Cattleman Keeps Ag Growing in Northern Va.

5/17/2014 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

LEESBURG, Va. — Gary Hornbaker wears many hats: Extension agent for 22 years in Loudoun County, rural resources coordinator with the county government’s department of economic development, sheep farmer and cattleman. He’s also the founding member of the Blue Ridge Cattlemen’s Association, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

At its January quarterly meeting, the association recognized Hornbaker for his role in getting the group started and making sure it continued to grow and serve the cattle industry in Northern Virginia and eastern West Virginia.

The recognition came as a surprise, Hornbaker said, but it was appreciated.

“It was a thank you’ for 10 years of service. If you care about the producers and the land and the water, and the idea that you want to keep it here, you want children to learn where their food comes from, how it’s produced and the people that produce it, that’s why you get up in the morning and enjoy going to work,” Hornbaker said.

He grew up in neighboring Fairfax County, where development has essentially wiped out agriculture. Growing up, he was active in 4-H, showing sheep up and down the Mid-Atlantic.

After getting his degree in animal science at Virginia Tech, he went to work at Barboursville Farms — a winery today — as shepherd for the largest sheep operation east of the Mississippi. When the farm folded during the recession of 1973, he went to work on a farm in Maryland. In his 10 years there, it grew from 150 head of sheep to 1,400 head, and added 150 brood cows.

Next came a job with Virginia Cooperative Extension in King George County. He loved the people there, Hornbaker said, but didn’t take to the geography, which was “low and sandy, no hills, no rocks.”

When an Extension job opened up in Loudoun in 1983, he jumped at the chance. For the next 22 years, he helped steer agriculture through Loudoun County’s transition from rural to suburban and played a critical role in keeping agriculture alive and thriving in a rapidly suburbanizing county.

“My first year here,” he recalled, “Loudoun County was the largest corn producing county in the state, with 64,000 acres in corn. We had cattle feed lots and lots and lots of livestock here.”

That changed by the time he retired from Extension in 2004 although agriculture, threatened by development, remained a major part of the county’s economy.

“There was still a lot of cattle production in the area and I saw the value of a cattlemen’s group for networking, education, information sharing,” he said.

It all started in the machine shop at Wheatland Farms. There, 18 cattlemen perched on hay bales kicked around the idea of forming an association for the betterment of the cattle industry.

“The ground rules were pretty much agreed for everyone,” Hornbaker said. “No politics, but to promote the cattle industry.”

Jim Wiley, agriculture manager at Lazy Lane Farm for 32 years, was at that first meeting and has since been the association’s president and has served on its board. He said that at the original meeting “we were full of hope that the idea would take root and grow.”

It did. At the January 2014 meeting, when the association recognized Hornbaker’s role in getting the idea going, 224 people attended. Membership is growing — 136 members last year, more than 150 members now, and memberships are still coming in.

Dues are $35 a year.

“I tell folks it’s the best deal around. At every meeting we do a cookout, steaks or hamburgers, and we eat more than $35 worth of good food,” Gary Hornbaker said.

What started out as the Loudoun Cattlemen’s Association has drawn members from the entire region, and has been reshaped as the Blue Ridge Cattlemen’s Association. One constant is education. Each meeting, according to Hornbaker, includes a short educational presentation — a veterinarian, a talk on new technologies, trends in feed, a speaker from the national cattlemen’s association.

“It’s exposing a lot of these producers to people and programs they might not do on their own. And our association is very diverse — people who own literally two cows all the way to Whitestone, with 800 and more. They all come together, they like the fellowship, the networking, talking about agriculture,” Hornbaker said.

It’s “really fun,” he said, to eavesdrop on the conversations at the meetings. Where are people getting the best deal on baling twine? Where’s the best place to buy feed?

Bill White Grantham, a member from Jefferson County, W.Va., bought two Angus bulls from Jim Wiley, manager of Lazy Lane Farm in Upperville. They made the connection at an association meeting.

“The association has given us the respect of the industry,” Hornbaker said. “Even the board of supervisors has held up the cattlemen’s association as a segment of the county economy that has gotten organized, that networks for information exchange.”

At the January meeting, the county’s director of economic development, Buddy Rizer, noted that Hornbaker’s support of the rural economy continues in his current job as rural resources coordinator.

“As has been evidenced by our rural business strategy, a healthy rural economy reduces county infrastructure costs and contributes to the high quality of life enjoyed by Loudoun residents,” Rizer said.

Loudoun’s agricultural industries including cattle, crops, wineries, forestry, beekeeping and a host of equine enterprises, pump $69 million a year into the county’s economy.

Kellie Boles, Loudoun’s agricultural development officer, said Hornbaker’s work as rural resources coordinator continues to “attract new farmers to the county and to work with existing farmers to retain and expand their operations.”

The county has succeeded in marketing itself to tourists, Hornbaker said, and therein lies the next business opportunity for the cattlemen.

“Every weekend, from May to October, there’s a fair or an event — the point-to-point races, the epicurean events, the beer and wine festivals. Set up a grill and sell hamburgers at $5 each versus selling a pack of hamburger for $5 a pound. Now you’re getting $20 a pound,” he said.

He’s also been a leader in conservation efforts. He was a director of the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District for 22 years, but stepped down after he retired from Extension. He has since been appointed by the governor to the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Board. The Virginia Cattlemen’s Association has appointed Hornbaker to its board, where he serves on the Policy Committee.

Best management practices have worked well in Virginia, Hornbaker said. The amount of cost-share for fencing livestock out of any waterway that drains into the Chesapeake Bay is currently 100 percent.

“I think we will meet our” clean water “goals here by 2025. We really want to try to keep the carrots flowing versus having the EPA forcing us to do it,” he said.

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

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