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January 3, 2020

Faces of Fauquier: Farming “second nature” to him

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“My utopia would be somewhere around 2,000 to 2,500 acres, with a couple of guys working for me,” says Joe Gray, 32.
For me it’s year to year. Sometimes you break even. Sometimes you make a little money. And when you do make a little money, you pay your bills.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The Southern Fauquier man caught the farming “disease” at an early age.

Joe Gray, 32, never saw it coming.

“My parents separated when I was 2,” recalled Mr. Gray. “That left me on the (family) farm. My mom had a full-time job. So, I stayed with my grandma there. Ever since I was a little kid, all I ever did was play with little tractors out on the farm. I messed with cows. I did 4-H.”

His uncle — Willie Fox — operates that dairy farm along the Rappahannock River near Remington.

He immediately took to the life of a farmer, Mr. Gray said.

“It’s just second nature to me,” he explained. “It’s just the way I was raised, I guess.”

In 2005 — the day after he graduated from Liberty High School — Mr. Gray started milking cows at the family’s River Edge Farm.

About six years later, he quit the family business, bought a tractor-trailer and started a grain-hauling business of his own.

But when “that dried up in the spring I was like, ‘Man, what am I going to do’?”

In 2011, Mr. Gray got a job managing nearby Herren Farms. Today, the 1,000-acre operation produces about 50,000 bushels of corn and about 40,000 bushels of soy beans annually.

Independently, Mr. Gray rents and farms 400 acres, which yield about 11,000 bushels of soy beans and 8,000 bushels of corn.

He uses Jeff Herren’s equipment to plant both farms. With his trucks, Mr. Gray hauls Mr. Herren’s and his own grain to market in Harrisonburg.

Under a kind of “barter” arrangement, the men share equipment with little money changing hands, said Mr. Gray.

He does most of the work on the two farms.

“The key is we have large equipment, because it’s only me for the every-day routine of things,” Mr. Gray said. “And then, when we need help, there’s folks that come in the afternoon or occasionally we might have some part-time folks.”

During the planting and harvesting seasons, he routinely puts in 14- and 15-hour days.

But, long days — sometimes seven a week — don’t bother him.

“I enjoy what I do,” Mr. Gray said. “I feel like it’s just life. A lot of people say I’m a hard-working person — running 1,400 acres. It’s just like tying your shoes in the morning. You just know what to do.”

He also knows far less risky ways exist to make a living.

Some of the biggest challenges facing grain and other farmers include extreme weather, fluctuating product prices and limited access to arable land for purchase or lease, Mr. Gray noted.

“It doesn’t financially make sense on paper,” he said of farming generally. “But, we just do it and hope there’s enough to survive most of the time.”

Each year, Mr. Gray borrows about $100,000 to purchase seed and fertilizer to grow soy beans and corn on the 400 acres he rents.

“You hope you can pay it back and have a little bit more to live on and go another year,” Mr. Gray said. “For me it’s year to year. Sometimes you break even. Sometimes you make a little money. And when you do make a little money, you pay your bills.”

He declined to discuss his earnings.

If dreams could come true, Mr. Gray eventually would like to own a big grain operation.

“My utopia would be somewhere around 2,000 to 2,500 acres, with a couple of guys working for me,” Mr. Gray said. “Whether that will happen, I don’t know. There’s always competition for land. So, I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get there.

“You’ve got a lot of older farmers that just don’t want to let go or stop farming. And, if you look at the average young farmer, they’re like 65 years old.”

• Age
32

• Home 
Near Remington

• Work
Manager, Herren Farms, near Remington, 2011 to present; dairy worker, River Edge Farm, near Remington, 2005 to 2011.

• Why do you do the job?

Just a disease. Just can’t get rid of it. I was born into it.

• Family
Wife Candice, 29; son, Asa, almost 12 months old.

• Education
Liberty High School, 2005.

• How long have you lived in Fauquier?
My whole life.

• Why do you live here? 
It’s a great place to be, a great place to be from.

When I started working for Herren (Farms) during the summer (2011), there wasn’t much to do. So I’d go to work on the harvest crew (mostly in South Dakota). I did that for eight years, and I got to visit a lot of places throughout the wheat belt. And I was always glad to come back home.

Here’s always home. I know my people, they know me. No matter where I go, it’s hard to visit someone you don’t know.

I grew up in a farming community that was very tight. Where I grew up there were many dairy farms and we’d go visit and mingle. Farming isn’t all about just money. A lot of it’s about chewing the fat and just fellowship with each other and the friendship and bond you all hold together.

• How do you describe this county?
All in all, it’s a nice place. I can’t say I’d want to live anywhere else.

I like our northern end, where there’s not so many people. You got a lot of wide open land. Southern Fauquier — we’re just building and there’s so many people. It’s starting to get uncomfortable, but we’re learning to adapt.

Fauquier doesn’t always make the Fox 5 News. You see a lot other counties on it. You don’t see us. So that means we’re doing good. We don’t have a lot of troublemakers.

• What would you change about Fauquier?
I really wouldn’t change anything. Maybe slow down the development.

To me — being here all the time — it’s like watching a baby grow up. If you’re here every day, you don’t hardly see it grow. But, when my sister comes home from college she’s like, “Man, how this has changed!” So that kind of sinks in: We’re growing and things are starting to crowd up.

• What do you do for fun? 
Occasionally, I’ll travel to D.C., hang out and see the city life but only during the week. I can’t stand the amount of people during the weekends. I really don’t like to go on vacation, because this is where I want to be.

• What’s your favorite place in Fauquier?
Town of Remington.

• What will Fauquier be like in 10 years? 
I feel there’s going to be a lot more people. I think we’re in competition with Culpeper (for development). That’s the sad truth, I believe.

• Favorite TV show?
“Family Guy.”

• Favorite movie? 
“The Day After Tomorrow.”

• Favorite book?
I don’t have a favorite book. But, I do have a favorite magazine — The Progressive Farmer.

• Favorite vacation spot? 
Nags Heads, N.C.

• Favorite food? 
Anything seafood — oysters in particular. I’d travel great lengths for a good oyster.

• What is the best advice you have ever received? From whom? 
It wasn’t anyone personal. I watched a short video on a successful farmer who failed in his first year. He said he went bankrupt.

He said you’ve got to come at it with a new attitude. Borrow what you need, not what you want. A lot of farmers, we don’t have that cash to put seed and fertilizer on the ground. We’ve got to borrow that money.

You’ve got to believe and hope for better times and just know that they’re coming.

• Who’s your hero and why?
I don’t really have one. I’ve got many heroes and mentors, because I wasn’t’ afraid to ask questions. And those who answered were the greatest help in my life.

One thing I learned in life is never be afraid to ask questions. I’ve failed many times, but I guess that’s part of success.

• What would you do if you won $5 million in the lottery?
Sounds crazy, but I would buy up as much farm land as possible and try to preserve it. I would farm as leisurely as I normally would.

Most people would go on a vacation, live the life of luxury and hang out. But that’s not me. I’d probably buy a couple of John Deere tractors and have my buddies come over and drive them.

Have a suggestion?
Do you know someone who lives in Fauquier County you would like to see in Faces of Fauquier? Email Don Del Rosso at Don@FauquierNow.com or Lou Emerson at LKE@fauquiernow.com.
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Truepat · January 7, 2020 at 12:30 pm
A great philosophy and ethics, I wish you well......
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