows. “In March, we start planting trees. We’re planting about four to five thousand, and we are mostly just doing it on the weekends, some during the week,” Sarah says. “So then in July and August we start topping, and then shape the trees, and in the fall we really mostly mainly just focus on the fields, bushogging and things like that, so we can get it nice and clean for retail since people are walking all through the fields all around Christmastime,” she adds.

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As soon as Thanksgiving ends, on-farm, you-cut sales are in full swing. To help families enjoy their tree-picking day on the farm, J and J Treeland offers a suite of amenities. “During the season on the weekends, we have an adult-sized train that runs with three cars, we have the horse-drawn carriage, we have hay rides, we do food, we do cut-your-own, and we have people who can go and cut it down for you if you don’t want to cut it down yourself,” she says. Some customers even use the experience to bring in a photographer for outdoor family Christmas portraits.

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Catch a glimpse of “Big Jim” on the weekends, when he greets farm visitors with carriage rides.

When it comes to the live tree versus artificial tree debate, John makes his case with economics—“A really good artificial tree goes for $500—you can buy a real tree for ten years for that,” he says. Sarah notes that it can take one hundred years for an artificial tree to decompose in a landfill, whereas a live tree can be composted.

J and J Treeland is one of just a handful of Christmas tree farms in Southside Virginia—most are concentrated elsewhere in the state, especially the largest wholesale operations. John Young clearly found his niche—several niches, actually—through relationship-building and business savvy, and Prince Edward County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent Katy Overy believes his efforts have paid off. “They obviously have a broad range. It just shows you that a small farm in a rural county can spread their love everywhere. And of course the Williamsburg arrangement is great,” she says. “And you don’t just walk out there and cut your tree, there are other things that you can do, like get your kids to ride the train. Adding a little bit extra something to intrigue people to come out there is a good thing,” she adds.

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Though she is currently the Virginia Cooperative Extension agent serving J and J Treeland and all the other agricultural operations in the county, she has a Christmas tree production backstory of her own, placing her in the unique position to understand firsthand what it takes to run a farm enterprise. “When my sister was born in 1983, my dad decided that he wanted to plant Christmas trees so that my sister and I would have a job to do, to work and make money while we were in middle school and high school, and it’s really what made me have the work ethic I have today,” she says. “Pretty much when I was old enough to walk I was out there helping whenever I could. In the summer when he was pruning, I would walk behind him, helping pick up the trimmings. Then during the summer when we weren’t trimming the trees, we were cutting grass almost every day because of the amount of trees. And when we finished cutting the grass, the other end was ready to cut again,” she adds. Her first Christmas trees were ready to sell when she reached fifth grade, and she and her sister never stopped selling trees until high school. “We never really had a name for our tree farm, we just sold trees to the local grocery store at a discount and we would give two or three different sizes of trees. That’s how we sold them. All we ever planted was white pines,” she says. “If Daddy was home, we would go out and he would bring the power saw out there, but if he wasn’t home, we did the hand saw—my sister was on one side, me on the other, and we drug them out of the fields for the customers.”

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Top, center, bottom: With the help of their father, Extension agent Katy Overby and her sister learned to plant. grow, and harvest Christmas trees on their farm when they were young.

The hours spent growing up on a Christmas tree farm prepared Katy well for her current role, where she consults with farmers and landowners on a daily basis. “It helped me—my dad wasn’t the mouthpiece, we were. He would make us communicate with the customers who came out and wanted Christmas trees, talk to them on the phone….there was no Facebook then or anything like that,” she says. “It helped me with my communication skills period, but as far as being an Extension agent, the way I communicate with producers had a lot to do with how I communicated when I was younger. It made me comfortable around just anybody—we had all walks of life come get Christmas trees from us.”

Through their experiences taking part in this unique industry, Katy, John, and Sarah all agree that there is something special about working with live trees. For John, childhood memories of summers spent working on his uncle’s beef and tobacco farm in Littleton, North Carolina nudged him to move in adulthood from New Jersey to Virginia in 1961 to start farming. Of course, he ultimately settled on Christmas trees and the rest is history. According to Sarah, “Cows, he said, are a pain in the butt. Trees don’t move.” For her, the most rewarding part of the job is being able to take some stress off her grandparents while helping with the details. Unlike her grandfather, though, she cannot recall a particular decision to enter into the tree business. “I was born into it!” she laughs.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

J and J Treeland Facebook Page

J and J Treeland on the Virginia Christmas Growers Association website

VDACS Virginia-Grown Christmas Tree Guide

An Introduction to Growing Christmas Trees in Virginia

Species for Christmas Tree Planting in Virginia

Meet the 2016 Fall Festival at Richlands Dairy Farm.

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For the past two Octobers, the Jones family has hosted a weekend series of fall activities at their Dinwiddie County farm. However, the rest of the year, they are busy running their full-time dairy operation, which we covered in a previous story. We also wrote about their very first pumpkin patch in 2014.

As they enter their third annual on-farm Fall Festival, the Jones family is offering an array of family-friendly weekend activities including a pumpkin patch, a corn maze, a play zone with activities for children, farm tours, hay rides, a petting zoo, and concessions. The farm will host tour groups on weekdays throughout the month, and on selected evenings after dark, visitors can brave the farm’s haunted corn maze. Visitors can also spot Hermione, Ron, and Harry—a set of triplet Holsteins that achieved viral fame when they were born on the farm last fall.

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In anticipation of the farm’s October 8th Fall Festival opening day, I met with Coley Drinkwater, TR Jones, and Brittany Jones on a busy Tuesday afternoon in between farm chores to find out what the family has learned, what has changed, and what is in store for agritourism this October at Richlands Dairy Farm.

Laura: So, you’ve been growing pumpkins for three years—what does it take to get a pumpkin patch ready between spring and October?

TR: Well, the first thing we’re trying to do is decide the size we want them to grow, so we’re basing that on the past fall.

Brittany: We purchase treated seeds. We keep moving planting dates back every year later and later, because they are ready so fast—faster than when they say they are supposed to be ready.

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TR: In April we’ll start to disc and plow a field, and then two weeks later, we’ll disc it again, then make the mounds. We’re still hand-planting the pumpkins…which is getting worse and worse every year. [Everyone laughs] From the first year to this year, we’re planting about five times as many pumpkins. We jumped to three times as many this year just so we could start spraying them with the sprayer instead of the hand sprayer, because that’s just time consuming.

Brittany: Yeah, that’s terrible.

TR: And then hopefully it rains. We’ve had to water them every year. We didn’t water them a lot this year, since it’s finally started raining again. Then, it’s just getting them cut off the vine when they’re turning orange.

Brittany: Which is a chore. A huge chore, because you have to go in and find them, and then cut them.

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TR: Yeah, and the first year, we planted them in June, June the tenth, and they were done so early. First week of September they were done. Last year we waited until July fourth, and this year we waited until July tenth—we planted about a third, and we planted the last two-thirds around the twentieth.

Brittany: We try to make them last longer for the customers so they’re not sitting in the field.

Laura: How much did you all plant this year?

TR: We planted about five acres. It’s by far the most diverse—this year we added white pumpkins, the warty-looking ones.

Brittany: Yes, warted pumpkins, and we added white gourds.

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Laura: You’re embarking on your third year of farm activities. What are you offering this year? What have you added or changed?

Brittany: Well, Coley has added a bunch of stuff for the kids’ area.

Coley: Yes, because we’re finding that this is definitely family-centered. People are looking for some place to take their kids, so we’re trying to keep the kids’ area evolving, adding new things or sticking with things….the cottonseed pit is a big hit. We can never do away with the cottonseed pit. [Laughs] But my overall goal, I think, for the kids area is to do a different theme each weekend next year, so do a soil and water theme, get the soil tunnel in, maybe some vermiculture…really focus on soil. Maybe one we could do is what we grow in Virginia….One weekend, maybe do what we raise, so really focusing on the animals in Virginia, and then maybe do a weekend where we have a popup farmers market, so we’d feature Dinwiddie County, or Dinwiddie-Nottoway, and things that you can actually buy, and meet farmers—that would be pretty cool. I think I’m seeing the fall festival as more of a look at agriculture as whole, with a look at the dairy, but maybe start focusing on dairy more with spring tours in May and June, and really start to promote those. And June is our June Dairy Month Family and Farm Day, and really we really focus on dairy.

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TR: I guess the question too is “What did you do different from this year?” so what are you all doing this year that is different?

Brittany: Well, we have the round bales, the fish game…

Coley: We have tic-tac-toe and the tires.

TR: And I imagine that stuff will stay consistent from year to year.

Coley: I will give a shout out to Farm Credit—this year they gave us three iPads to download the My American Farm games for kids to come in and play—it’s basically SOL learning-based games, so I’ve got a tent set up for kids to come in and do that. And then Brittany added the picture board this year and the “How tall this fall?” painting.

Brittany: We added a friendly red-and-white, and we added ducks and turkeys and some poults that I think we’re going to get this afternoon for the petting farm this year.

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Laura: Are you doing many tours this year?

Coley: We are booked. This is the first year, starting this coming Monday through October, that we are booked, so we’ve grown a lot with our farm tours since the first year.

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Laura: What types of groups come out for those?

Coley: Pre-K, kindergarten, church groups, and then homeschool, is mostly what we get.

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Laura: Do you all have any commentary on what it’s like to run a full-time dairy and do this on the side?

[Everyone laughs]

TR: I haven’t made it home before 8:30 this week.

Brittany: It’s perpetually exhausting.

TR: From my side, it’s been backed up because it was so dry I couldn’t get in the field to do anything, and then it got so wet I couldn’t get in the field to do anything, so now I can finally get in the field, but I’m also supposed to be getting ready entirely for this, so now I just have too many things all at once.

Coley: It’s a lot of work.

TR: The weather didn’t cooperate. If the weather kinda spaced itself out, I’d be in pretty good shape. Now I’m sitting here doing audio commentary. [Laughs]

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Brittany: Also this month, none of us get a single day off for the whole month, at all.

TR: Even on your weekend off. But I enjoy it on my weekend off. It’s basically like getting to go to a pumpkin patch on your weekend off. On your weekend to work, it’s rough, but on your weekend off, it’s not that bad.

Coley: But I think we’re all good about—even if it’s your weekend off, I’m going to go help Brittany do calves when we’re done, you know, because it’s a lot of work. I think this also creates a unique opportunity for people who come on the tours—like, we’re not done setting up today, and when the tour group got here, I told them that. I was very honest with them that the rain last week just really messed us up, we’re not done setting up, and we are also a working farm, so we have got to get the work done on the dairy farm. That’s got to get done first, then we work on pumpkin patch and corn maze stuff. I think that’s important for people to realize.

TR: For what’s going to open this Saturday, we started setting up not this past Monday, but the Monday before.

Coley: But then, lining up tours, I’ve been working on that since mid-August, kids’ zone stuff since mid-August—we may not be able to physically set it up because of the rain, but there was stuff in the works.

TR: Planning starts, gosh, all the way back in June—what we’re going to have, what we’re going to add…

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Maze image courtesy of Richlands Dairy Farm

Laura: So tell me, what does it take to create a corn maze?

TR: People are very surprised that we still cut it with a lawnmower. You see so many articles now about how the precision planters will just—you know, you put it in, then you go and plant, and when it comes up, you have a corn maze.

Brittany: That is not how we do it. [Laughs]

TR: We actually have a 30” row planter, so we plant the field once, then we go back and plant it again so we get 15” rows, and then we just sit down and talk about design, and we basically turn it into a grid.

Brittany: And then TR takes his poly posts and marks his grid.

TR: I get some reference points, you know—so this year is an ice cream cone and says “Richlands Creamery 2017,” so basically, I did the bottom of the cone, the top of the ice cream, the top left of the letter R, the bottom right of the Y, and so then I know I have to have “Richlands” spelled by this point, I have to have “Creamery” spelled by this point, and I know how tall it is, then it’s just looking at the thing and saying “This cube equals 10 feet, so I need to take ten steps to get to this next point.”

Brittany: And then Hugh cuts it with the lawnmower behind you.

TR: And then Hugh follows me with the lawnmower, and then afterwards I’m like “God, I hope this is right,” and we get someone to come take a pictures, and so far every year, we’ve been like, “Oh, it’s not bad!” Letters are easy.

Coley: You count down and over.

TR: Yeah, it’s idiot blocks. But the ice cream cone, with swirls and stuff, that’s a little more. The first year, we did the cow faces, and that was—

Brittany: Rough. [Laughs]

TR: That’s a whole lot of just squiggling around. When we got done, they took a picture, and I thought “The first two look exactly right, the third one’s kinda….ehhhh, the fourth one isn’t bad, it has weird ears.” The other thing is there are no do-overs because you’re mowing the corn. And so we did a milk bottle last year and it was supposed to say “Milk the Good Life.” “The” was three letters so it fit easily, and when we did the “good,” we realized we’d scaled it a little bit wrong, and so we had the GOOD life—it was smashed in there! [Laughs] But you don’t get a chance to do it again, it’s a one-time thing

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Laura: What’s been your biggest challenge with all of this?

Coley: Balancing the two—just the time commitment.

Brittany: Finding that sweet balance where you’re not neglecting anything on the farm but you’re also not neglecting anything on the pumpkin patch because they’re both our businesses and both need to be treated accordingly.

Coley: I would agree.

Laura: What’s been your greatest success or the thing that makes you the most proud?

Coley: For me, it’s the tours, where you’re actually sharing the dairy and what you do with people. So many people don’t realize what goes on at a dairy farm, so for me, that’s very satisfying, when people walk away with, “Oh that was really cool, I learned so much,”…So just being able to share that in general.

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Brittany: Mine is the complete opposite. Mine is when we’re all said and done, we get to buy something we wouldn’t normally be able to buy. So I think this year we are buying a pasteurizer, right?

Coley: [Laughs] Okay, yes. Are we getting cow brushes?

Brittany: Yeah, a cow brush is essentially a luxury item, but because we did so well with the pumpkin patch last year, we can buy a cow brush, and this year, there’s been talk of getting a pasteurizer, and it’s things that make the farm every day easier and better.

Laura: That’s a cool side to consider because people don’t think of it like a business. They just think “Oh, they just do this pumpkin patch.”

TR: And it rolls back into the business. The thing that’s most challenging to me once this gets going—because it’s also harvest time—is getting home super late and not getting to see Hazel [Brittany and TR’s daughter] very much. Like the last ten days, I just haven’t seen her very much. And I like that—you know, I like that two hours of playtime before she goes to bed.  So that’s the challenge for me, getting through the day without being able to spend much time with family. But the thing I like, the biggest reward for me when it’s all set up, is that Hazel gets to go to the pumpkin patch every day for a month.

Coley: Yeah, she has the best playground in her front yard right now. [Laughs]

TR: We don’t get to go anywhere on the weekend, we don’t have time off, but we’re all also spending time together, and at the end of the day we’re tired, but we’re usually smiling about it.

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Coley: I will say on a day to day basis, that’s my favorite. On that kill time between the pumpkin patch and corn maze and the haunted maze where we’re kind of cleaning up, finishing the barn stuff, getting ready for the next day, we kind of seem to congregate at concession or the kids’ area and there’s a few moments of “Ahhh.”

TR: And we share what was cool about it, you know, “Hey, did you all see the kid who was just over the top about whatever—the cows or the petting zoo?” Or you know, “We had a person on the tour who asked this question, which was a really great question.” Some people ask questions that you don’t think about and you have to answer for, and then for the next tour you have to roll them into your presentation because you think “People should know that!”

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Creamery announcement and farm information: Richlands Dairy Farm is excited to announce that they are looking to add a creamery to pasteurize their own milk and to direct-market fluid milk and ice cream locally beginning in late 2017 into spring of 2018. Coley notes that the biggest challenge associated with the creamery is finding a location to build it. The family is working to raise 250,000 of the 1.5 million required to build the creamery.  For details about the upcoming creamery, the fall activity schedule, and farm updates, go to http://www.richlandsdairyfarm.com/https://www.gofundme.com/298acbdk , or https://www.facebook.com/richlands.dairyfarm/

I also caught up with Mike Parrish, Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent in Dinwiddie County, to discuss trends in agritourism in the area and the public value of operations like Richlands.

Laura: Why is agritourism important in this area? Are you seeing growth or changes in interest here?

Mike: It’s just getting off the ground here. It’s important because we’ve got a high urban area around here, so we see the potential to attract that urban population into Dinwiddie to take advantage of some agritourism opportunities….We have people moving into the community, because we are a bedroom community for Richmond and the surrounding area, and so we have people coming in with ideas—they bought a piece of property, and they ask “What can we do with it?”, and they’re looking to be profitable, so agritourism is easier for some of the part-time people to get involved with….As far as new trends go, the biggest thing is that we’ve got some artisans making things like soaps, getting their feet wet in the farmer’s market, and looking at expanding from the farmer’s markets. So the farmer’s markets have the advantage of teaching them a lot—helping them learn how to get in the business and how to market their product, and then they’ll expand. We’ve got a couple that are ready to expand and they’re looking to the county to help…I think some of the proposals by the board of supervisors in the past have made conditions more friendly for agricultural development and business development—that has helped. So Dinwiddie’s really a good cooperator—their administration is really positive about agritourism.

Laura: So in this area, we’ve got operations like Richlands Dairy Farm doing pumpkin patches, farm tours, things of that nature. What benefits do you see for the farms engaging in those types of agritourism efforts, and what are the benefits for people who visit?

Mike: I look at it two-fold. One, it’s profitable for the operation, like Richlands—they’re such a good tight-knit family, and they show how families run farms, and they show a positive image of agriculture and the benefits of having it. And those doing this….they have a good reputation, and they share a good image for the agriculture community, which I see as very positive, and then they’re teaching at the same time, believe it or not. They’re telling what they’re doing. People take some of those practices back to their home gardens—it’s harder for them to replicate it, but I think it spawns interest in agriculture, especially the places that draw the kids out. The kids get to see that kind of career, so I think agritourism does a lot more than just bring money to the county. It helps share the positive image of agriculture.

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Laura: How does Extension factor into this equation locally?

Mike: We get a lot of calls in the office each year, so it’s good that we’ve got resources in Extension that we can go to. Of course due to all our other responsibilities I can’t focus on agritourism by myself as a sole job, and you can’t either, but it’s nice that we’ve got people like Martha Walker [Extension Specialist—Community Viability], and Martha’s got her connections, so we have these go-to people and we have other agents around who have even more agritourism in their communities that we can call and talk to……so I think Extension—our network of resources—is a benefit to producers, and if they see the big farmers working with us, then the little ones want to work with us too and see the benefits. We’re all going for that same goal of staying profitable and using the land for ag. Within Dinwiddie, we’ve had meetings jointly—we’ve held a couple agritourism programs with the county and tried to encourage it, and we advertise all the neighboring start-up business programs, like efforts with Virginia State University, so we try to be a partner as much as possible.

Laura: Any parting advice for people who might be considering an endeavor in agritourism?

Mike: Niche agriculture and agritourism still face the same challenges that row crop production does. It’s not going to be peachy every year, so they need to build in the type of management structure that can handle environmental issues with the weather, or seasonal changes. It’s not like having a business that can be open 24/7 or run 9-5 all the time, so I think that’s an eye-opener for some of the people that get into it. It’s farming. It might be just a pumpkin patch to you, but to get to a pumpkin patch, it’s farming. It’s not just a business that pops up all of the sudden, and that’s what I think a lot of people who come out to agritourism operations don’t understand—how much work it took to get to that point. It’s actual farming. It might not be huge farming, but it’s farming.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

SOVA Agricultural Experience (agritourism directory)

Virginia Cooperative Extension Agritourism Resources

My American Farm app and games

Meet Millfarm Christmas Trees and Berry Farm.

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Trees come naturally to Bill Apperson—he is, after all, a forester by trade. However, he readily asserts that Millfarm is a team effort, with his wife Mary serving as his integral other half. “I’m more the horticulturalist, she’s the salesperson,” he says, and when it comes to management, “We see almost everything alike.” Mary, in turn, jokes, “He’s the brains, and I’m the brawn.”

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For many years, their combined powers behind the scenes have enabled visitors to share in the Christmas tree farm’s high-quality offerings. Millfarm, located minutes from Williamsburg, is a gem for pick-your-own enthusiasts chasing after a fresh-air farm experience or seeking a place to build family holiday traditions. Visitors walk through the fields to choose their trees, and the Appersons cut them and bring them out for the ride home. In a typical year, the farm draws its largest crowds on the first two weekends after Thanksgiving, as many customers want their trees in place in time for the Grand Illumination in nearby Colonial Williamsburg.

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What sets the Appersons apart from many tree farms is their tree-tagging policy—or, more precisely, the locally-cherished tree-tagging tradition they have cultivated. Any time after Halloween, customers are welcome to visit the farm, choose a tree, and reserve it with a tag of their choosing. Over time, this practice has evolved into a full-blown annual ritual for many families who come early in the season to claim a tree and mark it with special materials from home. “We have some uniquely decorated trees in our fields,” Mary laughs. Some trees are reserved simply with tags, ribbons, strings, or even socks, while others hold more elaborate trappings like tinsel, glass ornaments, hand-written signs, and even police caution tape. Some families visit their chosen trees multiple times throughout the holiday season, and Mary counted two dozen photographers at the farm on one recent weekend. “Families come out here to get their pictures taken with their trees,” she says.

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Above: Families reserve the trees of their choosing with a variety of signs, decorations, and ornaments.

The Christmas tree farm, one of few in Southeastern Virginia, has offerings ranging from traditional White Pines, Cedars, and Norway Spruce to the unique Canaan fir, Blue Ice Cypress, and Carolina Sapphire. Cypress trees are also farm staples. “The Leyland Cypress is the most popular because it doesn’t shed. It’s a very clean tree,” Mary notes. Trees are priced by the foot. “We round it off,” Bill says. “One of our keys is affordability. We are building for repeat customers.”

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Mary Apperson

Using extra greenery, the family offers wreaths to their customers both at the farm and at a nearby market. “We use trees that won’t make a Christmas tree,” Mary says. Years ago, to enhance their wreaths, Bill and Mary began growing a deciduous holly called “Winterberry,” prized for its bright red fruit. “It’s very popular for winter decorating,” Mary says. After seeing how in-demand the branches were at markets in the region around the holidays, Bill established some larger Winterberry plantings. “I realized there was a really good market for them,” he says. Now, his family sells branches loaded with bright red berries at the Williamsburg market along with the farm’s greenery and wreaths.

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The farm grows Winterberry for wreathmaking and for the local market.

As for chores, there is plenty to keep the Appersons busy year-round. After Christmas, they plant nearly three thousand new trees next to the old cut stumps. “Of course, keeping grass cut is a ten-month-of-the-year job,” Mary says. There is also the matter of pests of both the spineless and the hooved variety. Evergreens on Millfarm and just about everywhere else can be afflicted with insects like bagworms, scale, and aphids. Bill and Mary have adopted organic pest management strategies to deal with these problems as the need arises. The deer, on the other hand, pose a far more visible threat. They rub bark from trunks, break branches, and browse on trees, leaving a wake of irreparable damage. This year’s deer problems were particularly painful. “We’ll lose a whole field of firs to the deer,” Mary says.

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She believes that loss of wildlife habitat due suburban growth could be creating some of the extra deer pressure. While there are many farms in the area surrounding Williamsburg, its suburbs remain attractive for future growth and development. While this development can certainly bring new challenges to farmers in its wake, Kate Robbins, who manages Agriculture and Natural Resources programming for the James City County Extension office, sees the growth as an opportunity for novel forms of agriculture to thrive. “James City County is, for sure, a borderline county where urban sprawl is outgrowing the agriculture. However, we are seeing a burst in small farms start-ups—those less than five acres. We have an excellent Farmer’s Market in Williamsburg, and James City County is working hard to offer help and incentives to the small farmer,” she says.

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Kate Robbins (center) visits with Bill and Mary at the farm. She brings Extension services and support to growers in James City County.

In the meantime, Kate visits with the Appersons and other existing farmers to offer her knowledge and support. “As the Virginia Cooperative Extension Agricultural and Natural Resources representative for James City County, my role is to be a local resource to the producers, providing fact-based information to help improve productivity while protecting the environment,” she says. “I might advise the producer or farmer about which variety of crop grows best in the county or offer training in the safe application of pesticides or educate on the benefits of crop rotation,” she says. Through her outreach, she helps growers including Bill and Mary when pest and disease cases require input from university specialists. “A producer’s crop may show evidence of disease, so I can help get samples to Virginia Tech to hopefully diagnose the problem and get the crop back up to full, healthy production,” she says.

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Through her visits with the Appersons, Kate has come to believe that their combination of experience, longevity, and commitment to sound environmental practices has enabled them to build long-term success. “The Appersons are excellent environmental stewards, staying abreast of best safety practices regarding fertilization, pesticides, soils and water,” she says. “They understand what will work with and compliment the native soils, and they have a clear understanding of the native environment. Additionally, they are educators—they practice what they preach, and their superior products clearly drive the point home,” she notes.

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Bill Apperson shows off a tillage raddish from the family’s garden. He grows them as a fall cover crop to improve the soil.

Bill himself is no stranger to collaborating with Extension and other agricultural agencies. He spent his career in the Virginia Department of Forestry, and even in retirement, he works with their staff to conduct special research projects. He also credits his career as a forester with kickstarting the Christmas tree endeavor over forty years ago. “People were asking how to grow Christmas trees and nobody knew, so I grew a few rows to try it,” he says. He was tasked with performing trials on behalf of the Department of Forestry to see if certain Christmas trees could, in fact, be grown successfully in Southeastern Virginia’s soils and climate. He says of his trial trees, “People wanted to buy them, which took me by surprise.” He later developed his own tree business and continued his forestry work, leading him to network with researchers and university faculty along the way. He built relationships with Extension specialists, including Allen Straw, small fruit and specialty crops expert, and credits them for providing crucial technical support for the farm’s crops.

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When Bill and Mary are not busy planting, shaping Christmas trees, controlling grass, or helping customers, they are hard at work on the small fruit side of their business. The farm property once housed an orchard, and after Bill grew trees for a number of years, he chose to put some of the land back into fruit production, albeit in the form of blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. “We decided to diversify a bit—it seemed like the way to go,” he says.

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Above: The farm’s blueberries and blackberries prepare for the winter ahead.

He grows several varieties of strawberries on black plastic and is currently experimenting with some day-neutral varieties that can blossom continuously throughout the growing season. Around April, the strawberries begin to require intensive attention, including irrigation, weed control, disease checks, and protection from freezing temperatures. Bill and Mary’s son, William, and their daughter-in-law, Cherie, help them run the farm. During strawberry planting season, William and Cherie’s children Lottie and Will help their parents and grandparents operate the farm’s waterwheel planter.

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Bill and Mary grow you-pick strawberries at Millfarm.

The farm is also home to several acres of blackberries and blueberries. Fruit harvest is mostly a pick-your-own affair, but the family takes a portion of the fruit crop to the market, where local berries are wildly popular. To adapt to local conditions, Bill grows southern highbush and rabbiteye varieties for his blueberry plantings, and he has a mixed selection of thorned and thornless blackberry varieties. Next year, he hopes to have raspberries growing under his high tunnel, and he has about an acre of asparagus that he and Mary hope to sell at the market next year along with their other offerings.

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One subtle benefit that pick-your-own operations afford to visitors is exposure to farm life. Bill says that kids who have never been to a farm often become wide-eyed with disbelief when they are invited to freely run and play in the open spaces on Millfarm. Many visit for berries in the summer. “I tell them, ‘Eat anything you want.’ They come out of the fields with juice running down their faces,” Bill says. Mary says that the farm enables her to show children firsthand how farm products are made. “They think that trees come from Lowe’s,” she says. She has hosted several school groups at the farm to date, and she has numerous opportunities to informally interact with her individual customers during their treks around the farm. “That’s the great part about you-pick—you get to educate,” she says.

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Bill and Mary have decades of experience on their side, and Bill has made effective use of his background as a tree expert to guide his decisions. “I try to start off with the right soil. If you can match the right tree to the right soil, you’re a genius,” he jokes. “Modern agriculture is all science with a little luck,” he says.

He and Mary focus on the areas where they can exert the greatest influence over their own success and the satisfaction of their customers. “We pride ourselves on three things—quality product, good service, and it’s got to be affordable,” Bill says. With those kinds of values at its core, Millfarm keeps its visitors returning year after year. After all, for many, the tree-buying experience at Millfarm is not just a shopping experience—it is a family tradition.

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Additional Resource for Readers:

Millfarm Christmas Trees and Berry Farm

Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: 2015 Virginia Grown Christmas Tree Guide

Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association

An Introduction to Growing Christmas Trees in Virginia

Species for Christmas Tree Planting in Virginia

Virginia Department of Forestry

 

Meet Chris Drake at Sandy Point Farms.

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His operation, situated in Southampton County near the southeastern corner of Virginia, produces a number of integral crops for the region including cotton, peanuts, soybeans, and corn. In fact, according to the most recent census, Southampton County is ranked first in the state for cotton and peanut production, second for soybeans, and third for wheat.

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Peanut harvest at Sandy Point Farms

When it comes to produce, Sandy Point also excels. While Chris’ father and brother work primarily on the row crop side of the farm, Chris is responsible for managing production of sweet corn and watermelons, neither of which are uncommon on farms around this region. “A lot of people don’t realize that we have a large commercial watermelon production industry,” says Chris. “Ag in Southeast Virginia is extremely diversified.”

Less common, on the other hand, are commercial pumpkin operations in Southeastern Virginia. Sandy Point Farms, with an impressive seventeen acres of pumpkins, stands as an exception. Chris got started with his first acre fourteen years ago. Today, he grows so many pumpkins that he focuses nearly all of his attention on the wholesale market. “Most others are around two or three acres and are selling retail,” he says of other operations in the region.

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Though Chris has managed to build success with pumpkins, their relative rarity in large-scale production in Southampton County is not without reason. “One thing that’s helped Chris is developing a good market. Growing these crops can be a challenge, but you have to be able to sell and market the crop as well. That might be why most growers around here stick to traditional commodities,” says Austin Brown, the Virginia Cooperative Extension agent who serves Chris Drake and other farmers in the county. “I think Chris has been able to tap into the urban areas and capitalize on the demand from these large populations.”

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Austin Brown, Southampton County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent, visits with Chris Drake at Sandy Point Farms.

Austin, who earned an undergraduate degree at North Carolina State University and a master’s degree at Virginia Tech, worked alongside several crop researchers to gain experience in agronomy before he joined Extension. In his current role, he helps producers like the Drake family at Sandy Point who rely on dependable crop management information. When certain field problems arise, timely updates are critical so that growers can protect their crops. “That’s something I try to do to help Chris and all people growing watermelons and cucurbits,” says Austin. “We diagnosed downy mildew, and I called all the producers,” says Austin as he recalls wet, cloudy conditions favoring the development of this disease earlier this summer. “This year has been a mixed bag of weather. It was wet early and we saw some nutrient leaching, then it was like that spigot just turned off,” he says.

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Those early wet conditions created special concerns for Chris and his pumpkin crop, as plants on the ground are prone to a number of diseases that can make the fruit unmarketable. “The two biggest challenges are disease control and marketing, in my opinion,” Chris says. He protects his crop throughout the growing season each year, but the threat of rain in late summer can push him to adjust his harvest date expectations. “Weather determines most of that. If it’s wet, we get them off the ground ASAP,” he says. Harvest itself is generally more labor-intensive than other pumpkin chores, often requiring a twelve to fifteen hour work day. In between, there are plenty of tasks and decisions to keep Chris up late and awake early. “A lot of times I’m up at four or five in the morning looking at market reports, deciding what to do for the day,” he remarks.

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Prior to developing his current undertakings at Sandy Point Farm, Chris honed his agronomy background in school and at work. His undergraduate degree and master’s degree from Virginia Tech not only equipped him to be the most ardent Hokie fan for miles around, but also prepared him for his current career. When he is not taking care of his farm at home, he serves PhytoGen Cottonseed as a territory agronomist covering northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. He spends a considerable portion of his work running on-farm research plots and yield trials and presenting data at about fifty grower meetings each spring. In all, he is responsible for 250,000 acres of cotton through his job.

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Chris and his family grow cotton on their farm.

Though all of the crops at Sandy Point Farms provide a diversified income stream, the pumpkins are a point of pride for Chris because they attest to an uncommon accomplishment for his growing region. When asked what he considers his greatest achievement, he says, “I started out with a half-acre in 2001 and now I’m up to seventeen acres. The quality of the pumpkins I’m producing in this area is competitive with the other growers from Southwest Virginia.” He believes the key to his success lies with marketing a top-notch product. One look at his trailer loads of perfectly orange, evenly-sized pumpkins with textbook stems is proof that know-how, dedication, and an eye for new marketing opportunities can be worth the effort to grow something a little unconventional.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Sandy Point Farms

Specialty Crop Profile: Pumpkins

 

 

Meet the Parrish Pumpkin Patch.

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Many agricultural operations in Virginia are run as family affairs, but for the Parrish family, farm chores ranging from building a corn maze together, helping small children catapult gourds into a pasture, and turning a silo into a theater stray from the conventional.

The Parrish Pumpkin Patch, located near Dundas in Lunenburg County, currently boasts hay rides, old-fashioned corn shelling, activities inside a themed corn maze, a corn pit, a slingshot, a wide array of pumpkins and gourds available for sale, and a collection of barnyard animals consisting of three goats, two pigs, plenty of chickens, and “one very spoiled Jersey cow,” according to Liz Parrish.

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Liz and her husband, Jeff, have changed and improved the patch every year with the help of their children Vayda, Eli, and Cary. “It’s our seventh year in the pumpkin patch business. We’ve really evolved over these years,” Liz says. Cary currently attends Central High School, Eli is studying agribusiness after participating in FFA throughout high school, and Vayda is studying at William and Mary, but they each helped with day-to-day operations as the farm developed and they still handle responsibility for a number of vital tasks alongside their parents.

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The idea to start a pumpkin patch was planted in Liz and Jeff’s minds years ago. “When the kids were little, we loved to travel around to fall activities in October,” Liz recalls. “We wanted to give back and enable other families to make memories like we did. We just decided that we wanted to give pumpkins a try,” she says. Jeff Parrish is a third generation farmer himself with experience growing soybeans, corn, and wheat, so the family had some knowledge and tools on their side as they got started.

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In its inaugural year, the Parrish Pumpkin Patch was less than half of its current size. Liz recalls, “We pitched a tent in the yard the first year. I was cranking out caramel apples and cookies and all kinds of confections.” When they started the patch, there were few other similar agritourism endeavors in the region, and the Parrish family found that they had grabbed ahold of a successful idea. “We could tell we had touched on a niche….we built it and people were coming,” Liz says.

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After their first season, the family removed an aged building in the middle of their property that housed dairy cows in past decades. They then moved a tobacco barn from a neighbor’s farm onto the old dairy barn foundation—no small feat—and the new structure became the central hub for daily farm operations, admittance, and sales. “We are really proud of the barn,” Jeff says.

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Lunenburg County agriculture agent Lindy Tucker talks with Jeff Parrish about the silo renovation project.

This year, the family officially unveiled “Dundas Imax,” a silo they refurbished with a front door, a seating area, a projector, and a screen for movies and presentations. Inside the silo, Liz teaches school group after school group about farm chores and the life cycle of a pumpkin plant. In fact, although the farm is open to the public with regular hours throughout the month of October, field trips have become the bread-and-butter of the operation.

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View of silo from the floor. Visitors can sit inside to watch movies and presentations.

The first group that visited years ago was a photography class from Central High School. This year, the farm has hosted groups from Richmond, churches, public schools, homeschool classes, and more. “Every day Monday through Friday, we are double or triple booked. We’ve had public schools visit from as far away as Sutherland,” she says.

This year also brought one particular tour group of one hundred and fifty people to the farm, the largest the Parrish Pumpkin Patch has accommodated to date. Says Liz, “I’m proud of the field trip business. It’s very rewarding, goes really well, and we can handle bigger numbers now.”

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Top: Liz Parrish directs visitors through the farm’s activities. Bottom: The farm’s corn maze is themed and has activities for children to complete as they go through it. Visitors can also take a stroll on a clear path that goes through the maze.

The Parrish family teaches structured activity stations for each field trip. “We all play vital roles in it all,” Liz says, crediting the whole family including her mother Carol Watson and Jeff’s mother Joan for assisting with tour groups this season. “None of this would be possible without the help of Jeff’s dad, Wayne, who grew up on this farm when it was a dairy. He helps with every field trip,” she adds.

The farm has additional support this season from farm intern Taylour Edmonds, a student in Southside Virginia Community College’s agribusiness program. Liz and Jeff recently secured Taylour’s position with the assistance of a Southside Electric Cooperative donation which enables the college to develop internship opportunities for students in partnership with local agribusinesses like the Parrish Pumpkin Patch.

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It takes the family about an hour each morning to prepare for the daytime field trips, and then they staff the farm for the evening when more customers come to visit. “It’s a marathon,” Jeff says of the month of October. “We finish around nine o’clock on most nights,” he adds.

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While the operation’s farm activities are always a draw, the pumpkins themselves are still the stars. The Parrish family grows all of their pumpkins at their own farm. Around June, shortly after Jeff has begun work on the corn maze, the family starts their pumpkin seeds and then transplants the slips into the field. “We have fifteen pumpkin varieties, about twenty if you count the gourds,” Liz says. Her favorite is a variety she calls, “Fairytale.” She recounts seeing them advertised as “Martha Stewart’s favorite pumpkin for cooking” during a trip to Amish country in Pennsylvania but jokes that she has always liked them with or without Martha’s stamp of approval. She notes that the dense, green-gray Jardales are also a favorite for cooking. For visitors on a mission to pick up decorative gourds or carving pumpkins, trailer loads of all shapes, colors, and sizes greet visitors around the farm entrance.

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Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Lindy Tucker believes that the family’s success is due, in part, to their willingness to commit themselves to their vision. As with any agritourism endeavor, the Parrish family was unsure of what to expect from the community in their early years, but they took cues from their customers to shape their success. “Because they are a family themselves, they know which ideas will be well-received and how to make it great. They keep adding things,” Lindy says during a recent visit to the operation. Lindy, who works with farmers of all kinds throughout Lunenburg County in her service as an agent, believes that starting a pumpkin patch from scratch and extending invitations to the general public is a plunge that many landowners would be hesitant to take. “They filled a niche. They tried something that nobody else had decided to tackle,” she says. Lindy also says that the patch is an educational asset to the community because it affords children the rare opportunity to step into agriculture in a structured setting. “There are not as many farm field trip opportunities these days. This is the only thing of its kind within this community,” she says.

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Running a farm that has seen two thousand visitors thus far requires sacrifices and lifestyle adjustments, but Jeff is pleased to see families coming to the farm to make fall memories, just as he envisioned. “We enjoy meeting people and hearing them talk about the tradition. Some have been coming here for years,” he says. “We are able to do it as a family and it’s in our own backyard. At the end of the day, we can close up and walk into the house.”

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Jeff and Liz enjoy seeing all the ways that creating the Parrish Pumpkin Patch has helped her family form their own new memories, even as her children have grown into young adults. “I’m the most proud of it being a family affair and how hard we all worked together to make it happen,” she says.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Parrish Pumpkin Patch

Parrish Pumpkin Patch on Virginia.org

Specialty Crop Profile: Pumpkins

Meet Huguenot Hops in their Third Season.

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Huguenot Hops in Chesterfield County is run by business partners Devon Kistler and Kurt Stanfield. We wrote about them in 2013 and 2014. Click on those stories to learn more about how this farm got its start and how it is managed. This month’s story follows the business into its third year. We visited with Devon on a hot, sunny day in August to catch up on the farm’s progress and watch as family and friends helped harvest the crop.

Huguenot Hops has become one of the largest hop yards in the region. Devon and Kurt are leading the charge to improve industry infrastructure including mechanized harvest and post-harvest processing, all while cultivating their passion for growing great hops and building valuable relationships with brewers, growers, and supporters.

How is the 2015 season going?
It’s been a tough season with all the rain and with our expansion. We added 1,200 new plants, 1.25 acres, this year and we’re still learning how to better mechanize some of the processes we did by hand last year.

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What varieties did you grow this year?
Chinook, Nugget, Zeus, Crystal, Cascade and trials of three new varieties.

Besides the big expansion, did you try anything new this season?
We are doing lots of new things this year. We installed a mechanical harvester and commercial size oast. We also purchased a packager that will vacuum seal and nitrogen flush the mylar bags of pelletized hops.

Click on the video to see Huguenot’s new harvester in action during an August 16th picking day.

After three years in this business, what is the biggest challenge that you have encountered along the way?
Learning how to scale up this crop. At one acre it can be managed by hand, but beyond that you need machines, farming implements, and a lot more time.

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What’s your favorite variety to grow, and why?
Cascade is easy and very reliable, but we love the flavor and aroma from the Zeus, it’s our favorite. However, Japanese beetles prefer the Zeus and they were the first to get downy mildew.

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What are your thoughts on using social media as a marketing tool for hops?
Social media is important to get craft beer enthusiasts aware of local hops production, and it’s also a way to get volunteer help. But marketing is a grower-to-brewer relationship. Brewers can buy hops cheaper, but that’s not what this is all about.

Do you have any successes you’d like to share from this season?
Just surviving the expansion will be a success.

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Above: Hop bines are cut down from the trellis in the field and fed into the harvester. Helpers sort through the bines and pick cones.

The industry has already changed significantly since 2014. What is your outlook on your grower organization, Old Dominion Hops Cooperative, and the Virginia industry as a whole?
The Co-Op has grown from about fifty members last year to over one hundred and the interest is growing even more. I get two or three emails and calls each week about growing hops. The exciting part is that we now have two facilities in the state that can process hops and allow brewers to use local Virginia hops in flagship beers.

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Do you have any advice for others who are interested in growing hops?
Help other farmers with planting, stringing and harvesting hops before you plant your own. Start small, less than half an acre, and know the costs as well as the market before you begin. Work with the local extension agent to help with soil samples and identification of pests and mildew. Join the Co-Op!

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Additional Resources for Readers

Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Hops Page

Huguenot Hops on the web and Facebook

Old Dominion Hops Cooperative

Meet Piedmont Hops in their Fourth Season

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Piedmont Hops is run by business partners David Goode and Steve Brown. Our 2013 story tracked Piedmont Hops in its second season and we followed its third harvest with another story in 2014. Click on those stories to learn more about David and Steve’s background and their experiences building a role a new industry.

All of the photos for this story were provided by Steve’s wife, Kathryn Brown.

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When David Goode and Steve Brown began growing hops, it was just a hobby, but by 2012 they found themselves growing commercially to meet the needs of the rapidly-growing Virginia craft beer industry. Today, the business consists of 800 plants grown at Piedmont Hops’ two sites in Chesterfield County, Virginia and North Carolina. David and Steve are active in the industry on several fronts and both serve as generous sources of knowledge and experience to fellow growers.

We are fortunate to be able to track this operation into its fourth year. We recently met with David Goode to discuss this year’s progress at Piedmont Hops.

How is the 2015 season going?
So far so good. We have a crop that is all over the place. Our 2014 expansion is not quite acclimated just yet due to our young plants. Our oldest yard is looking great. Next season we expect a more uniform harvest between both VA yards.

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Tell us about the varieties you are growing. Did you add any new ones this year?
Currently we are growing Cascade, Chinook and Nugget in NC and VA. Last season we added CTZ in Virginia. Midnight Brewery asked us to grow some Mt. Hood. They look good, so we shall see. We grow more Cascade than any variety. We have a few others we are trying out, but not ready to let the cat out the bag quite yet.

It seems like many of our Virginia growers produce at least several varieties to diversify their offerings, but everyone has a favorite. What’s yours?
Chinook by far. The leaves are huge and very dark green. Even the leaf stems smell of hops when we strip them. You get a nice lupulin tease early in the season before the bines even have cones. The cones are the most fragrant of what we grow. Our Chinook have a nice grapefruit aroma. We have one customer in particular that requests as much Chinook as possible. The guys from Stone Brewing loved the aroma from our Chinook.

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Are you trying anything new in 2015?
We completely tore down our 2013 fall trellis and expanded. A grid trellis that uses more spacing and less poles was constructed. The plan is to cut these bines down and take them to Huguenot Hops for processing. Our original yard still lowers for hand picking. We have not changed any marketing techniques. We still make phone calls and send emails to our customers as usual. This spring, we added one variety that we hope will do well and a handful of crowns to trial. Five very healthy wild hops plants we germinated from seed are doing great. We are hoping at least one is a female for cone production. We have two brewers already anxious to brew with them as a test in 2016.

After three years in this business, what is the biggest challenge that you have encountered along the way?
We started in 2012, so this will be our fourth season. Our biggest challenge has been fighting hops downy mildew. However, we have some solid extension agents who have coached us along the way. At one point we wanted to completely dig up a section of yard. Today, that section shows no signs of DM and is fully loaded with cones. We are happy we have such wonderful agents within driving distance of our yard in Virginia.

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Each hop cone, or female flower, prepares for a career in beer by progressing from a burr (top image) to a cone (bottom image).

Interest in the industry has grown steadily in the past few years and as a result we have seen many people join the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative. You have been an active member of this grower group for several years now. What is your outlook on ODHC and the changes you have seen as interest in hops has grown?
I love the folks within the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative. It has changed drastically since my first meeting in an old barn. We now have large meetings with video and conference call-ins, a new logo, and a solid team of folks leading various departments. We are a rapidly growing growers organization. The ODHC represents many states along the east coast. I would encourage anyone growing hops in the Southeast to consider joining the ODHC. Devon Kistler, our chairman, has done a wonderful job expanding the functionality of the cooperative.

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You have a strong online presence, particularly on social media. Tell us more about how you use this kind of outreach.
We use social media all the time. We love sharing our passion with folks. Whether they are craft beer drinkers, home brewers, family, friends, breweries and brewery owners, we love to show everyone what we are up to. Social media is a great way for folks to actually meet the farmer and see the farm without having to visit. I always tell folks, check out our social accounts for more info on who we are. Your social presence ultimately represents who you are. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vimeo.

Do you have any advice for others who are interested in growing hops?
My advice is to start small and expand small. Visit and volunteer at other hops farms if possible. Learn as much by doing online research. NC State has a lot of good research. Start with quality rhizomes or Virus Free plant material. There are many great vendors out there and many not so great. Know your plant growers. We made some mistakes and bought poor quality material. It came back to bite us. Start with some Cascade if not all Cascade. Not only does it sell, but it grows well and will give you an idea of how this crop grows. You will set yourself up for success in year one. Then expand with others. There is so much advice I could be giving right now. This is one of the most difficult crops to grow. Lastly, please do not buy into the hype of hops being a cash crop. It is not.

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Do you have any successes you would like to share from this season?
Piedmont Hops has grown quite a bit over the years. In 2012 we started with about 70 or 80 plants. We now have over 800. The bulk of the crop is grown in Virginia, but we will be expanding a bit in North Carolina this fall. Between the two farms, we should have over 1,000 crowns. Steve represents the North Carolina growers within the ODHC. I have taken a volunteer spot within the Hops Growers of America. There is a small growers section developed and we will be collecting national data. I have been chosen to represent our region, mainly North Carolina and Virginia.

Your hops are showing up in local beers—would you like to share where some of them might be headed this year?
Our hops will show up locally in the RVA IPA by Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. This will be our third year working with them. Many of our hops are picked and delivered to North Carolina for fresh hopped ales. Our Nugget is heading way down south to Florida. From the several farm tours we have done and hops we have delivered, our customers and future customers love our product. With repeat customers in Virginia and North Carolina over the last three seasons, that is a great testament to the quality of our cones.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Piedmont Hops website and Facebook page

Old Dominion Hops Cooperative

Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Hops Page

North Carolina Hops Project

Meet Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation.

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Richard Nuckols has memories tracing back to several decades ago when he, his father, and his two brothers spent summers shaping Scotch Pines with hand shears. “I like shaping trees, but I’ll tell you, that was drudgery right there,” he says. The tree farm has grown and changed since his father established it in 1966 on a properly in Cumberland County bordering Route 60. Richard took over the operation in 1994 after his dad passed away and, for one thing, he now uses a gas-powered yule trimmer to make tree shaping a more manageable summertime task.

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The farm used to be a wholesale operation when Richard was young, but choose-and-cut later became the better option for keeping the farm in business. The transition was a sensible one, according to David Smith, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension agent for Cumberland County who provides information and support to Richard and other farm producers in the county. “Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation is one of our oldest wholesale-turned-retail operations. Making the transition from wholesale to retail was a natural occurrence given the fact that tree prices basically have remained the same over the past decade,” he says.

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Richard Nuckols (left) and Extension agent David Smith (right), standing in a planting of Blue Ice Cyrpress, discuss soil fertility and soil testing on the farm.

Growers who switch to retail production find that marketing trees is a task of its own. “One of the biggest challenges with local agricultural retail businesses is the transition to websites to capture on-line sales and shoppers,” says David Smith. Richard successfully navigated this transition recently, creating a website with photos and information about the trees to reach more customers searching for the farm online. The farm also takes advantage of the visibility offered by the “Virginia Grown” marketing program coordinated by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Richard is also supported through his membership in the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association. “Producers affiliating with associations such as Christmas tree associations receive the benefit of additional public exposure. Because associations have the support of multiple producers they should take the lead to help producers capture on-line traffic,” adds Smith.

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During Richard’s childhood, the plantation grew White Pines and Scotch Pines. Today, offerings include Leyland Cypress, Canaan Fir, Norway Spruce, Douglas Fir, Scotch Pine, White Pine, Colorado Blue Spruce, Blue Ice Cypress, and fresh-cut Fraser Fir. When it comes to needle size, needle retention, fragrance, size, shape, and feel, the farm has a tree for every taste and need. “If you have an obnoxious cat, that’s a good tree,” he jokes in reference to his Blue Spruce.

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Some trees are more sensitive to warm soil temperatures than others, so Richard strategically takes advantage of the shade offered by the woods bordering the farm. Others, like the cypress, prefer a more basic soil than other trees, so Richard plants them in an area that has been amended with lime. He has found that the trees need no irrigation and little to no fertilizer.

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Fertilizing trees may not be a high priority, but make no mistake about the maintenance requirements for a Christmas tree farm. Growing trees is year-round job with extra time demands not just during the holiday season but also during the summer. Tree shearing dates vary by tree because each type has different growth habits, but once shearing begins, it is a seven-day-per-week, eight-hour-per-day commitment.

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When he is not shaping trees, Richard must scout for pests like bagworms and scale which can be destructive on any kind of tree farm. By using predator insects to control scale in recent years, he has noticed a deep reduction in his need to spray trees, and lately he has been able to keep the bagworms in check by removing them as he sees them. The deer are another more difficult story. They can kill two dozen of his trees in a year just by rubbing them, but thankfully most of his larger trees recover from the damage or can be salvaged for wreath material if they become unfit for sale. In fact, wreaths form another portion of the farm’s revenue stream.

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Planting is another time-consuming annual farm chore. Richard has to plant nearly two thousand trees each year so that several hundred trees per year will be ready for sale further down the road. Of the two thousand initially planted, only a portion ultimately survives from seedling to sale due to environmental conditions, pests, and other stressors. Some, like White Pine, may show nearly 95% percent survival, while other more difficult trees may have a 25% survival rate. To further complicate planning the planting, some trees such as the Cypress may grow far more quickly than their peers, and Richard must account for the fact that all trees take several years to reach a saleable size.

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When he approaches the Christmas season, he projects his inventory by counting the number of trees that meet his standards for quality. Those which are too large, too small, have bare spots, or look stressed do not make his count for potential saleable trees, but he has found that customers sometimes surprise him with their choices. One time, a customer chose a tree which was yellowing on the bottom and green at the top. He cautioned the buyer that a different tree would look healthier and last longer, but this person insisted that he had found the perfect Green Bay Packers-themed tree.

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The operation opens for sales each year the day after Thanksgiving, and Richard says that opening weekend was the busiest weekend of the holiday season at the farm last year. What does the future hold for the Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation? Hopefully plenty of healthy new trees and fewer deer are on the horizon. 2014 is already shaping up to be a good sales season so long as the rain holds off on the busy weekends. Richard also has tradition his side—as long as families continue to choose fresh-cut, Virginia Grown trees during the holidays, his farm full of carefully-tended, beautifully-shaped trees will remain a fixture in Central Virginia’s landscape.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Nuckols Christmas Tree Plantation webpage

Virginia Grown searchable directory

Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association webpage

Introduction to Growing Christmas Trees in Virginia publication

Meet the Pumpkin Patch at Richlands Dairy Farm.

 

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We previously featured the Richlands Farm with a focus on the dairy operation. Click here to read the story. 

The pumpkin patch is a new addition to the farm this year, along with the two-acre corn maze. Both will be used in the farm’s lineup of weekend fall events, starting with the Family Farm Day kickoff tour on October 4th and ending with a Zombie Maze Run and Haunted Maze.

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Photo courtesy of Richlands Dairy Farm

Like many farms in the area, Richlands Dairy Farm has been a family-run, conventional dairy operation for years. However, the family has taken a leap into the growing world of agritourism. The fall festivities, most notably the Family Farm Day tour, bring consumers onto the farm to learn about agriculture directly from the people who produce food. In a world where most people learn about farming from television or the internet, the Jones family finds this venue for real-world education invaluable.

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The Family Farm Day on October 4th will be a prime opportunity for visitors to see the milking parlor, learn how dairy cows live on a day-to-day basis, and help the dairy feed their baby calves. Throughout the rest of October when the pumpkin patch, petting zoo, hay rides, and corn maze are open, visitors will get a view of the crops, cows, and pastures that sustain the family operation.

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“Agritourism,” the formal name coined for this type of endeavor, helps operations like the Jones’ dairy to diversify their farm income stream. An estimated 500 farms in Virginia engage in agritourism, and although many rely on traditional methods—pumpkin patches, corn mazes, you-pick, wagon rides, and petting zoos—many new agritourism efforts utilize out-of-the box options like wine tastings, movie screenings, farm chore experiences, and crop harvesting parties.

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A recent state-wide study of agritourism across the state found that most operations are concentrated along route 81, and that proximity to consumers plays an important role in the viability of these operations. Although there are relatively few agritourism opportunities in Southside Virginia, Richlands Dairy is well-situated for the new fall endeavor because it is located near a major metropolitan area and is a highly-visible fixture along route 460, thanks to the recognizable cow-shaped farm sign next to the road.

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The Richlands Dairy Farm corn maze

Like other brand-new agritourism ventures, the fall functions at the Jones’ farm have required extra planning, time, and resources. The corn maze was challenging to design from the ground and the pumpkins required special management for pests and diseases. The family is still working to set up their corn pit and petting zoo for visiting children and finalizing plans for a concession stand. All in all, the Jones family is not sure exactly what to expect on opening day. Nonetheless, they are excited about the way things are coming along, and according to Brittany Jones, a love of all things fall-related helped inspire the pumpkin patch idea in the first place. With a little luck, lots of planning, and some beautiful fall weather on the way, the hard work spent creating something brand-new at Richlands Dairy Farm will pay off when visitors step foot on the farm and join the family for some fun this October.

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Additional Resources for Readers

Richlands Farm Website and details on their Fall Farm Festival and Richlands Dairy Farm Facebook Page

Richlands Dairy Farm Twitter

Overview of Agritourism in Virginia

Specialty Crop Profile: Pumpkins

 

Meet Piedmont Hops (Again)

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Last year, we posted our first story about Piedmont Hops, run by business partners David Goode and Steve Brown. Piedmont Hops includes a yard in Chesterfield County and a second yard in North Carolina. Click on the original story here to read about the background of this operation and learn more about how hops are grown.

IMG_3452 (683x1024)The hops industry is growing in Virginia thanks to increased demand for locally-produced goods, an upswing in consumer interest in craft beer, and a boost in the number of brewers establishing themselves in Virginia. David Goode and Steve Brown began growing hops as a hobby, but soon found themselves growing commercially to meet the needs of the industry. Last year, the business consisted of two hundred plants. In 2014 it has been expanded to four hundred and thirty plants, and the combined total for both yards will reach 800-1,000 in 2015. Their hops, once planted, grow perennially out of a crown in the soil, but the bines that produce hops cones grow from new shoots each spring that are trained to grow upward on twine hung from a trellis.

David and Steve collaborate frequently with fellow hop producers, and many prospective growers have toured the operation to learn about the industry. In fact, Piedmont Hops is part of the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative, a grower organization that fosters networking between members and outreach to brewers about Virginia-grown hops. Piedmont Hops has also taken advantage of the opportunity to participate in the Virginia Grown marketing program offered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer services, whereby growers in the state can have their farms and products listed in a searchable online directory available to consumers.

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Soil in the new ground at the Chesterfield yard will be amended to prepare for additional plants for the 2015 season.

We spent some time visiting with David at Piedmont Hops this summer and discussing the progress they have made since we last wrote about the operation.

IMG_3453 (683x1024)How is the 2014 season going?
2014 could have been better. We made some minor mistakes in VA and have learned a great deal from them. Our NC yard started slow, but decided to wake up early June. We were worried, but it appears we will have a nice yield of hops there.

Did you learn anything from 2013 that motivated you to make changes going into this 2014 season?
We learned the hard way this season that we did not amend our soils properly and we very low on organic matter. Our 2013 fall planting struggled to get going. We planted Columbus in the fall. They did not do well. We planted Zeus, a mirror image variety to Columbus in late spring 2014. It grew much better than Columbus. We will be replacing our Columbus with Zeus.

Any there any new practices you are trying in 2014?
We do soil testing in both yards, a must with this crop. Our fertilizer program in VA can be improved. We may look into fertigation for 2015. We plan to send hops for analysis to VA Tech as soon as we have some more available to harvest. We have worked with our county Extension agents on tissue sampling. What a fun experience it was working with Mike Likins (Agriculture and Natural Resources and Environmental Horticulture agent for Chesterfield County Extension) and seeing the hops under a microscope-very rewarding.

Have you added any new varieties in your yards this year?
We grow in both yards Cascade, Chinook and Nugget. We have added Zeus.

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What is your outlook on your grower organization, Old Dominion Hops Cooperative, and the Virginia industry as a whole?
It is great to see the cooperative gaining members and recognition. We are glad to be part of the organization and what it stands for. We regularly attend meetings and always promote and encourage farmers to join. It’s a great way to learn, gain friendships, and fellowship. The industry is growing with the help of Stan Driver, Jeanine Davis, NC State, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

What has been your biggest challenge so far in this business?
Japanese beetles and spider mites at our VA yard have been our biggest challenges. We took care of the mites organically, but failed to rid the bines of beetles. Having two yards in two states makes for challenging logistics. We get it done, but it’s a lot of wear and tear on the bodies.

Do you have any successes you’d like to share?
We were able to successfully market hops shoots to a restaurant in NC, the Eddy Pub. We continue to propagate strong plant material for our VA yard. Our plant cuttings we take in the spring and plant in late May reach the top of our trellis and are full of cones.

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Hop plants growing from cuttings from the yard

IMG_3429 (683x1024)Marketing Virginia-grown hops is relatively new territory for many growers in this industry. Can you update us on your marketing efforts this year?
We have sold hops to Haw River Farmhouse Ales and Steel String, both North Carolina breweries. Haw River made a hops soda that was a big hit using our fresh NC Cascade. We have the remaining VA hops going to Hardywood Park for their seasonal RVA IPA. Our NC yard will be harvested soon and we are currently working with several NC clients regarding those hops.

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Hops are perennials that grow outdoors and require a tall trellis. However, David had some leftover plants in buckets sitting in an unused hoop house this spring. On a whim, he hung some twine from the roof and let the bines climb, and surprisingly enough, these potted plants grew to the top quickly and will offer excellent cones for harvest time.

Piedmont Hops has an excellent webpage and facebook page. How are you using social media in your business?
We thoroughly enjoy taking photos of hops. We get creative and have fun with it. Social media is great for keeping our beer friends up to date on our yards and where they can find our hops. We use Facebook, twitter and Instagram. We have had a few sales based on our social media posts. Most of our marketing is direct emails to the brewers or stopping by for a pint and a chat about locally grown hops. Social media goes both ways. We love checking out photos of other yards and their hops. Folks love showing off their bines!

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Additional Resources for Readers:
Piedmont Hops Webpage
Piedmont Hops Facebook page
Old Dominion Hops Cooperative
North Carolina Hops Project
Virginia Cooperative Extension – Chesterfield County (find your local office and agents here)
Virginia Grown program and searchable farm and food directory