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April 19, 2018

New “incubator” program hatches rookie farmers

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“I thought I just needed to get out there and jump on it,” Melanie Lawrence says of her decision to explore a career in farming.
If I were to rank people 1 to 10, Melanie’s a 10. With mentoring and the right direction, there’s no reason she can’t succeed in farming.
— Whiffletree Farm owner Jesse Straight
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
For as long as she can remember, the New Baltimore teen has liked working the family’s backyard vegetable garden and getting her hands dirty.

“It’s seeing things grow,” Melanie Lawrence, 18, says. “You plant and then a couple of weeks later, you have something.”

Pursuing her passion at a higher level, Ms. Lawrence recently got accepted into a new Fauquier Education Farm program that provides aspiring commercial farmers with a range of assistance to help them get started.

Participants get a quarter-acre to cultivate at the education farm along Meetze Road just southeast of Warrenton, a few flats of vegetable and flower plants and limited of use of equipment.

Executive Director Jim Hankins and state horticultural Extension Agent Tim Ohwiler, who oversee the new farmer “incubator” program, also provide mentoring.

They received just two applications — Ms. Lawrence’s and the other from Steve and Paula Trianafell, who live near Warrenton and also got accepted into the program.

The farm has set aside four quarter-acre plots for the participants to grow produce. The program has no livestock component because “we don’t have enough room for cattle or pigs,” Mr. Hankins says.

The farmers in training pay no fee for the first year and $100 annually thereafter. That money will cover some of the program’s costs.

“We also thought it was a good idea to keep them in touch with the real world,” Mr. Hankins says of fee.

Farm incubator programs “have been around for years” nationwide, he says.

“We’ve been talking about one for several years. So last year we got serious about it.”

For a nominal sum, the nonprofit education farm leases 10.5 acres of the 197-acre county-owned property, where Mr. Hankins and volunteers grow and donate vegetables and fruit to area foodbanks.

Last year, the education farm gave 60,867 pounds of produce to agencies that serve the needy.

New farmers face plenty of hurdles, chief among them “access” to land, Mr. Hankins says.

“Land values are so high in this area. To buy a farm to learn how to farm — that can be very, very expensive process.”

The program can help would-be farmers avoid that mistake, Mr. Hankins says.

“We’ll be successful by some people failing, because they’ll find out it’s something they don’t want to do — without buying a $600,000 property.”

Farmland prices in Fauquier vary widely, depending on the property’s size and location, according to veteran Realtor Joe Allen.

Large tracts — 100 to 150 acres — can cost $5,000 per acre in Southern Fauquier, $8,000 an acre near Warrenton and up to $15,000 per acre near Delaplane in the northern part of the county, Mr. Allen says.

But for new farmers, renting land represents a viable option.

The Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council last year conducted three “access” workshops that focused on property owners and farmers who need more land for crops and cattle.

PEC on May 8 will conduct a workshop on farmland lease agreements at its Horner Street headquarters.

The state’s Office of Farmland Preservation also maintains an online database that matches property owners with farmers who want to lease land.

“Quite a few landowners want new farmers,” Mr. Hankins says, “But they don’t want someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

The incubator program aims to identify committed folks with experience and to help them market their produce.

To that end, participants — with the assistance of Mr. Hankins and Mr. Ohwiler — develop a business plan.

“We review it annually to see where they are, to see opportunities they may have not seen,” Mr. Hankins says. “This is for commercial farmers. It’s not for someone raising vegetables for themselves or their family.”

Ms. Lawrence brings lots of agricultural experience to the table.

At age 7, she joined 4-H — attending summer camp and entering poultry and sheep in Fauquier County Fair shows. One year, a sheep Ms. Lawrence raised got chosen “grand champion.”

The family has maintained a big vegetable garden on its 2.2-acre lot near New Baltimore.

“We've slowly started with backyard chickens,” says Ms. Lawrence, the third oldest of 11 children. “Now we raise and process rabbits and raise lambs to sell as meat.”

The Lord Fairfax Community College student also works part-time at Whiffletree Farm west of Warrenton and Powers Farm & Brewery near Casanova.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lawrence already has planted her quarter-acre at the education farm with spinach, carrots, turnips, radishes, potatoes and squash — with more to come.

She doesn’t know where her produce will go, but hopes the farmer incubator program will help her identify markets.

Those who know her believe she can meet the challenges that await rookie farmers.

“If I were to rank people 1 to 10, Melanie’s a 10,” Whiffletree Farm owner Jesse Straight says. “She’s thorough, works hard, does things right. With mentoring and the right direction, there’s no reason she can’t succeed in farming.”

“She’s really smart and a hard worker,” says Kevin Powers, owner of Powers Farm & Brewery. “We’re supportive and think she’s going to be great at whatever she decides to do.”

Ms. Lawrence has no illusions about the long hours, hard labor and thin profit margins involved in farming.

“It can be very intimidating for some people — not that others are not willing to take that leap — but I think I just decided I’m at that point where everyone’s expecting me to know what to do. And I thought I just needed to get out there and jump on it.”

> Click below to watch Melanie Lawrence discuss her participation in the farmer incubator program

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