Don't Doubt These Thomases

9/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

Glenowen Farms Proves Caring for Land, Growing a Business Go Hand in Hand

ROUND HILL, Va. — The Thomases of Glenowen Farm in western Loudoun County have triumphed over the biggest challenges any cattleman faces: water supply, a changing market, use but not abuse of the land, and estate taxes.

As a result, said Joe Thomas, managing partner of the farm, which has been in the family since 1784, they’ve secured to farm for the next generation, improved the quality of the herd and started expanding the traditional seedstock operation into the freezer beef trade.

Their efforts have brought Glenowen Farm the 2012 Environmental Stewardship Award for Regional I of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The national winner, of the seven regions, will be announced at the 2013 Cattle Industry Annual Convention and NCBA Trade Show Feb. 6-9 in Tampa, Fla.

Ike Eller, professor emeritus at the Virginia Tech Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, submitted the Glenowen nomination to the NCBA.

The Thomases, he wrote, “are sound, honest, dedicated caretakers of their land and livestock and are strong agricultural leaders. The changes they have made at Glenowen poise this farm for the 21st century and beyond and will serve as a living demonstration in rapidly urbanizing Northern Virginia.”

The Thomas family, seconded Lawrence Selzer, CEO of The Conservation Fund, “has completed a 10-year conservation strategy to improve the environment and enhance the economic position of this 250-year-old Virginia beef farm.”

The Thomas family owns 400 acres that stretch from Route 7 just west of Round Hill in rapidly suburbanizing Loudoun County to the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and rents another 400 acres from a cousin and several neighboring landowners.

Owen Jr., Joe Thomas’ grandfather, bought 15 registered Angus cows in 1947 and the herd, about 150 breeding cows today, has been recognized by the American Angus Association as historic.

The farm sells bulls by private treaty every year. Most heifers return to the herd, some are sold to commercial herds in the area, and steers go to auction or, increasingly, supply the farm’s growing freezer beef trade. The farm grows nearly everything the cattle eat — orchardgrass, barley and corn.

“Family perpetuation is key,” Joe said.

Big tax bills came due when his grandfather died, and again with his uncle Bill Thomas, who farmed Glenowen from the mid-1980s until his death in 2003.

“My dad (Owen Thomas III) is 74, and on his initiative, when my uncle died, we set up two LLC entities.”

Owners of the two entities — Glenowen Farm LLC, which includes the real estate, and Glenowen Holdings LLC, which controls the farming operation, cows and equipment — are Joe Thomas, his brother, Owen D. Thomas, and their six children. Joe Thomas is the managing partner of both entities.

“It’s more sustainable from an economic point of view and we’re trying to get the youngsters more involved in the farm, more involved in the recreational aspects.”

Mae Thomas, 8, the youngest of Owen D.’s three children, bore witness to that when she came to Glenowen from her New York home for a traditional Labor Day weekend get-together.

“I love coming to the farm,” she said. “It’s the best thing in the whole wide world.”

Her sister Martha, 12, said she might go into farming.

Brothers Owen D. and Joe are the first generation to live off the farm and not depend on it for income, but they, with their father’s guidance and vision, spearheaded the initiatives that will keep Glenowen in the family for another generation and that brought them the Environmental Stewardship Award. .

Joe’s Duke MBA and experience in banking certainly helped, he said. “We did a generation-skipping trust after my uncle’s death, and the farm won’t be hit with an estate tax again. This will help us keep the land intact.

Well, the family said, if we’re going to own the farm forever, what can we do to augment it? The answer was a conservation easement on the 400 owned acres, “a primary strategy to ensure the perpetuation of the property as it is, in one parcel with limited development rights,” Joe said.

“But also, by placing the conservation easement, we could sell the tax credits that are created out of that. Easements serve the land rich-cash poor farmer.”

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation holds the easement, which restricts overall development on the nearly 400 acres owned by the family, requires a 500-foot setback from Route 7 for any structures, and institutes a no-build zone above 840 feet of elevation — the farm starts at 625 feet and rises to just more than 1,400 feet at the crest of the Blue Ridge.

The easement is further structured to promote the preservation of forested areas through the use of Agricultural and Forestal Districts; establish land uses compatible with historic, open space and scenic areas; preserve the cultural, social, economic, environmental and aesthetic amenities provided by agricultural land use to both Loudoun County and the region; and conserve agricultural resources and avoid environmental pollution which would degrade the farmland, the natural environment and the surrounding communities.

Sale of the easements raised the money necessary to renovate the homestead and to embark on a series of conservation projects, starting with water use and including fencing and cross fencing to allow rotational grazing of the cattle.

The easements were sold in 2007, Joe said, and “with that we renovated this house, first built in the 1700s. Every generation has done some kind of renovation.”

The latest project included a bunkroom in the attic where the six cousins stay on visits, a wrap-around porch and a redone basement level. It did not include television reception, but, Joe said, “iPods and iPads are starting to sneak in. We do have Wi-Fi.”

Step 3 was to improve their stewardship of the land and to grow the business. The demand for bulls has dropped by as much as half as houses have replaced farms, farm foreman Skip Pearson said, but all those new neighbors like to put good, high-quality Angus beef in their freezers. But before expanding the herd, they were going to have to ensure their water supply.

They went to work with Pat McIlvaine, agronomist at the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District, to locate and tap into a spring at the top of the mountain. That spring since 2010 supplies water to eight 500-gallon gravity-fed troughs from the high meadow to the bull paddock at the lower end of the farm. All are constructed with membrane cloth and gravel, and overflow moves underground — and below the frost level — to the next trough down the hill. No muddy cattle feet and udders here.

By the end of 2011, they added four pump-based water troughs on the other side of the farm, and refenced the entire farm.

With an abundant water supply and new electric fencing, “We can disperse the cattle more, which also disperses the manure. There are down-stream benefits to all of that.”

With 5.5 miles of new electric fence the farm’s 187 acres of streams and ponds are off limits to the cows — water quality is improved and the farm is in compliance with the Chesapeake Bay Act.

That done, they turned to the cost-share programs offered through the Soil and Water Conservation District and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Services for installing best management practices to leverage the capital in the bank from the sale of the conservation easement tax credits.

Fencing keeps cows away from every pond and intermittent stream on the property, barley and clover crops provide winter cover on cornfields, and there are five-year commitments to maintain land in pasture.

Some of those resources went to building a new cattle-handling facility that will enable them to “do a better job of keeping records and use more AI.”

Joe Thomas handles the record keeping and marketing, he said, and longtime family friend and neighbor Eddie Potts is the part-time farm manager. Pearson lives on the farm and has been keeping the machinery running and the cows fed since Bill Thomas took over farming in 1984. He’s lobbying, he said, for a new maintenance facility where he can work on the tractors and other machinery more efficiently.

Next on Joe’s wish list, he said, is to grow the herd to 200 breeding cows and to expand the freezer beef initiative, which at the moment markets to family and friends.

It all started in 2009, when his oldest child, Hannah Janney Thomas, was 10. She looked at the Snickers Gap Tree Farm next door and the thousands of visitors it attracts from Thanksgiving till Christmas every year and saw a marketing bonanza. She set up a table, a hand-lettered sign and several coolers full of frozen cuts of Angus beef. Direct marketing of freezer beef was off the ground.

The Wolff family, owners of the tree farm, sell 4,000 cut-your-own trees a season, Joe said. “That’s a lot of traffic. It just opens your eyes to the demographic part of what’s around us, for better or worse — it’s worse for farming, makes it more difficult, but if you’re trying to sell products, it’s better.”

With ready access to clean water, the conception rate in the herd has gone up and income from sales of freezer beef has increased 300 percent since 2009.

It didn’t happen in a vacuum, Joe Thomas said. He and the family have collaborated with Extension service, the conservation district and NRCS.

“The combination of my business experience, Eddie’s agricultural knowledge and Skip’s 25-year history on the farm serves for an innovative team. The structure has enabled us to increase the herd size, evolve the business model to include direct sales of freezer beef to consumers and to launch the range of stewardship and conservation initiatives that were recognized in the ESAP award.”

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