Forum Recognizes Farmers Making New Ideas Work

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

WINCHESTER, Va. — Trappist monks, an orchard that’s added agritourism, a farm stand that invites the neighbors in to do their own farming, and a partnership that got into making their own flavored liqueurs when they couldn’t find anything they liked here in the United States — all were winners of the 2013 Innovation Awards at the ninth annual Forum For Rural Innovation in Winchester March 8.

The forum, organized by the offices of agricultural development and cooperative Extension in Clarke, Fauquier and Loudoun counties in Virginia, and Jefferson and Berkeley counties in West Virginia; the Town of Berryville; and the Small Business Development Center of the Eastern Panhandle, recognizes farmers and rural entrepreneurs for showing new ways to profit in a changing economy.

Our Lady of the Holy Cross Abbey came to its 1,200 acres along the Shenandoah River in 1950 when the abbey in Rhode Island burned to the ground, explained business manger Ed Leonard.

The monks have been known for years for their fruitcake, but in 2010 a sustainability study concluded the monks would need more than fruitcakes — they would need to protect their land, protect the historic Cool Spring and start more businesses.

Today, Leonard said, the abbey enterprises include a cow-calf operation, a 16-room retreat center (for visitors of all faiths), a gift shop and a partnership with Great Country Farms, just over the Blue Ridge in Loudoun County, to raise vegetables on the rich river bottomland.

And there’s a green cemetery on 75 acres along the river including the historic Cool Spring.

“Cool Spring Natural Cemetery is a place for people of all faiths and beliefs who seek a burial that is kind to the Earth in a place of unparalleled natural beauty and serenity,” according to the abbey’s website, www.virginiatrappists.org.

“Traditional metal caskets are not allowed at Cool Spring. Instead, burials are conducted using low-impact biodegradable containers made from simple materials like unvarnished wood, cardboard or even a simple shroud,” the website states. “Except in the case of cremation, bodies entering the cemetery may not be embalmed. Grave markers, if desired, are engraved using local river stones and placed over the burial site. Plastic flowers and other ornaments are prohibited in the cemetery.”

Burial at the monk’s cemetery, Leonard said, costs half or less what a traditional burial brings, and includes a scatter garden for ashes.

George Orr bought an orchard near Martinsburg in 1954. Today, his sons run George S. Orr’s and Sons, which includes a packing plant — they pack and distribute 400,000 boxes of fresh West Virginia fruit a year.

The business wholesales and retails apples, peaches, pears, nectarines and plums. It has established a small bison herd, offers freezer bison and longhorn beef, added a bakery and jams and jellies, and has in the last few years evolved into full-fledged agritourism.

The farm produces its own line of jams and jellies, and guarantees that if the label says “Orr’s” the fruit inside was grown on the farm, Katy Orr-Dove said. Customers can shop on the website, www.orrsfarmmarket.com, as well as come by the store and bakery.

“Then we started events,” Orr-Dove said. “The Fall Farm Fun Days has live bluegrass music, a petting zoo, hay rides, face painting and craft vendors.”

The recent addition of a pumpkin patch keeps the crowds coming back into the late fall, she said. Festivals start in the spring with strawberry days, and go through to the fall.

School tours target first- through fourth-graders and offer hayrides, a little farm education and a chance to pick some fruit.

The farm also puts on birthday parties every weekend.

Finally, a hay wagon takes the pick-your-own visitors out to the fruit of their choice.

“Unlike Orr’s, we don’t offer school tours,” said Rob Losey of his Bloomery Plantation Distillery just outside Charles Town, W.Va.

Bloomery Plantation Distillery, www.bloomeryplantation.com, just starting its second year in business, has won national and international awards for its hand-crafted limoncello liqueurs and today struggles to keep production even with demand.

You could say “ethnic food got us started,” Losey told the crowd.

He was invited to the Vatican several years ago for the canonization of a distant relative. While there, he and his wife, Linda, — she’s the creative genius behind the liqueurs, he’s the marketer — fell in love with the Italian limoncello.

“We tried to find some as good back here,” he said, “and gave up and decided to make our own.”

But where? Government regulations solved that problem. No tasting rooms allowed in Virginia or Pennsylvania for what Losey calls “Sweetshine.” West Virginia said “Come on in,” and today the tasting room — tastings are free — is the biggest revenue generator.

Linda Losey starts with Kentucky moonshine and, thanks to West Virginia’s rule that they must grow 25 percent of the agricultural materials they use, adds lemon flavoring from their own greenhouse-grown lemons, he said.

“We have to source 50 percent in state,” Losey said. “We get our peaches and raspberries from Orr’s.”

The Bloomery Plantation liqueurs — limoncello, Cremma Lemma (“Moonshine Milkshake”), Raspberry Limoncello, peach and a recent chocolate variety — are all natural, Rob Losey said.

“Buyers come here with disposable income, looking for something local, unique, authentic, different. We have that.”

Stephanie and Rick Brossman have years of experience with a pick-your-own orchard, and in the last few years have concentrated on their Brossman’s Family Farm market and a CSA in Lucketts, Va. But something was lacking, Rick said at the forum.

The traditional CSA delivers fresh, healthy food to its members, he said.

“But for the kids, food still comes in a box. We needed a direct connection to the land, a family bonding, a common goal.”

His answer? “A CSA with a twist. We provide families with garden plots, mixed right in our growing area. They are working and picking with us. They are part of the farm experience, and it’s bigger than just a little garden plot.”

The “CSA with a twist” is starting its second year this spring, Brossman said, and 90 percent of their members are back.

From the business angle, he said, he gets cash flow early in the season when he’s planting, he makes use of extra seeds and plants — given at no extra charge to their fellow farmers — and there’s a “very slight impact on our time to prepare the plots. And it requires a continuum of plants for season-long planting.”

And the intangible benefit?

“It creates a sense of community. The members swap their harvest, share recipes and set up cooking classes with fresh produce.”

The website is www.brossmansfarm.com.

Francis Ngoh of Rock Run Creek Farm in Fauquier County, Va., also won recognition but was not present to accept the award.


Is the USDA doing enough to accommodate small-scale direct-marketers of meat?

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